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Improving the Colorado Avalanche special teams could be key to success

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Power play and penalty kill improvement could be the biggest difference

Arizona Coyotes v Colorado Avalanche - Game Five
EDMONTON, ALBERTA - AUGUST 19: Nazem Kadri #91 of the Colorado Avalanche celebrates on the power-play at 4:39 of the first period against the Arizona Coyotes in Game Five of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on August 19, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

The Colorado Avalanche will head into the 2020-21 season, whenever it starts, as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup in the NHL. Currently, they have the best odds in the entire NHL with teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights right there as fellow contenders. Regardless, they are considered a top-tier team in the NHL and rightfully so. But what could make them even more lethal this season is an improvement on their special teams.

Plan A?

New Power Play
Illustrated by: Aaron Vincent (@ComedyHockey)

2019-20 Special Teams Results

One area that was surprising to see the Avs struggle in last year, was their power play and penalty kill. Their base percentages were 19.1% on the PP (19th overall) and 81.4% on the PK (13th Overall). These numbers aren’t shockingly bad, but they are a little surprising considering how good the Avalanche are at the top of their roster.

What is even more concerning, is the underlying stats weren’t great either. Sometimes just base completion percentage can have wild swings that are simply just influenced by some good or bad luck. However, if you look at the actual chances they gave up, the story doesn’t get much better either.

From Natural Stat Trick, we can take a look at both of their power play and penalty kill numbers, seeing how they stack up against the base rate and also just around the league. To do so, we will use per 60 metrics. The reason for this is that not every team played an equal number of games. As well, not every team has the same amount of time on ice for a PP or PK. Using a per 60 number gives us a base that every team can relate with.

Advanced Numbers

The table below has the Avalanche with their numbers and ranks in certain categories. CF/60 is shot attempts per 60 minutes, xGF/60 is the expected goals for per 60 minutes, and GF/60 is the actual goals scored per 60 minutes. The same goes for CA, xGA, and GA, except each is talking about against the Avalanche on the PK.

Avalanche power play and penalty kill rates and ranks from NaturalStatTrick.com

As you can see above, it is pretty surprising that one of the best teams in the league didn’t even rank in the top 10 for any metric on the power play or penalty kill. What’s even more concerning is that their underlying numbers suggest they should have let more goals up on the penalty kill too.

Shot Location

Another area to focus on for both sides is the shot location on both the power play and penalty kill for the Avalanche. Using the data from HockeyViz, we can see exactly where they are generating chances with their special teams.

Above is where the Avalanche generate chances from while on the power play. While this isn’t the worst possible outcome, the fact that almost nothing gets generated in front of the net is certainly concerning. You also probably want to see some more chances come from deeper into the slot, as opposed to high near the blueline. Moving the high quantity areas even forward a bit could do wonders for the power play.

The penalty kill is another issue on its own. Unlike the power play, where the location wasn’t ideal, but it’s workable and pretty close to what you want, this is just a complete mess and disaster. The Avs are bleeding shots from just about everywhere on the penalty kill. Especially right beside the net and in the circle. The only spot they don’t give up high quantity from his one of the lowest danger areas in the zone.

This is something that badly needs to change if the Avs want to see any kind of success on the penalty kill. They can’t continue to give up shots at both that rate and location and expect any good results.

Top Players Missing

One of the biggest things to consider is that the Avs did see their fair share of injuries throughout the 2019-20 season. The ideal PP unit they likely want to roll out there would consist of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar. Four of those players missed over 10 of the 70 games that the Avalanche played in before the stoppage. MacKinnon was the only one who didn’t miss any length of time, only missing one game all year.

However, when you’re constantly having to switch in and out multiple members of a power play unit, it can be harder to generate a consistent chemistry. This might help explain why the power play struggled, as all that talent shouldn’t be in the back half of the league for any power play metric.

Something for the Avalanche to focus on this offseason and training camp is certainly the penalty kill structure. Even when you go back to 2018-19, their numbers are pretty poor on the penalty kill. All three categories are above were in the 20’s for overall league rank.

New Look Penalty Kill?

The biggest question will be how different does the Avs penalty kill look like this year? The main usage came from Erik Johnson and Ryan Graves, who played 3:02 and 2:48 minutes per game on the penalty kill respectively.

The issue with this is that they are two of the worst Avs defenders when it comes to their results here. Now, part of this might be because they play their majority against other teams PP1 units, so the competition is harder. However, all of their metrics on the PK are worse than the Avalanche’s team average, which already isn’t strong as seen above.

Avalanche Defenders on the PK 2019-20, 10+ TOI

As you can see above, Nikita Zadorov was one of their better PK defensemen from an analytical standpoint. Again, part of it simply could be that generally speaking, he would play against other teams second units more often. Still, the results from Johnson/Graves have been so weak that the Avs should seriously consider switching things up.

Or at the very least, try and average things out a little more. Newly acquired Devon Toews hasn’t played too much penalty kill in the NHL, but even giving him a try might not be a bad idea. Even giving Ian Cole a tad more responsibility might help things out, as the top two clearly don’t seem to be having success on the backend.

The other option might be to try and switch up the penalty kill structure. It doesn’t just fall on the defensemen. Try and switch up the forwards or get your forwards to play more aggressive. If teams are being pressured more often they should be more likely to give the puck up.

Going Forward

The great thing for the Avalanche is that they were still a top-five team despite the special teams issue. It’s not something they need to completely overhaul or worry about, especially given that the majority of the game is 5v5. However, if they can find a way to improve even marginally on the power play or penalty kill, it really could make their team that much more dangerous.

The power play might just come naturally. If the Avs can find some health, their big players should be able to take over in that area. However, the penalty kill will need to be the big focus. Trying new pairings and combos out should be an important goal to start this season. If they can get a solid special teams unit going, they should absolutely be favourites in the Western Conference this year.