In the most literal sense, the Colorado Avalanche had nowhere to go but up. After finishing the 2016-17 campaign with a mere 22 wins and a league-worst 48 points, the lowest point total for any team since the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers’ inaugural season, it would have taken an almost inexplicable amount of incompetence for the Avalanche to be any worse this season. To say all that much was expected out of Colorado in 2017-18 wouldn’t quite be accurate, however. The Avalanche were expected to again be the Central Division’s bottom feeders and were given the second-worst Stanley Cup odds in THN’s Yearbook, a prediction a fair number would have agreed with after giving Colorado’s roster a once over.
Truthfully, one of the only reasons for optimism surrounding the Avalanche entering the season was the fact things quite simply couldn’t get all that worse. Even before the outset of last season, Colorado was mired in controversy as coach Patrick Roy resigned, leading the Avalanche to scramble for a replacement. Eventually, Jared Bednar, fresh off of coaching the then-Lake Erie Monsters to an AHL crown, was selected to take over behind the bench. Once that was settled, trade rumors regarding Matt Duchene heated up and stayed front-and-center until the deadline, and he wasn’t the only one involved in such speculation as the trade deadline brought with it talk of a full-on fire sale in Colorado. Suffice to say the distractions were plenty and the on-ice performance didn’t help settle any of the drama.
And that’s why the Avalanche’s performance thus far has been downright surprising. Instead of fighting to maintain respectability at the midway point of the current campaign or considering their draft lottery odds as the all-star break approaches, Colorado is instead contemplating something few would have imagined at this point last year: the possibility of hosting at least a pair of playoff games. With Saturday’s defeat of the Minnesota Wild, a dominant 7-2 victory, the Avalanche picked up their 22nd win of the season — matching last season’s total — and now find themselves riding a five-game winning streak, clinging to the final wild-card spot in the West and boasting the conference’s eighth-best point total and the fifth-best mark in the Central Division.
The turnaround, while not one that exactly sees the Avalanche as true Cup contenders, has been about as brilliant as can be, too. After being dragged down last season by the league’s worst offense and worst defense, Colorado has been much improved in both categories. And after finishing last season with a mind-blowing minus-111 goal differential, the Avalanche are actually in the positives this time around — plus-11, which is tied for the 11th-best mark in the league.
Inarguably, the driving force behind the Avalanche’s success thus far has been the offense, led by Nathan MacKinnon, who deserves every bit of praise that comes his way this season. One year removed from a mediocre campaign, and that may be a kind assessment of his 16-goal, 53-point showing, MacKinnon has been as dominant as any player in the league this time around. Through 41 games, his 18 goals and 52 points put him second the Art Ross Trophy race and have him inching closer to new career-highs in every scoring category. In fact, his current scoring pace would see him obliterate his previous career-bests of 24 goals and 63 points. And while it’s MacKinnon who’s absolutely pacing the turnaround, he’s not alone in helping drive Colorado into the playoff race.
Operating as MacKinnon’s righthand man, Mikko Rantanen has shown that his 20-goal, 38-point rookie performance was only an introduction to his capabilities. As a top-line winger, Rantanen has already contributed 15 goals and 41 points in 41 games, putting him on pace to become a point per game player as a sophomore. Meanwhile, captain Gabriel Landeskog is bouncing back from a disappointing 33-point season with 16 goals and 32 points in 37 contests. Add rookie Alexander Kerfoot’s 10-goal, 27-point performance, a return to form from Carl Soderberg and contributions from Sven Andrighetto, Blake Comeau and Nail Yakupov to the equation — not to mention the 27 points from blueliner Tyson Barrie — and Colorado just so happens to boast the fifth-most potent attack in the league.
Such a vast improvement is a result of better individual performances, absolutely, but the uptick in opportunities can’t be discounted. With Bednar having his system in place — with a few kinks still to be ironed out — the Avalanche are averaging an additional five shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, their rate of possession is nearly 1.5 percent better, they’re putting nearly three more pucks on goal per 60 minutes and, most importantly, are capitalizing when it counts. Colorado’s shooting percentage on scoring chances and high-danger opportunities has increased by about two percent. Their overall shooting percentage, too, is up by 2.2 percent.
Granted, pure offensive success doesn’t necessarily translate to favorable results. Just look at the New York Islanders. But where the Avalanche have also succeeded in better sheltering their goaltenders, case in point being the increase in possession and shots for percentages, the latter rising nearly three percent from last season. But the goaltending has also come through in times of need. Semyon Varlamov has turned in a decent .912 save percentage, and after he went down with his near annual injury, backup Jonathan Bernier stepped in to pick up three straight wins, stopping 89 of the past 93 shots he’s faced for a .957 SP. The result is a rate of 5-on-5 goaltending that has risen from a .908 SP last season to .925 this campaign. That’s a significant and important increase.
Unquestionably, there are still areas the Avalanche could improve. Colorado’s Corsi for percentage, while improved, is still sub 50 percent, as are the shots for, scoring chances for and high-danger chances for percentages. Likewise, the Avalanche still don’t rate among the top half of the league in their rates in any of those categories. But it’s evident this season that the individual pieces are in place that can help Colorado take a step forward. The key, however, is for GM Joe Sakic to continue to build this organization using the same kind of patience shown in the eventual trade of Duchene, which netted several pieces.
For the time being, though, the Avalanche are an impressive offensive club that has themselves right on the playoff bubble, and after a year where paper bags were at times the preferred headwear for even the biggest supporters, that should be reason enough for a bit of celebration in Colorado.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.