For most teams, starting the season 3-3-0 isn’t a disaster. For a contender like the Colorado Avalanche, it leaves a lot to be desired—at least for some of their fans.
After splitting a four game trip through Los Angeles against two teams that aren’t expected to be anywhere near the playoffs this season, the Avalanche will return home with a cloud of unmet expectations hanging over their heads. Though while the results leave something to be desired, the underlying numbers point to a team that has played well but has run up against some bad luck to start the season.
While the power play has scored most of the goals so far and the penalty kill has looked strong, the Avalanche are a good even-strength team—and the numbers show it. They currently sit third in the entire NHL for 5v5 shot share while placing in the top eight in terms of expected goal differential. Add to that their standing of ninth in terms of high-danger scoring chance differential, and the numbers point to a team that should be winning games.
The problem is, they just haven’t been able to finish. The Avalanche currently sit 25th in the NHL with a 5.74% shooting percentage at even strength—that’s barely more than half of what they finished with last season.
We can look at the numbers in front of us and see a team that’s driving play and creating high-danger chances a lot more than their opponents on any given night. Sean Tierney—the head of analytics for the Hamilton Bulldogs and one of the best in the business—does a great job of putting all these numbers into easily digestible visuals:
This chart is a little bittersweet. It summarizes where the Avalanche sit in relation to the rest of the league, but it also shows that Los Angeles and Anaheim are two of the weaker teams in the league, making those hard luck losses from this past week sting just a little more.
So why aren’t the Avalanche winning?
Tierney shows us how the team is among a group that has been playing well and deserve better results early in the year.
Expected win %— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 25, 2021
Looking at all-sits goals, WPG, WSH, NJD, PHI, and FLA (2 gp ) have good results but have subpar expected win percentages by expected goals.
The flip is a group of unlucky teams that deserve better: BUF, BOS, EDM, COL, then SJS, CHI, and NYR a little too. pic.twitter.com/C8JPkkAaow
That goes back to a shooting percentage that is at a level we know won’t hold. Over the past three years, no team has finished an NHL season with a 5v5 shooting percentage as low as the Avs have now. The goals will come—it’s the fundamental law of averages.
When the Avalanche start scoring, they’ll start winning. Some fans and media members will chalk that up to some anecdotal belief that they’re “finding their legs” or “competing harder,” but the fact of the matter is that positive regression is predictable, and the numbers show the results will get better without the Avalanche having to change anything.
It’s easy to be worried when you see a 2-2 record against the Kings and Ducks. That said, the Avs did everything they could to end the trip 3-1. They just ran up against one of the best goalies in the league who was playing at the top of his game. John Gibson stole Sunday’s game. Even with Gibson playing out of his mind, if even one of the shots that went off the post (there were three glaring ones) had bounced the other way, the outcome likely would have been different. The Ducks might not be very good, but Gibson is great.
There’s a reason Coach Bednar wasn’t too upset after the loss. The Avs played well, and getting stoned by a great goalie happens even to the best teams.
Bednar: "I loved our work ethic. I thought we competed in all areas of the game. We were creating some real good offensive zone time."— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) January 25, 2021
He said the team needed to do a better job getting in front of Gibson because of how well he was playing. "Sometimes you run into that." #Avs
This Avalanche team is really good, and early in the season they’ve been playing like it. You just wouldn’t know it if you only look at the standings.
There are a few things to be worried about, though. Brandon Saad has been disappointing as he tries to create familiarity with his new team, and Ryan Graves has taken a step back in his first season with a big new contract. But for the most part the team is playing well. Even when it comes to Saad—he has definitely looked out of sorts—it’s worth remembering that he’s come to a brand new team and is trying to figure out a brand new system. If he continues to struggle after the first 20 game, it might be time to worry.
There is room for improvement, but even if that improvement doesn’t come, the Avalanche are still in a good spot to win a lot of games.
There’s no doubt that having a .500 record is underwhelming for a team that had embraced its role as a favorite for the Stanley Cup. But outside the record, there’s little to be concerned about. If as a whole the Avalanche keep playing this way, positive regression will happen, wins will come and the Avs will spend most of the season near the top of the West Division the way everyone expected.
*Editors note: All rankings and statistics mentioned above come from NaturalStatTrick.com.