As far as Cinderella stories go, you couldn’t find a better one in the NHL last season than the Colorado Avalanche. The preceding off-season was one of rejuvenation following their disappointing last place finish to the 2012-13 campaign. The franchise was stripped bare to it’s foundation and the only figurehead left in the wake of this was general manager, Greg Sherman; even then, his role has been drastically reduced. Brought to breath life into a franchise that had sat lifeless at the bottom of the old Northwest Division were former Avalanche heroes, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy.
They brought with them a winning mentality and competitive desire that was sorely lacking in Denver. Sakic said as much about Roy when the news broke that he was to replace the dismissed former coach of the Avs, Joe Sacco. And oh, how they delivered. The infusion of youth upfront, experience from management and an emotionally invested fan base was enough to propel the Avalanche from worst in the league to first in their division.
The Avalanche did it with a spare part and cast-off defensive corps. They did it playing in arguably the league’s best division. And they did so with a league high 26 road wins. What is a relative unknown, though, is that they also did so with a wave of favourable bounces and percentages that have proven incredibly difficult to replicate on a year-by-year basis. To make matters worse, the Avalanche had arguably the most anti-climactic off-season in the entire league. While competitors from within their division and conference improved – generally speaking – the Avalanche doubled-down on aging wingers and immobile defenseman.
If the bounces ever stop coming, I have a hard time seeing last seasons iteration of the Avalanche roster making the playoffs. What they plan on icing this campaign? Well, they hardly overwhelm me with confidence either.
On Goaltender Unpredictability
While the nearly eight years of data based analysis in the hockey blogging community have been relatively successful at quantifying what makes certain teams and/or players successful, the same can not be said of goalies. The year to year variance in save percentage is just mind-boggling and this is why you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who takes their analytic analysis seriously who believes that goalies are worthwhile long term investments. Even if you’re not as heavily invested in data, how many examples of long term goalie contracts going awry spring to mind?
Relative to Colorado, Semyon Varlamov sprang this trap half-way through last season. A colleague of mine, Dimitri Filipovic, went to task on the Avalanche’s commitment to Varlamov in his most recent post with Sporting News
A prime case study this coming season will be Semyon Varlamov, who the Colorado Avalanche felt compelled to sign long-term during his career season. Knowing what we know, how confident should one reasonably feel that he’ll actually be a .927 goalie moving forward, and not the .909 goalie he was in the four-plus seasons prior? The regression equation shown above estimates that he should be roughly around .915 next season, which sounds about right. While you could certainly do worse than that, the problem for the Avalanche is that they’ve now hitched themselves long-term to someone that could quite conceivably give up about 25 more goals against than he did last season (assuming a similar workload).
As I’ve mentioned, a lot of what Colorado was able to accomplish last season was due in large part to favourable percentages. The personification of this on their team is none other than, Semyon Varlamov. Banking on a career .915 goalie to stay in the high .920’s seems risky, at best. This is the position the Avalanche find themselves in, though, and it’s a nearly $6 million gamble for the next five seasons. Fools gold, I tells ya.
While I spent much of today away from twitter, I spent enough time on there to catch an interesting comment on how we in the hockey community perceive teams that wildly exceed expectations. Or better still, outperform expected outcomes.
It’s really not a thing we’re good at in hockey yet. We’re getting there, but I think we’re a bit too reliant on “PDO mirage! Can’t last!”
— Rhys J (@Thats_Offside) August 21, 2014
I was guilty of falling in line with this train of thought as I watched the Avalanche, who would finish the season as the league’s fifth-worst possession team. I felt a lot of what they were doing was beyond unsustainable, and I was by no stretch of the imagination alone in this regard. The thing is, as bad a possession team as Colorado was, they were even better a *PDO team. They finished with the third-highest PDO in the league, scoring an absurdly high 1018. The preceding year, the Avs had the fourth-lowest PDO in the league, 985. In short, it’s not a repeatable skill or flaw.
*Think of PDO as a luck index for hockey. A PDO score is the combined on-ice shooting and save percentage of any given player or team. In theory, the PDO of any one team will naturally regress to 1000 over time. A score lower than 1000 indicates bad luck; a score higher than 1000, good luck.
There is a gap in PDO between the last two Avalanche campaigns that exceeds 20. We’ve seen teams overcome alarmingly high PDOs that mask equally discomforting possession numbers in the past, but generally speaking it’s not a sustainable formula.
The thing about the Avalanche, though, is that they are an incredibly young team and young players often struggle with possession. Banking on them to increase upon this skill seemed like a relatively safe bet, until this off-season happened. The Avalanche lost Paul Stastny to free agency; he was the Avalanche’s best possession player. Then they foolishly traded P.A. Parenteau, their third-best possession player, for the disheveled remains of Danny Briere.
Replacing Stastny was bound to be a difficult task from the onset, but attempting replicate his production with the signing of Jarome Iginla is a risky proposition. At 37 it seems reasonable to expect even the best of players to decline in production and usefulness. A 37 year old who plays with the reckless abandon that Jarome Iginla does? Might work short term, at best.
It should really come as no surprise that the Avs are going to be fighting an up-hill battle this season. I mean, did anybody REALLY predict their success last season? This Avs team is remarkably young, and it seems like the leaders of that youth movement are only going to get better with time — at least for the next little while. Where this team is doomed to failure is the manner in which they have decided to insulate that talent. The approach should be finding veterans on the right side of the aging curve, that can grow with this club. Instead they’ve opted for Brad Stuart and Jarome Iginla.
This club might have added all the sandpaper in the world, but it won’t be enough to put the puck on their stick. And it certainly won’t be enough to keep the puck from out of their net. Between Roy’s magic, Iginla’s leadership and Stuart’s perceived defensive capabilities, this is a team building on early-2000’s realities and setting itself up for a 2014-15 disaster.