The Colorado Avalanche are really bad. So bad that their current 48-point pace would make them the worst team since the first year of the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.
And yet there is reason for optimism. The Avs started the year 9-9-0 and, at that point, were a playoff contender with decent underlying numbers, indicating that despite their current misery (fueled by a 4-24-2 stretch) this is a team closer to respectability than the standings would imply.
The turning point of the season was the loss of Erik Johnson, the team’s only true top-four defenceman. He went down with a broken leg five games after the last time Colorado sat at .500 – and after that everything came apart.
The chart above shows that Johnson led the Avalanche in average ice-time against tough opponents, here defined as the NHL’s 30 best centres. He was the only player on the team to get a steady diet of those minutes and post a positive Corsi differential (CD) in them. He was also the only player on the team to have a positive Corsi differential against the rest of the league.
That’s an incredible achievement – and it’s made even better when you consider he managed to post good numbers while playing all of his shifts with one of the other guys on this list. It’s an ugly group.
Reclamation project Fedor Tyutin keeps getting tough minutes because he’s a low-event player; not a lot happens when he’s on the ice, though when something does it’s in the Colorado zone. Tyson Barrie and Nikita Zadorov also get badly outshot, with the important difference that a lot happens at both ends when they’re out there.
Francois Beauchemin, now in the twilight of a great career, is no longer an effective defender.
Nobody else on this blue line has played a lot against the NHL’s best centres. Incoming defenceman Mark Barberio probably won’t be much help there, either. He was sheltered heavily by the Habs and got lit up in his few forays against good opponents this year (minus-12 Corsi/hour against first lines, plus-16 Corsi/hour against the rest).
These numbers should also help explain why Colorado’s goaltending has collapsed this year. Top opponents tend to be top finishers and they’re the ones driving shot differential against the Avs. That’s part of the reason why Colorado’s awful Corsi number (46.8 per cent) is eclipsed by an even worse scoring chance number (40.0 per cent).
But that problem is fixable. Johnson is good enough to carry one defence pairing, even with a mediocre partner. Now Colorado needs another defenceman capable of doing the same, or better yet, two of them.
Trading Matt Duchene is often presented as the solution to this particular problem. Unless Colorado wants to spend the next half-decade rebuilding that’s a bad solution, because Duchene is one of three young Avs forwards locked up long-term who can actually drive results for the team up front:
As a team, Colorado averages -2.5 chances per hour at even strength. Only three forwards have a better number than that: Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Duchene. It’s possible to build two forward lines around that trio -- and that’s the approach to a quick rebuild. If rookie Mikko Rantanen can grow as a two-way talent, he might also be a key component.
Everyone else is expendable. Tyson Barrie, counterintuitively, is arguably at the top of the list. His offensive ability should keep his trade price high and he isn’t particularly well-suited to matching up against good opponents. Nobody else on Colorado’s roster is quite as superfluous while simultaneously having real value.
That still leaves the problem of bringing talent in and the Avs have a few advantages there:
• Colorado has a lot of expiring contracts over the next two seasons, which will open up cap space at a time when the rest of the league will be struggling with zero growth in the salary cap.
• Expansion should open up trade possibilities for defencemen (and to a lesser extent forwards) that otherwise would not exist. The Ducks, Blue Jackets, Panthers, Islanders and Wild are in particularly bad spots.
• In Kevin Shattenkirk, free agency offers the perfect target to both address defensive need while simultaneously replacing the offence of the departed Barrie
It all starts at the trade deadline, where the Avs need to stockpile assets for trade this summer. Barrie is the prize, but there may be a return to be had for players like Jarome Iginla and Rene Bourque, too. The trick is to collect futures when players have the most value and then sell them in the summer when teams are looking to shed dollars or get something for expansion draft bait.
In the summer, the primary target should be two defencemen. Shattenkirk would be a grand-slam addition, and along with a healthy Johnson and a quality trade pick up Colorado could enter next season with a competitive top-four.
Rebuilding the forward corps will be more difficult, but there are always decent wingers willing to sign cheap contracts late in free agency—witness Kris Versteeg and Radim Vrbata this year. That’s what Toronto did, signing cheap veterans to be competitive in the short-term and then moving them at the deadline to stock the draft pick cupboard. Colorado’s strength at centre (MacKinnon, Duchene, perhaps Carl Soderberg if he can recover from 2016-17) makes it particularly well-suited to such an approach.
With the forward corps improved and the defence rebuilt, the goaltending should rebound on its own, though an outside hire (Jaroslav Halak comes to mind) should not be ruled out if a favourable trade can be made.
Just 30 games ago, the Avs looked respectable and they still have some good long-term pieces to build around. With an aggressive trade deadline and summer, -- and a little bit of luck -- the ship could be righted in a hurry.