Outside of the late-December, early-January slump the Colorado Avalanche endured, the team is inarguably one of the best teams in the National Hockey League this season. As the 10-day All-Star break nears its end for Colorado, it’s a good time to take a step back and evaluate the state of the team as we approach the 50-game mark — not only for the team and the on-ice product, but for the fans, us media and, in particular, Avs assistant coach and power-play coordinator Ray Bennett.
There really hasn’t been much to complain about this season for the Avs. They sit in second place in the west, eight points south of St. Louis; they’re the No. 1 offensive team in the NHL; then there’s the welcomed emergence of a de facto top-pair defenseman and Calder Trophy frontrunner in Cale Makar; and it’s hard not to grin when you have Nathan MacKinnon on your team.
Life is pretty good in Denver.
But if there’s one thing we as fans, and us the media, can fairly gripe about with this year’s team thus far it is the poor special teams, namely a repugnant power play.
Since the turn of the calendar to 2020, Colorado’s man advantage has been abhorrent. Outside of the 3-for-5 performance in a 7-3 trouncing of the Blues on Jan. 2, the team has gone 2-of-25 since — the league’s literal worst power play in that span.
This doesn’t make sense when you have a top unit of MacKinnon, Makar, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nazem Kadri. Players like that should be converting on well more than eight percent of their opportunities, and they’ve gotten quite a few of those opportunities this season — 177 to be exact, the second-most in the league.
But they’re not converting.
So what gives?
Execution obviously isn’t there, but is that a on-ice personnel issue? Unlikely, again, given the talent that Bednar and his staff throw out there. Is it a matter of the Avs taking on some of the league’s best penalty-kill units in the last three weeks? Nope.
New Jersey on Jan. 4: 0-for-3 against the 18th-ranked PK.
The back to back against New York’s teams on the 6th and 7th: Cumulative 0-for-5 against the 17th and 19th ranked kill, respectively.
The Avs finally broke the seal against the 14th-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins squad, going 1-of-3.
Really, outside of San Jose and Dallas — which are two top-10 PK teams — the Avs have played middle-of-the-pack PK mediocrity since the calendar flipped to January.
This is likely a systems issue, rather than a player issue. Perhaps the play call of power-play man Ray Bennett has grown stale in Denver. But since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, when Bennett was added to Bednar’s cabinet, the Avs have iced the league’s eigth-best power play in his two-and-a-half season tenure thus far. And Colorado finished consecutive seasons with a top-10 power play for the first time in 13 years. So is it Bennett’s issue? Maybe, or perhaps the first half of this season could just be viewed as an anomaly, I suppose.
But to me one of the power-play issues is pretty clear:
Stop forcing the play to Nathan MacKinnon.
We get it. He’s the best player on the ice — for either team — most nights. Naturally, you want to get the puck to your scorers. And therein lies the problem. Opposing teams are picking up on this and blocking any sort of passing lane in which MacKinnon may be in.
You’ll find MacKinnon in two places on the ice during any given power play. That is, on his strong-side face-off circle to set him up for the Alex Ovechkin-esque one-timer, or, he rotates to play the point, and the chances of scoring decrease dramatically all that distance away from the net.
In the film room
Let’s review some film, shall we? Here’s one of the two power-play goals Colorado successfully converted on in the last three weeks.
Again, you’ll see Pittsburgh leaves MacKinnon wide open in his usual spot and slaps home an easy one-timer.
MacKinnon leads the team with nine power-play goals and 24 total points. The next closest is Makar with 15 points. In terms of blocked shots, as I was mentioning, there’s a large amount of parity. MacKinnon leads the top unit with a whopping 96 of his shots being blocked by an opponent’s penalty kill, with Makar again coming in second with 32 fewer blocked attempts. MacKinnon also has double the total shots on goal of his next closest team member in Nazem Kadri. The former leads with 229 shots on goal — which leads the league — while Kadri sits at 124 looks at the net. No other rostered Avalanche has over 100 shots on goal.
Here’s the second successful conversion for the Avs:
The passing lane is taken away from MacKinnon here, so Makar is forced to look towards the net and gets a nice mid-air tip from Kadri. But that wasn’t a clinical display of power-play prowess by any means. Rather, I’d say Kadri’s goal errs more on the side of luck and skill rather than a well-executed team power play. A mid-air tip like that is most certainly not going to happen all too often.
Here, Ryan O’Reilly does a good job of taking away the passing lane of MacKinnon (seen at :31), who is begging for that pass from Makar but it’s just not there. So again, Makar is forced to take a shot at net and picks a corner:
A predictable power play
The man-advantage unit has grown stale, predictable and stagnant. Opposing teams know the game plan, and it’s become simple: Cover Nathan MacKinnon; get sticks in his passing lane and that really eliminates like 80 percent of Colorado’s power-play offense.
The Avs’ power-play philosophy and predictable execution have grown old, much like the neutral-zone drop pass to MacKinnon. What Bennett has been doing has worked in the past and helped Colorado to two consecutive top-10 power plays for the first time in 13 years. Unfortunately for him, the league has been put on notice and opposing PK coaches are zeroing in on his game plan — and it’s showing.
No, the answer may not be just fire Ray Bennett and try again with a new staff, and something like that won’t happen mid-season anyway. The answer also isn’t to go out and get another power-play forward to help out, although that couldn’t hurt. The answer could be as simple as switching some things up.
Perhaps stick Kadri’s big, physical body in front of the net and move Landeskog to the wing. Move MacKinnon between the face-off circle or switch him to the other wing. There is no easy solution to fix special teams, but there needs to be a change.
How would you fix it?