There was a moment in Tuesday’s game between the Avalanche and Blackhawks where it appeared Colorado was going to pull off what would have been one of their most significant wins of what has been a troubling season. A three-goal second period had the Avalanche ahead 4-3 with an 18-14 shot advantage over one of the Western Conference’s best teams.
Then the wheels fell off. In the third, the Avalanche were outshot 12-5, Blackhawks rookie Vinnie Hinostroza potted two goals in three minutes before the midway mark of the frame and the game was capped off with an empty-netter from Chicago’s Tanner Kero. A once-promising one-goal lead was washed away. Colorado left the ice having suffered it’s 28th defeat in 42 games.
But was anyone all that surprised? This season’s Avalanche bunch has been arguably one of the worst teams the league has seen in the post-lockout era, and that’s not the least bit hyperbolic.
In the decade-plus since the lost 2004-05 campaign, the NHL record for most regulation losses by a team in a season in 51, which the Buffalo Sabres did back-to-back in 2013-14 and 2014-15. By comparison, the Avalanche are on pace to lose 55 games in regulation. The worst points percentage came when the 2013-14 Sabres picked up only 52 of a possible 164 points. As of Wednesday, the Avalanche are on pace to finish with a .321 points percentage, the second-worst post-lockout mark. That would give Colorado a grand total of 53 points, and that’s rounding up.
Then there’s the Avalanche’s sixth-worst post-lockout goals for per game of 2.05, 14th-worst goals against per game of 3.38 and the kicker — and the reason it could have been expected that the Colorado would blow the one-goal lead against Chicago — an 11th-worst win percentage when leading after two periods. For every three games the Avalanche have led after 40 minutes this season, they’ve lost two. That’s not a recipe for success.
With the Avalanche mired in the league’s basement, five points back of the Arizona Coyotes, there’s no hope of saving this season. It’s gone. It’s over. The only thing left is playing out the year, because the post-season is an impossible goal and climbing the standings doesn’t really serve to help Colorado all that much, aside from maybe selling an extra ticket here or there. Instead, the Avalanche should be using the remainder of this season to chart the course forward.
One of the best things that will happen when the season ends is the opportunity for Jared Bednar to have an entire off-season to work with his staff. Thrust into the coaching position only weeks before the start of the campaign as a result of former coach Patrick Roy’s abrupt decision to resign, Bednar was thrown to the wolves as a first-time NHL bench boss. That said, some improvements, albeit minor, can already be seen. For instance, the Avalanche have seen their league-worst possession rate in 2015-16 increase by nearly 2.5 percent. It’s a small step, but an important one with what we know about the impact of possession on positive results.
But the biggest step for Colorado has to be a fundamental change in mindset. Visions of the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy season continue to linger, but the truth is this team is nowhere near ready to compete and there’s not a trade or two that is going to change that fact. The Avalanche are a basement team with holes up front and on the back end. The best thing Colorado can do is accept that they’re a near-historically bad team in this era of incredible parity.
Lucky thing is the Avalanche have the ability to jumpstart a rebuild. Unlike other teams who have had to start anew, such as the Sabres and Coyotes, the Avalanche have the benefit of a trio of young stars in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog who could potentially fetch a solid return.
MacKinnon has been rumored to be an untouchable in Colorado and with good reason as the 21-year-old has game-changing ability. He is undoubtedly the star you build around, a 20-goal, 50-point player who's still years removed from his prime. His combination of speed and skill was made for today's game and it doesn't hurt that he's being mentored, at least in part, by Sidney Crosby, who he trains with in the off-season. Though MacKinnon has yet to match his 24-goal, 63-point rookie output, that level of production doesn't seem all that unattainable moving forward. And there's the little things MacKinnon does well, too, like win faceoffs, drive play and play big minutes up front as the team's top-line center.
With MacKinnon as the centrepiece, though, it's time for the Avalanche to part ways with one or both of Duchene and Landeskog.
At 26, Duchene has been mentioned from time to time in the rumor mill, but the time appears to be right for him to move on. He has two years remaining on his deal after this season with a $6-million cap hit, but coming off of a 30-goal, 59-point season and again in line to near the 30-goal plateau, that might not be too difficult to move. His value has never been higher, he’s in the prime of his career and, if dealt, he could fetch a considerable package in return. And while Landeskog, 24, won’t command quite the same return, a consistent 20-goal scorer with some fire to his game would draw some interest at the right price.
There also has to be consideration given to dealing away other current contributors. Tyson Barrie, for instance, would draw interest if he was on the block. Colorado doesn’t look to be in any position to compete during what could be some of the best years of his career and, in terms of a return, now might be the time to get the most out of Barrie. Regardless of who goes, though, the most important thing for the Avalanche to recoup would be a few picks and a prospect or two who has potential to be an NHL contributor in a couple seasons’ time.
One of the biggest problems the Avalanche have had over the past several years comes in building a supporting cast for their trio of young stars, and a big part of that has been the inability to hit on any of their draft picks. Since the 2009 draft, where the Avalanche landed Duchene, Barrie and Ryan O’Reilly, only three draftees have become NHL regulars. That’s MacKinnon, Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who is the team’s top prospect and likely the only other untouchable on the current roster.
Loading up on draft picks and prospects is a tried-and-true method, too, and the more picks the Avalanche can compile, the more shots they have to hit come draft day. Look at this season’s Maple Leafs, for instance. Toronto had good fortune in landing the first-overall pick and an incredible talent in Auston Matthews, but even without Matthews, the grouping of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown is proof positive that targeting the draft and prospects is the way to turn things around in today’s NHL. With MacKinnon as the Avalanche’s central star — their Matthews, if you will — and a cast of other youngsters acquired over the next few seasons, there’s no reason Colorado couldn’t start to right the ship in two or three years’ time in the same way Toronto appears to be climbing.
Avalanche fans may scoff at the idea of blowing everything up, but there’s nothing left to lose aside from more games. And, realistically, things won’t get all that much worse. When you’re nearing 60-loss territory, a 50-loss season just so happens to be a step in the right direction, and a younger team could allow the Avalanche to find some diamonds in the rough while netting high draft picks to stock the cupboard. If one or two hit, it can change the organization in a hurry.
The truth is there’s no quick fix for what ails the Avalanche at this point, and things aren’t going to get back on track in a hurry. There will need to be fewer notable signings, no attempts to win now and more focus on a draft-and-develop mentality. If that means a few more lean years, so be it, because it’s likely one of the only ways for the organization to take a real step forward.
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