Colorado’s Roller Coaster Year Comes to a Close

On January 1st, 2014 the Colorado Avalanche were 24-11-4, and were sitting 3rd in the Central Division. On January 1st, 2015 they were 13-15-8 and sat at the bottom of the Central Division. It’s been a remarkable year for the Colorado Avalanche. They have defied expectations in more than one way. No one anticipated they would win the Central last season, and very few expected they would be back in the basement in 2015. Their year included a return to the playoffs, a dramatic first round exit, a busy and at times disappointing off-season and a tumble that had many in the advanced stats community saying, “I told you so.”  2014 was a roller coaster for the Avalanche.

(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

An Unlikely Champion

At the start of 2014 the Colorado Avalanche were 3rd in the Central Division. Most Avalanche fans would have been more than happy about that, and it seemed that catching St. Louis or Chicago was an impossible dream. But as the season continued and the Avalanche found themselves consistently winning games the Central Division championship started to look within grasp. Chicago and St. Louis both had a few slumps that allowed Colorado to make up plenty of ground on the two powerhouses. St. Louis, it should be said, played the biggest role in Colorado’s division crown. At the end of the year, the Blues hit a slump and they hit one hard. A streak of losses, that included a 4-0 game against the Avalanche put them out of contention for the division with just a few games left.

It didn’t seem likely that Colorado at the start of the season would be in contention for a division title, but their strong start and consistent record from that point on surprised everyone. Colorado much to the surprise of all expectations finished the season in first place. The immediate effect of that was Colorado got to avoid Chicago and St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for them that didn’t work out according to plan.

A classic playoff series

The Avalanche had to play the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs. The Wild were a 7th seed and made the playoffs as a wild card team. Game 1 in Denver was a real show. The Wild taking a 4-2 lead into the third couldn’t keep Colorado from storming back to tie the game with seconds left. Paul Stastny who tied the game in regulation was able to play the hero again in overtime. Game 2 wasn’t as close. Colorado won 4-2 and it was the Nathan MacKinnon show, who had a 4 point night. Going back to Minnesota for game 3 and 4, Colorado was unable to produce the same form they had at home and were thoroughly dominated in those two games. Seymon Varlamov stood on his head in the two games on the road, like he had much of the season, but it wasn’t enough. Colorado would surrender their two games to none lead.

All series Colorado looked a different team in Denver. Back in game 5, Colorado were able to come from behind again to force overtime. This time it was Nathan MacKinnon’s turn to be the overtime hero. Colorado won game 5 and took a three games to two lead back to Minnesota. Unfortunately for the Avalanche, it would be the last game they would win that season. Minnesota handily beat Colorado in game 6, and in a back and forth game 7, which saw the Avalanche lose a lead on four separate occasions that game. Colorado lost early in overtime, and their surprise season had come to an end early than they had hoped. Colorado though was able to take some level of satisfaction though, from a season that saw them go from a bottom feeder to one of the top teams in the west. The season didn’t end the way the Avalanche wanted, but at least there was some hope.

Winning big in Vegas

They didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but Colorado received plenty of silverware at the annual NHL Awards in Las Vegas. Four separate representatives of the Avalanche were nominated for awards last year. Patrick Roy was nominated for the Jack Adams, Nathan MacKinnon was up for the Calder Trophy, Seymon Varlamov was nominated for the Vezina Trophy and Ryan O’Reilly had a chance to win the Lady Byng award. In the end the only one of the four to go home empty handed was Varlamov who lost out to Boston’s Tuuka Rask.

Apart from the occasional nomination for Colorado, like Gabe Landeskog’s Calder win, or Matt Duchene’s nomination for the same award and Joe Sacco’s nod for coach of the year, Colorado haven’t been given much recognition on the award stage. Though they’d be the first to tell you that they’d trade those awards for a much bigger prize, it was still an encouraging sign that Colorado could be ready to return to prominence.

An important offseason

Colorado’s run to a division title gave Avalanche fans something to really look forward to for the first time in years. There were still some issues with the team that Colorado needed to address. There was some hope that this was going to be a productive offseason for the Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. Colorado still had a suspect defense, and all the talk around the league was that no one expected Colorado to be able to repeat the same remarkable run with the squad they had. Improving the defense seemed like priority one. The only additions Colorado made on the blue line, however, were Brad Stuart and Zach Redmond. By no means are these two bad players, but Colorado are still missing a top pairing defender to play with Erik Johnson. Rebuilding their blue line seemed to be easier said than done. After the offseason Colorado’s strategy with it’s defense seems to be more build from within. Colorado fans hope top prospects Chris Bigras and Will Butcher will prove valuable down the road.

The big story in July however was the departure of long time Avalanche Paul Stastny and the addition of future hall of famer Jarome Iginla. Colorado held on hope that Stastny would be willing to stay with the team he’s spent his entire career with. But the lure of big money in St. Louis was enough to tempt him away. Stastny was one of Colorado best players. He was a playmaker that made the team better with in the lineup. His defense was also one part of his game that Colorado would surely miss.

Colorado’s only big name signing this offseason was Iginla. Too many fans this took the sting out of Stastny leaving. But other fans wondered how an older Iginla would fit in with the young and speedy forwards already on the Avalanche payroll. Iginla is a veteran though, and the hope was that if Colorado could get back into the playoffs he’s be a perfect leader to help the young team put it all together when it mattered most.

Back to Earth

Colorado started the 2014-15 season against the team that ended their previous season. It didn’t go well. Minnesota manhandled Colorado 5-0  in St. Paul in the season opener. A few days later Colorado, in their home opener Colorado lost to Minnesota again, 3-0. It wasn’t a very promising start.  Colorado had been unable to score two games in a row, and they looked to be a step behind at every point. The speed they played with last season looked like it was gone. Defensively they were all over the place and they looked like whatever magic happened the previous season was gone. They finished October with a 3-4-4 record and were sitting at the bottom of the Central division.

As this season has gone on, the Avalanche have started to show light improvement. Patrick Roy abandoned his man to man system for a more conventional zone coverage system and it’s started to show some decent results. Colorado have been giving up much fewer shots as opposed to the start of the season. They seem to be regularly holding teams to under 30 shots now. The problem is that the offense has really lost a step this season. Colorado were a high scoring, exciting team last season. Now it seems ironic that the team’s offense has been it’s Achilles heal, while the defense has been a big improvement.

Going into 2015 Colorado have a lot to work on. Their offense has been struggling, and while their defense is getting better, the personnel on the blue line could still improve. These things are not impossible. Colorado has been at both ends of the Central division in 2014, entering 2015 the management, coaches and the players hope that the team can get back to the top half of that division.