The Colorado Avalanche entered the 2021-22 season as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup, but they’ve struggled with some adversity to start the campaign. Although they currently sit third in the NHL by points percentage, behind only the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers, their rampaging offense (first in goals-per-game) has obscured the disappointing displays put on by their goaltenders. With their Stanley Cup window wide open and a looming salary cap crunch inching closer on the horizon, the Avalanche can ill-afford to potentially waste a season of contention by depending on the uncertain performances submitted by their net-minders.
For that reason, Colorado should look to a familiar foe in Marc-Andre Fleury, now of the Chicago Blackhawks, to solve their goaltending problems. Let’s dig in.
Avalanche Goaltending Hasn’t Met Expectations
After general manager Joe Sakic acquired Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes this past offseason, the Avalanche believed that their goaltending situation was set for 2021-22. After all, Kuemper posted a .922 save percentage (SV%) from 2018-19 to 2020-21, the fourth-best mark in the NHL among goalies with a minimum of 50 appearances. That he accomplished that feat behind an often woeful Coyotes squad made it a no-brainer that he could translate that level of performance to Denver. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, and Kuemper has allowed two more goals above expected (GSAx) this season according to MoneyPuck, with a .905 SV% the main culprit for this season’s poor results.
Now, it does take time to acclimate to a new squad, but Kuemper hasn’t been much better as of late either, only posting a .909 SV% since the beginning of December. It’s not as though the Avalanche aren’t offering him defensive support, as the team ranks highly in terms of the rate at which they concede chance quality (seventh in expected goals against per-60) and scoring chances (third in SCA/60) at 5v5 play.
While Pavel Francouz has returned from an injury that cost him the entirety of last season, his age (31) and risky injury profile make him an uncertain bet in the Avalanche crease heading into the thick of the playoff race. It’s within reason that one of the pair could stand on their heads come the postseason, but it’s not exactly a risk that Colorado’s competitive timeline appears to be capable of handling with so much riding on the need to win before Nathan MacKinnon’s contract extension takes effect.
For what it’s worth, Fleury’s performance this season isn’t particularly impressive (.910 SV%, -8.6 GSAx), but he’s stood behind a Blackhawks squad in the midst of an organizational transition. It stands to reason that his play could see a bump behind a steadier group, but that’s always an uncertain gamble, especially with older goalies. It should be noted that he did win the Vezina Trophy (albeit controversially) just last season, so he still has some gas left in the tank.
Avalanche Stanley Cup Window Is Wide Open
The Avalanche have slowly made their ascent up the NHL’s hierarchy since finishing dead-last in the 2016-17 season, and have emerged as one of the league’s formidable forces to start the 2020s. Since the 2019-20 season, Colorado is second in terms of regular-season games won, and leads the NHL in points percentage over that time (.695). Whatever your opinion on their roster construction, it’s inarguable that they are one of the biggest favourites to win the Stanley Cup this season and for the foreseeable future. Capitalizing on such an opportunity in the salary cap era is the primary goal for this group, and goaltending remains their Achilles’ heel despite repeated attempts at resolving their problems in that area.
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Underlining their current contention window is MacKinnon’s looming contract extension, a future deal that comes into effect starting with the 2023-24 season. The Avalanche superstar is due for a gargantuan raise on his relatively pitiful cap hit of $6.3 million, and the jump in pay could dismantle Colorado’s carefully structure wage structure. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was less of an issue, with predicted increases in the salary cap presumed to cover MacKinnon’s eventual raise, but the reality is that the cap is set to remain stagnant for several seasons, putting a dent into those plans.
Fleury’s contract is set to expire this offseason, and his $7 million commitment can be shaved down through salary retention and sending another player Chicago’s way, meaning that this isn’t an impossible trade to facilitate. While general manager Joe Sakic has demonstrated the cunning required to maneuver around a strict cap structure, MacKinnon’s future contract represents the biggest test of his managerial tenure. Can they afford to let the surplus-value afforded by MacKinnon’s current pact go to waste by ignoring their greatest flaw?
Fleury Brings Key Playoff Experience to Avalanche Crease
Where Fleury differentiates himself from the rest of the goalie market is his wealth of postseason experience as one of the most decorated goaltenders of this generation. He’s been a part of five Stanley Cup Final runs and three championships split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights, and his experience could be a boon for an Avalanche squad struggling to pass the second-round hurdle.
Since making his postseason debut in the 2006-07 season, the Quebec native has played in (160) and won (90) the most playoff games in the NHL, posting a .912 SV% (19th) over the course of his postseason career. That towers over Kuemper’s playoff portfolio (18 games), and Fleury’s enjoyed recent success to boot (.918 SV% in 16 games last year), including vanquishing the Avalanche in a thrilling six-game second-round series in the 2021 Playoffs.
Since leading the Golden Knights to an unexpected berth in the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season, Fleury ranks second in wins (28) and ninth in SV% (.920) among qualified goaltenders (minimum 14 playoff games). It’s arguable that he’s been better in the twilight of his career, rather than in the prime of his youth. Is that wealth of recent success enough to entice the Avalanche into parting ways with valuable assets?
Is Fleury the Answer in Net for Colorado?
It’s entirely possible that Fleury is beyond his best-before date, and the Avalanche could be buying what is the tail end of a storied career. Further, the potential for one of Kuemper or Francouz to return to form and make the net their own is something that could give Colorado’s management group pause on pulling the trigger on a significant deadline deal. Additionally, several more cost-effective options are likely to enter the trade market, leaving the Avalanche with more resources to strengthen its roster in other areas. It’s an important decision fraught with several complicating factors, but that’s never stopped Joe Sakic from calling his shot before, and I bet that isn’t going to stop him now. The question remains, is Fleury his equivalent of the Patrick Roy trade? Food for thought, dear readers.