Fancy stats: Is Colorado playing with fire?

The Avs put together a fantastic 2013-14 campaign that had the advanced stats crowd flustered until a playoff crash seemed to set the world right. But can Colorado stun the league once more?
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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Just because something hasn't been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done. Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy has proven that throughout his career, from winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie goaltender to winning the Jack Adams Award as a rookie NHL bench boss last season (and let's not forget all those overtime games he won en route to the 1993 Cup).

But with Roy and Avalanche GM Joe Sakic coming out against advanced stats in a recent article by Nick Cotsonika, could it be that the golden boys are about to get tarnished?

It's hard to say Colorado is different from the fancy stats failures of the past - Minnesota in 2011-12, Toronto in 2013-14 - though it is easy to be blinded by the talent the Avs have assembled.

Nathan MacKinnon. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly. Semyon Varlamov in net. You'll note that none of those stars play on the blueline and that has been an obvious flaw in Denver for a couple years now.

Tyson Barrie is a rising talent on defense and he can certainly move the puck. The fact he was Matt Cooke-d out of the Avs' first-round series against the Wild last season was certainly a factor in Colorado's ouster, though it also provided some comfort for proponents of advanced stats. The Avs were a bad possession team with great goaltending and an insanely good record in one-goal games (28-4, the best in the league); it seemed as if they were playing with fire all along.

I still think the Avs will be a good team this season, even if I don't expect them to repeat as Central Division champs. The St. Louis Blues are still kicking themselves over how their regular season ended, when injuries piled up at the worst of times and the Notes ended up playing Chicago in the first round.

But there's bound to be some regression. Even if Varlamov comes down slightly from his lofty 2013-14 perch, there's a couple losses right there. And the blueline hasn't gotten much better in terms of mobility. Sure, Brad Stuart had a positive Corsi rating in San Jose and will help a bit, but he's only one man (and the Sharks were a great possession team).

Another interesting category to consider is on offense. Roy and Sakic maintain that the team may not have thrown a lot of shots on net last season, but did generate a lot of scoring chances. It's hard to argue with the results, since the Avs ranked fourth in NHL offense, scoring basically three goals per game (2.99 to be exact).

In speaking to companies that are providing advanced stats data for teams via video, I've been told that scoring chances are subjective - what may be a chance to one organization is not considered one by another. For the companies, that means tailoring what they provide in terms of results. For a team such as Colorado, I suspect, it provides the answer for why the Avs bucked the trend until the playoffs.

Perhaps Colorado will be a better possession team this year anyway. Their best young players will be stronger and more experienced and obviously the organization knows it has a deficit, at least on paper.

But if the Avs gets burned by fancy stats in the regular season this time, there will be a lot of I-told-you-so pundits ready with sticks and marshmallows.



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