Something is not right in Colorado.
In fact, it’s more like a lot of somethings.
When you think of the Avalanche, you think high-end skill. You envision first-overall pick Nathan MacKinnon and the high speed of Matt Duchene. You remember that when they named 2011 second-overall pick Gabriel Landeskog as a 19-year-old captain in 2012, he became the youngest C-bearer in NHL history at the time. (Connor McDavid was 20 days younger than Landeskog when he got Edmonton’s C.)
So how can a team with this collection of young talent be so lost? The problem is, there is so little depth beyond those guys that the rest of the West is eating them alive.
“We have no chemistry,” MacKinnon told media after a 6–0 home loss against Toronto on Dec. 22.
That game and MacKinnon’s comments prompted one local reporter, Mark Kiszla, to ponder the reality of a rebuild and question whether Avalanche legend Joe Sakic can be trusted to do it right. Should he step down? Would the team fire such an iconic figure or, at least, ask him nicely to pass over some of the roster-construction duties?
But MacKinnon didn’t bite. Instead, he focused on the capabilities of the current squad.
“We need to score more than zero goals if we’re going to get out of last place,” MacKinnon continued. “Our power play is really bad. Our five-on-five is really bad offensively. Defensively, I think we’re better than what we’re playing, believe it or not, but we just can’t seem to bury anything…
“Hopefully, we can get that rolling after the break and rebound from there.”
Update: Colorado has 10 goals in five games since the Christmas break and they’re 0-5.
It might surprise you to learn that the Avalanche are the ninth-oldest team in the NHL, nearly two years older by average age than the league’s youngest team in Columbus. That’s because for every Duchene, Landeskog or MacKinnon, they have a weathered Jarome Iginla (10 points in 38 games), Francois Beauchemin (eight points in 38 games), or Rene Bourque (13 points in 36 games).
Injuries have certainly been a factor and losing their best all-around defenceman, Erik Johnson, to a broken leg in December, was devastating. But even with him, the Avalanche were stuck at the bottom of the ladder in an intensely contested Central Division. Only two Central teams (the Avalanche and Jets) have a Corsi For percentage (CF%) below 50 percent at even strength, meaning they are the only two who average more shots against than they get for themselves. And the Jets are at 49.56, but have improved that over the past month.
The Avalanche? They’re third-last in this stat over the full season with a 46.39 mark and are trending downward: In the past month they have a 43.22 CF% that is last in the NHL. They were at the bottom of the league last season as well.
To get out of this, some big shifts need to happen. Their goalie struggles to keep a save percentage above .900 and he’s signed for two more seasons beyond this one with a $5.9 million cap hit. They do have some UFAs at the end of the season, namely Iginla, who should lighten the cap to some degree. And while having cap space is valuable, to really push this team forward you get the sense a big trade is coming, perhaps in the off-season when more teams can get involved.
The Catch-22 is that to be successful in the NHL you need the skilled, young players the Avalanche currently have—but those assets are also the only ones they have that can bring back a significant return. And you can’t really trade Tyson Barrie because the blue line is thin enough as it is. So, trade attention and speculation turns to Duchene. His contract, which expires in 2019 and brings him to UFA status, is the shortest of anyone in this young core.
“When you make the playoffs twice, for me, in eight years obviously there’s going to be some trade talks,” Duchene said prior to Wednesday’s game against Calgary. “It’s part of it. If it happens, it happens and you move on. It’s part of the game, it’s part of the business, and it’s something we all understand.
“I think in the past I would have taken it personally, but not anymore,” he continued. “I understand it’s part of the business. And I understand there is obviously something here that might need to change. If me being shipped out is part of that then that’s part of the business. I hope this team does well no matter if I’m on it or not. It was my favourite team as a kid and I got a lot of friends in here. I have so much respect for everybody and whatever needs to happen needs to happen. It’s out of my control.”
The Avs can’t get desperate and rush to fill a roster spot of need the way Edmonton did in the Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson trade because they look further away from being able to recover the way Edmonton is. Being in the tough Central Division has a lot to do with it.
And while it’s easy to say they should tank and move into a full-blown rebuild, you also don’t want to fall into a losing culture. Those can be very difficult to dig out of. Just ask those same Oilers.
“It wears on you,” MacKinnon said to the Denver Post in December. “I’d by lying if I said it didn’t. We’re very thankful to play this game and we’re lucky and fortunate. But when you lose this much, it’s a horrible feeling, whether you’re in bantam or the NHL. It’s the same thing—honestly, it is. Our whole lives have been about winning games and making the playoffs and winning [there]. Whether you’re in pee wee or the NHL, you just want to do well and we’re not.”
What should the Avalanche do about the hopeless situation they seemingly find themselves in? The prudent response is to ride it out by shedding cap, adding value players and passing on players in their late-30s, and hopefully get on track to compete before Duchene’s contract expires in two years. That core will have Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost added to it for the long-term, plus whoever they get high in this year’s draft.
A big move for a defenceman will likely eventually need to be made, and it could involve Duchene. But let’s take a deep breath here—the only trade that needs to happen this season is Iginla.
It’s a tough situation and one that a team with three top-three draft picks between 2009 and 2013 probably shouldn’t be in again. Should the Avalanche go into a rebuild? In a way, they’re already in one.