The numbers that matter most say that the Colorado Avalanche have five of a possible eight points. It could have been six if not for a defensive mistake in overtime against the Jets, or it could have been just three if the Wild had better goaltending. That’s the wonderful thing about hockey – results don’t always bear out what’s going on at ice level. Is this team lucky to have five of a possible eight points? Is dominant scoring enough?
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The sigh of relief that Avalanche fans everywhere took after an easy-looking victory against the Minnesota Wild might have been premature. Given how the Avalanche got well and truly thumped in Calgary, a win against the Wild was just what the doctor ordered. It’s a pity the win against the Wild wasn’t truly earned – not on a night when Filip Gustavsson couldn’t stop a beach ball.
Dominant Scoring Punch
It is hard to put into words just how dominant Nathan MacKinnon, Valerie Nichushkin, and Mikko Rantanen are. Nichushkin and Rantanen have shooting percentages in the 30s. This torrid pace is truly remarkable, a breathtaking thing to watch. As great as the Avalanche were during the Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg era, I feel like I’m watching hockey from the 1980s. What an offensive tour de force.
Don’t look now, but the power play is shooting out the lights at 53%. Any team that gives the Avs a power play immediately regrets their life choices. Against the Jets, they scored just by wearing out their opponents with such lengthy and relentless puck possession that Rantanen fell over after scoring. It was hard to tell if that was weariness or a loss of balance, but the minute preceding the goal was a thing of beauty.
If the penalty kill was operating at a better clip, that would be the tale of the tape. However, giving up goals 50% of the time negates the advantage of a dominant power play, and feels like an area the Avs will look to improve immediately.
One last observation—four of five top point-getters on the team have gotten the vast majority of their production on the power play. The lone standout is Mr. MacKinnon.
Some trends are beginning to emerge that might have the fanbase holding its breath again. Last year the Avalanche were dynamite against the rush, keeping opposing players to the outside and outnumbering them. That has not been the case so far this season, as the team can’t seem to stay organized enough in its defensive structure.
Instead, they are giving up the blue line far too often, leading to scoring chances off the rush of a higher quality. This is a cause for concern considering the goalie tandem they have. The Winnipeg Jets scored twice in this scenario, and scored easily.
Even more concerning, the Avalanche are not holding their own in the defensive zone. The back door pass was wide open all night for the Jets, and were the home team not the recipient of some good fortune, it could easily have been 5-1 halfway through the second period. Although the period ended in a tie when the Avalanche woke up with five minutes remaining, the Jets were the better team for the majority of the game.
This team needs to figure out how they will defend in the neutral zone and the defensive end. They might not need to do both all season, but they must do at least one. They know who they are offensively, but their defensive structure doesn’t appear to have an identity yet.
It’s one thing to lose Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and their 150 points and 50 goals. It’s another to lose Gabriel Landeskog for 12 weeks to start the season. Last year’s team didn’t really shoot the lights out individually, they did it collectively. This year’s team might be showing signs of that level of ability, but there is a lack of secondary scoring. Pavel Francouz—a goalie—has more points than Alex Newhook, Evan Rodrigues, and Logan O’Connor combined. It starts and ends with the second-line center position, a hole Landeskog would surely be filling right now were he healthy.
Alex Newhook Structural Issues
Alex Newhook has, at least for now, lost ice time to J.T. Compher. He needs to renovate some parts of his game, starting with a 30.4 FO%. As dynamic as he is with the puck, he can’t spend seven of 10 shifts chasing the play and expect to keep playing second-line minutes. He is not playing near his potential. How patient will management and the coaching staff be with him before they look outside the organization?
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It is easy to look at these issues and think this is all just an overreaction, and that everything is going to be just fine. After four games last season the team hadn’t won a game yet and the sky was falling. While it doesn’t appear to be “Chicken Little Time” yet, the trends aren’t great. Through the first four games of this season—at least in this reporter’s eyes—the Avalanche are a team with serious defensive shortcomings and depth issues.