Avalanche Coaching Costs Them a Win

The Colorado Avalanche lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in heart-wrenching fashion, giving up a 1-0 lead by surrendering three goals in the final three minutes of the game. There’s plenty of blame to go around. While the players wrestled with their own problems on the second night of a back-to-back, they were not the only ones with issues.

Coach Bednar was quick to point out mistakes by his players in his post-game comments.

 “Three different guys (Avalanche players) could have broke that up (Carolina’s go-ahead goal). Bad play,” stated a terse Coach Bednar.

But that’s not the end of the story. The coach may want to take a look in the mirror as the players aren’t the only ones who need to re-visit their decision making. There were a few questionable coaching moves that certainly didn’t help the team win, either.

The Plummeting Power Play

The Avalanche scored just once on six power play chances against Carolina. That’s not good. While the Hurricanes lead the league in combined special teams play, the Avalanche have been dropping in the rankings, especially when it comes to the power play.

The Avalanche started the season scoring six power play goals in 22 chances, meaning they scored 27% of the time they were on the man advantage. If the team had continued that place, they would be third in the league. Instead, the team has struggled. The Avalanche currently score 18.6% of the time on a power play, good enough for 17th in the standings. That’s a significant drop.

Still, if the Avalanche were a middling team, those numbers might be okay. Only the Avalanche run the third-highest scorer in the league on their power play in Nathan MacKinnon. Until recently, they also had rookie phenom Cale Makar quarterbacking their first power play unit.

Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon fought to score on the power play against the Carolina Hurricanes. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For an Avalanche team that leads the league in average goals per game, they are missing an opportunity by failing to take advantage of their power play chances.

And in case anyone is wondering, the team was already plummeting in the rankings before Makar was injured. Remember the playoff series against the San Jose Sharks last season? The Avalanche scored only twice on the man advantage during a series that offered them 24 such chances. Arguably the biggest “miss” in the Avalanche’s past offseason was failing to acquire coaching help for their power play. The failure to adjust and improve in a consistent problem area like the power play rests just as much with the coaching staff as the players.

Benching Nikita Zadorov

For reasons only coach Bednar knows, blueliner Nikita Zadorov was benched for the entire third period. He’d only played for a combined 10:26 in the first two periods. Considering he had been averaging over 20 minutes a contest prior to the Hurricanes matchup, his usage in this game raises some questions.

No one knows why Zadorov was benched. Coach Bednar’s abrupt answer of “coaching decision” didn’t offer any insight, other than apparently Zadorov was in the doghouse. But why was he in trouble?

Colorado Avalanche Jared Bednar
Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar has a chance to re-visit some coaching decisions.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

It wasn’t for fighting. He had come off after a brief scrum with Nino Niederreiter on a perfectly legal play. Zadorov refused to engage with Niederreiter, an area Zadorov has greatly improved on over the past six weeks. No penalty was called.

It wasn’t because of an obvious argument on the bench. There was a bit of jawing after the scrum. But it was nowhere near the levels of MacKinnon’s throwdown last season that garnered huge media attention. And MacKinnon’s outburst never resulted in any consequences from Bednar.

It wasn’t because of his play. Zadorov wasn’t close to being the worst Avalanche defenseman on the ice during the contest. At least two other players were obviously having difficulties with Carolina’s game and one could argue a third blueliner was also struggling. Zadorov wasn’t as dominating as in recent games but he certainly held his own.

Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov
Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov was inexplicably pulled from the Carolina game in the third period. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe he said something he shouldn’t have or wasn’t following the coaches’ directions. However, that’s still a problem, benching one of the team’s better defenseman in a scoreless game through two frames.

It added extra pressure and ice time on the remaining blueliners in a game where the team needed every hand on deck. And a couple of defensemen struggled significantly to keep up with the Hurricanes. If Zadorov made a mistake that needed a correction, couldn’t it have been addressed after the game? Was it worth risking losing a game, or at least a point?

Bednar chose to sit Zadorov throughout the third period. The team played without a valuable asset, on the second night of back-to-back games, in a fiercely fought scoreless contest. That hurt the Avalanche. They weren’t playing sharp enough for a dominating win against a feisty Carolina crew. Shortening the bench while fighting for points on the second night of a back-to-back seems unwise.

Questionable Player Usage

The questions don’t stop there. The coaching staff made some unusual changes for the Carolina game.

They shuffled the defensive pairings. Veteran defenseman Erik Johnson finally returned from injury. They also played AHL call up Anton Lindholm in just his second Avalanche game this season, replacing previous recall Calle Rosen. The changes led to a mishmash of defensive combinations throughout the night. That’s not a great recipe for success against one of the more talented teams in the league.

As mentioned earlier, a couple of defensemen wilted under the Hurricanes’ pressure. Veteran Ian Cole struggled to keep pace with Carolina while Samuel Girard had one of his more problematic outings. He quarterbacked the first power play unit and looked outmatched most of the time. He appeared indecisive and just a half step behind most of the night. Both Cole and Girard were on the ice for two of the final Carolina goals in the last three minutes of the game.

Girard had some help from the staff in his struggles. He logged 27:16 in ice time, the longest stretch in his Avalanche career. For a reference point, Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton, an established top-tier defenseman, logged nearly five minutes less time on ice.

Colorado Avalanche's Samuel Girard
Colorado Avalanche’s Samuel Girard struggled to quarterback the power play. (AP Photo/Chris Seward, File)

Girard also played for nearly two of the last three minutes of the game. Part of good coaching requires managing players and putting them in positions to succeed. The Avalanche’s reliance on Girard – and their refusal to adjust during the game – provided an opportunistic Carolina team one more advantage.

But the questionable player usage didn’t stop there. Bednar played Lindholm just 11:18 over the whole game. The coaches essentially shortened the bench to four players on defense for the third period. On the second night of a back-to-back. Against a dangerous and successful team. That’s problematic.

The forward usage was also questionable. MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen all played over 22 minutes each, and frequently ended up scrambling on defense in their own end. Outside of Nazem Kadri, all the other forwards played 15 minutes or less. Mostly less. That’s not utilizing one’s depth, especially when the team played on the road the night before.

Loss Offers Coaches a Learning Opportunity

The Avalanche coaching staff should take a good look at the decisions they made, including their game management, during the Carolina matchup. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes and set an example for the team. No one is so good they can’t improve, even the coaches.

It’s hard to fault a coaching staff who managed to shift players around during the injury epidemic and still found ways to win. However, with the exception of Cale Makar, most of the team is now back. And despite the return of the stars, the Avalanche lost three of their last six games. It may be wise to look at those losses and learn from them if the team wants to be a contender.

Head coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche
Jared Bednar can use the Colorado Avalanche loss to Carolina as a chance to re-group and adapt. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

The post-game comments raised concerns about whether the staff was aware of their own missteps and not just the players’. While there’s still plenty of hockey ahead, the Carolina loss offers the perfect chance for the coaching staff to rethink their approach and adapt. The power play needs help and has been an ongoing issue since last season. The defensive moves raise questions. And for a team with a lot of touted depth, the Avalanche don’t seem to be using those players to best advantage.

Right now, the team has played well enough to earn points. But if the Avalanche aim to be cup contenders, addressing the coaching issues early in the season could go a long way in helping that dream become reality. All points are valuable and blowing a lead with three minutes remaining should be a wake-up call for the Avalanche. Let’s hope so.