Varlamov injury may be the least of Avalanche concerns

The Avs will be without their starting goalie for a few days, but their problems run deeper than that. (Doug Pensinger/Getty)

On Thursday, the Colorado Avalanche lost not just one, but both of their NHL goaltenders. They also lost a hockey game, something which could well be the start of an unfortunate trend for the team. That holds true even if Semyon Varlamov is 100 percent ready to roll three games from now, when the Avs are expected to take him off injured reserve.

To be sure, things will be worse if Varlamov misses significant time or comes back at less than full power, but even with their No. 1 goaltender 2014-15 is shaping up to be a rocky season in Denver. To understand why, it’s important to go back and look at how Colorado’s incredible resurgence last season came about.

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We can do that by comparing the 2013-14 Avs with the same team that missed the playoffs from 2010-13, collecting two extremely high draft picks over that span. Compared to their predecessors, the 2013-14 team was 11 goals better in four-on-five play, 12 goals better five-on-four and a whopping 52 goals better at five-on-five. Those special teams improvements are significant, but the real hay was made at even strength.

Goals are just a function of shot volume and shot efficiency, so there are only four ways to improve a team’s goal differential:

• take more shots
• shoot more efficiently
• allow fewer shots
• save a higher percentage of shots allowed

With an increase as big as 52 goals, we might expect improvements in all four areas. Curiously, Patrick Roy’s Avalanche improved significantly in two spots but actually went backward a bit in two others.

From 2010-13, the Avalanche averaged 29.9 shots per hour and surrendered 30.1 shots per hour in five-on-five situations. They fired at a 7.51 percent clip, and their goaltenders posted a combined 0.912 save percentage. Last season (again, all at five-on-five), the team averaged 29.0 shots per hour while allowing 31.7; their shooting percentage rose to 9.31 percent and their save percentage went up at the same time, to 0.924.

Shots for and shots against for Colorado got worse in Roy’s first year as coach, but the small drop-offs there were more than compensated for by massive swings in shooting percentage and save percentage. These are swings that the analytics crowd normally views with some suspicion, because history has shown that they can fluctuate dramatically from season-to-season.

Of the two, save percentage is generally the area that warrants the most investigation. A change in goalie can do wonders for a team like the Avs that have suffered from a sub-average save percentage for years. The trouble here is that Varlamov, who was the starter in 2013-14, was also the club’s No. 1 in two of the three years we’re comparing against. He had a career year, and not just at even-strength; the Avs’ gains on the penalty kill were primarily save percentage-driven too, so his otherworldly performance represents almost half of Colorado’s improvement.


Is it repeatable? We know that goalies can fluctuate high (as Varlamov did in 2013-14) and low (as he did in 2012-13) but as a rule when we see spikes or falls mid-career that aren’t injury-related they can be discounted as one-offs. It’s a good bet that Varlamov’s even-strength save percentage if he’s healthy shows up somewhere in the .925 range, and his penalty-killing save percentage too could fall by 20 points without that drop being the least bit surprising.

The situation isn’t likely to be helped by the players behind Varlamov. Backup Reto Berra’s NHL work isn’t inspiring, and his save percentages during his time in Europe don’t help matters. Third-stringer Calvin Pickard is a 22-year-old with a career 0.913 save percentage in the AHL. Even assuming that Varlamov appears in three out of every four games and that Berra misses no time, if both goalies perform at their career rates the Avs are looking at an even-strength number somewhere south of .920, enough to add 11 goals against to the team’s ledger (and seven more if we take the same math and apply it to the penalty kill).

What about the shooting percentage? Here it’s probably beneficial to look at the guys firing above that 7.5 percent number, a group which accounted for better than 85 percent of the Avs’ five-on-five goals last year. The first item on the agenda is nixing those players who are no longer with the team.


All three of those players shot the lights out last season; all three are now gone. But a bigger impact might be on defence, where Colorado got unreal production from its players which they will be hard-pressed to repeat:

• Tyson Barrie led the way with 13 goals in 64 games and a 12.9 shooting percentage overall; he’s tallied two goals on 82 shots in 47 other contests.
• Nick Holden added 10 goals at a 15.2 shooting percentage; the veteran minor-leaguer had never previously cracked double-digits in goals even in the AHL. His shooting percentage at that level is just over five percent over 295 career games.
• Erik Johnson scored nine goals with a 5.7 shooting percentage; his average outside 2013-14 is below 4.0 percent.
• Andre Benoit scored seven times; he’s no longer with the team.
• Jan Hejda’s career-high six goals came with an 8.0 shooting percentage; his career number outside 2013-14 is 4.1 percent.

Even if we assume that Brad Stuart (who hasn’t scored seven goals in a season since 2006-07) replaces all of Benoit’s production, simply regressing the other four defencemen to their career averages (and in Holden’s case, using his AHL average) knocks 18 goals off Colorado’s goal differential. It’s worth pointing out that those 18 goals are gone before we even start talking about the forwards.

A lot of things went right for the Avalanche last year, many of which will be difficult for the team to repeat. Even assuming good health in net, this is a team that could well find if extremely hard just to make it into the playoffs for a second consecutive year.