Look Out Below! Avalanche Set to Slide Down Standings

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.

Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy
Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Lady Luck

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.

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.

6 thoughts on “Look Out Below! Avalanche Set to Slide Down Standings”

  1. In the very definition you give for PDO you definetly do. By its very nature that that is exactly what PDO says.
    PDO an advanced stat in name only. People need to realize that.
    I mean PDO tells me that Boston is going to be around 1.00 pdo, whereas math tells me there is a 95% chance they are higher than that. (same simple stats model i ran before)

  2. PDO is kinda of the bastard child of advanced stats though. Zero sum, two player game, and people try to derive an hard rule from it.
    Little math here. Best team PDO Boston at 1.027, worst Panthers at .974
    That gives us a range of of .053 for all the teams, with the average PDO coming in at a just above 1.000 because of rounding.
    Using a very simple statistic to analyze a the very large sample size that is total shots in an NHL calendar year, you can reasonably say that teams will regress one standard deviation towards the mean from their PDO.
    I calculate a standard deviation of 0.0128. (Using sporting charts PDO numbers a simple equation)
    So instead of predicting that the Avalances regresses to 1.000 PDO, it is far more likey they regress to around 1.008.

  3. I don’t think anyone expects the Avalanche to win the division again, probably not even the team itself. After all, they didn’t secure it until the final week of the season. But many of the reasons you use for the team’s slide down the standings are flawed. Advanced stats are only useful when used in conjunction with observed trends and the human element of the game

    1. Semyon Varlamov
    – Varly won’t replicate his season, but he also isn’t a .909sv% goaltender. There’s never been a question about his skill, just his consistency. He’s had 5 years experience in the league (at only 26 yrs old) and has averaged 0.917sv% despite battling groin injuries for most of his career. Last season was also the first season the Avs had a full time goaltending coach while Varly has been on the team; something essential to a young goalie’s development. Allaire worked wonders by quieting his movement in the crease down and got him to hold his glove hand higher. The Avalanche defense should actually be better this season, so I expect him to have ~.920% if not better. And there’s nothing wrong with that contract, as you’ll see in time.

    2. Possession & Production
    – Stastny has only outscored Iginla twice in the time that both have been in the league (and only by 1 point last season). While they will miss Stastny’s faceoffs and defensive play, Iggy will more than make up for Stastny’s point production. Father time will catch up with him, but it won’t be next season.
    Parenteau might be good at possession, but it’s also his downfall. He constantly turns the puck over because he holds onto it too long or refuses to make the simple play. There was no fit on Roy’s Avs and he will be addition by subtraction.

    3. Defense
    – The defense has actually improved, even without the signings of big name players. Though Stuart has struggled recently, Patrick Roy seems to have a knack for getting the best out of his players. He also uses a man-to-man system, unlike most NHL teams that takes pressure off the D and allows the strong 2 way forwards of the Avalanche to help out in the zone. This made Nick Holden, Andre Benoit and Nate Guenin regular NHLers for the first time in their careers – on a division winner no less. Experience players like Redmond and Stuart should do a better job.

    I’ll agree with you that the Avalanche will be a worse regular season team, probably finishing 3-4 in the division. But they will make the playoffs, and are built better for them. That’s what their “anti-climatic” off-season was all about.

  4. The Avalanche will be competitive again this year in the West. They will make the playoffs with ‘lady luck’ or without. You are a fool to think otherwise.

    • How can you compare Varly’s most recent season with his previous ones without even mentioning the fact that this was his first year under both Roy and Allaire? Is Varly going to regress? Probably, but I’d be surprised to see him sink back to his numbers under the Capitals. Playing for one of the league’s greatest goalies, and being coached by said Hall of Famer’s goalie coach, is not something to just write off.
      This is just another case of another blogger choosing to put all of his faith into advanced stats, rather than acting like an actual journalist and doing some research.

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