From first place to last, the Colorado Avalanche have fulfilled their promise as “that team.” You know, the club nearly everyone predicted could not sustain the pace they’d posted a season ago.
The Avs are the 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs that crashed and burned the following two seasons, and to many eyes, perhaps the 2014-15 Calgary Flames as well.
An Avalanche club that catapulted from 29th place overall and last in the Western Conference two seasons ago, to Central Division champs with 112 points last season, have yo-yo’ed back to the basement of the NHL’s toughest division this spring.
Watch the Colorado Avalanche take on the Edmonton Oilers live on Sportsnet, Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
But wait a second.
The Avs are six wins above .500. They’ve got Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Eric Johnson, and a goalie in Semyon Varlamov whose .922 save percentage ranks 12th among NHL regulars.
This is a pretty decent lineup. So what happened?
“Last year we were playing with so much confidence,” said Colorado’s sophomore head coach Patrick Roy. “This year, it’s been a little bit different.”
You don’t say?
Somewhere in the back of the collective mind of a team that had made up 26 places in the standings last season, it must have just seemed like the ball would just keep on rolling uphill again this season. Then the season started, and reality set in.
“We don’t need to go down to the end of the season to analyze that. We know we didn’t have the start that we needed,” Roy laments. “We learned a lot this year that makes us a better hockey team. I’m very happy with the type of hockey we’ve played for the last month-and-a-half, if not two months. This is the type of hockey … we have to play for a full season.”
Jarome Iginla signed on as a free agent last summer, then walked into a dressing room that became fragile as the team went 4-8-5 in the first month of the season.
“We came back (from the offseason), and right off the back we were pressing. You wanted to just roll, and we didn’t. People put a ton of pressure on themselves,” said Iginla, who, at age 37, may be on his last club here in Denver. “This team is led by some very young players. Usually it doesn’t affect you as much if one or two guys go through it, and the other guys roll (along). But we all went into it at the same time at the start of the year, and it took us a while to get out of it.
“Then, you win six out of seven and you barely make up any ground, the standings are so intense.”
Duchene led the Avs with 70 points last season. After 17 games this season he was on pace for less than 50, and today he’s on pace for a 51-point year. At the quarter pole this year, Landeskog (26 goals last season) had four goals. In seven of his first 20 games, Varlamov’s save percentage started with an eight. Iginla — who has started slow in virtually ever year of his Hall of Fame career — had points in just seven of the team’s first 20 games.
Then injuries hit. Varlamov. Erik Johnson. MacKinnon. Daniel Briere. Brad Stuart. Jamie McGinn, who has only played 19 games this season. According to the website mangameslost.com, only Columbus has suffered more man games lost than Colorado’s 414.
Add it all up, and the Avalanche take the ice at Rexall Place Wednesday with their playoff hopes dashed, 10 points back of Winnipeg with only 10 games to play.
“I made a joke after the game we lost 4-1 to L.A. (on Feb. 18), that half of our team was watching the game on TV. It’s a joke, but it’s our reality,” Roy said. “I understand that our situation doesn’t look good, but at the same time … we believe in ourselves.”
So, who are the real Avs? Are they the No. 1 team in the toughest Division in the game? Or, are they down with the Philadelphia’s and New Jerseys, middle of the pack teams with no Cup hopes on the near horizon?
We would say they are much closer to the former than the latter. There is much young skill here, and more than enough goaltending with Varlamov, but we would question whether they have enough on the blueline, or that heavy element needed to survive a Western Conference playoff run.
Winnipeg has passed the Avalanche because the Jets have size and physicality to go with their skill players, even if MacKinnon, Landeskog, Duchene likely have a higher offensive pedigree than Winnipeg’s stars up front.
It’s not all about scoring. As Colorado learned this season, sometimes it’s about surviving with whatever lineup is left come game time. And just because you win one season, it doesn’t guarantee a damned thing next October.
“We all fall in it. The coaching staff and the players,” Roy said. “A lot of things came pretty fast. You have a tendency to think it’s going to be easier. Then you’re not as sharp when you come to camp. Then you start behind.
“I think the thing that I learned the most is, you always have to adapt to you group,” said Roy. “You have to deal with this. You have to learn to adapt to your team.”
Lesson learned. Too late, mind you, but with this lineup, the Avs will be back.