The Colorado Avalanche are halfway through their season and they don’t look at all like last year’s team (and everyone shouted “Hallelujah!”). All the fans can once again wear their team jerseys with pride and no one is considering going to the Pepsi Center with a bag over their head – even though Minnesota Wild fans should consider the bag for the next matchup at the Can. There are many reasons for the team’s turnaround and one of the more interesting pieces relates to the number of new players and how that has impacted the team’s performance.
Last Saturday night’s trouncing of the Minnesota Wild was the 41st of the Avalanche’s season, exactly halfway through the season. The previous year Colorado played their 41st game against the Nashville Predators, where recently traded former Avalanche player Cody McLeod played a key role in defeating the Avalanche. The team has seen substantial changes since then so it’s interesting to compare the contributions of the players on the roster last year at the midway point but who subsequently left the team with those who skated this year in the Avalanche’s 41st game who are the new additions.
New players with the Avalanche who weren’t with the team midway through last year’s season consist of Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Jost, Colin Wilson, A.J. Greer, Gabriel Bourque, Nail Yakupov, Patrick Nemeth, Marc Barberio, Sam Girard, Anton Lindholm and Jonathan Bernier. That’s 11 new players on the ice with only eight returning Avalanche members. It’s worth including those currently on the injured list, but who had not skated with the team at this time last year – J.T. Compher and Sven Andrighetto. There’s also Andrei Mironov, who was a healthy scratch Saturday night and was acquired over the summer.
So take a quick hop into the way back machine to last year, to the 41st game of the season, when the Avalanche played 10 skaters who subsequently left the team. Those players included Joe Colborne, Matt Duchene, Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque, Mikhail Grigorenko, Andreas Martinsen, Cody Goloubef, Francois Beauchemin, Eric Gelinas, and Fedor Tyutin. For those counting at home, that’s 10 players, not including McLeod, who started the season with Colorado. The scratches, who deserve inclusion, were John Mitchell and Patrick Wiercioch. Of those 12 players, only two still play in the NHL – Matt Duchene (Ottawa Senators) and Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim Ducks). Five others play in the AHL, three compete overseas and two aren’t playing hockey as of now. Two players, however, were named to Team Canada’s Olympic roster – Rene Bourque and Cody Goloubef, although it’s not as elite a roster as previous Olympic teams, thanks to hockey politics.
Putting aside the grumbling about the lack of NHL players in this year’s Olympics, there are some intriguing differences between the Avalanche players who left and the fresh blood who joined this year.
1. The new guys are a whole lot younger. This isn’t really news. But the breakdown is kind of interesting. The average age of the 14 new additions to this year’s Avalanche roster work out to 23.86 years old. The average age of the 12 players from last year was 29.75 years old. For those who aren’t into math, the average age of the new guys is nearly six years younger. And seven of them are rookies. Of the players who left, not a single one was a rookie. The Avalanche look to be serious about their youth movement.
2. Alexander Kerfoot, as a rookie, has already outscored all of the players season’s ending totals who left the team, except for Matt Duchene. He is 14 points away from matching Duchene’s season totals. Someone get Kerfoot some water because he is on fire! Wait, no, that wouldn’t be good, he might melt the ice. Well, he’s pretty impressive for a guy who was a college free agent signing.
3. 13 of the new players have scored a combined 133 points (since Bernier is a goaltender, he didn’t contribute to scoring) while the veterans who left combined for a SEASON total of 171 points. That includes Duchene’s 41 points. At their current rate, this year’s new players will surpass those who left in 12 games, leaving them 29 more contests to rack up the scoring totals. One doesn’t need to be a math genius to recognized that’s a fairly big upgrade.
4. Those of you who hate +/- may want to skip this one but I think as a broad stroke, it can be a useful tool. All the players who left had a +/- in the negative numbers and only one of them had a negative total under double digits. They combined for a total of -203 for the season. While the new players have only played half a season, they have combined for a -27, and remember, seven of those players are rookies. Also, almost every current player is improving in this area. You may start throwing tomatoes my way. No, wait, you might want to wait until after the next point.
5. Breaking down the numbers among defenseman, it gets even more interesting. The five defensemen who left combined for a -72 for the season. Again, this year’s crew only has half a season under their belt, but the five new defenseman – three of whom are rookies – have a combined total of +6. Yes, it’s a better team this year but that’s a fairly significant difference. NOW you may throw the fruit, or the vegetables, or whatever.
6. Ice time breaks out in an intriguing fashion as well. The new players average over a minute less of ice time per game than those who left. While Nemeth leads the crew in ice time, rookies Sam Girard and J.T. Compher are only a little over a minute behind him. The playing time is spread out fairly evenly over the remaining new additions. The veterans who left, however, had Beauchemin, Tyutin and Duchene logging big minutes with a larger gap in time on ice between them and the others who left. This makes their scoring numbers even more impressive and indicates Coach Bednar is rotating the work load to adapt for different situations. All good and all not something that happened much under Coach Roy.
The change in personnel hasn’t just shown up in individual numbers. The team statistics show major shifts as well. What’s truly interesting is comparing how the Avalanche numbers halfway through this season compare to the final statistics from the end of last season. See if you notice a trend.
1. The current roster has racked up 368 points from goals and assists halfway through the season. Last year, for the ENTIRE season, Colorado players combined for 443 points. That’s only 75 more points away before the current group surpasses last year’s totals. Based on last week’s performance, they would need only a couple more home games against Minnesota to hit 444 points. As long as they get different referees, it should be good.
2. This year’s club averages 3.27 goals per game, fourth best in the NHL, compared to the league’s worst record of 2.01 last year. That’s huge.
3. This year’s team is only 31 goals shy of tying last year’s 165 total goals for the season. It’s a lot easier to win games when the team can actually score goals.
4. While the current team allows an average of 3 goals per game (which is not ideal), it’s still better than being dead last in the NHL the previous year when they allowed an average of 3.37 goals per game. Hey, one has to enjoy the good where they can find it.
5. As for goaltending, the Avalanche don’t currently look to have a Vezina candidate on the roster, unless Varlamov’s hips prove to be bionic after all. Even so, last season the goaltending crew managed a meager .894 save rate while this year has improved enough lately to reach a modest .907 ratio.
6. Colorado currently ranks 7th for scoring on the man advantage. Last year, they ranked dead last, only getting a goal 12.6% of the time. At the midway point this year, the Avalanche lead the NHL with 165 power play opportunities so far and are on pace to pass 300. Last year the team had 229 power play chances. For the year. There are some obvious advantages to playing a speed and skill game. Perhaps it’s time to start saying some nice things about the coaching staff.
7. The Avalanche penalty kill has become a strength this season, ranking 4th among all teams as they successfully kill 83.9% of their short-handed situations. The penalty kill last season ranked second from the bottom, only effectively shutting out their opponents 76.6 % of the time, 29th in the league. So in short, this year’s penalty group – kills. (Rim shot.)
8. Despite all the information logged on all the hockey reference sites, the most significant statistic is wins vs. losses. Last year, Colorado only won 29.3% of their games, finishing in last place with the league’s worst record of 22-56-4 for 48 points. After 41 games, they were already bottom dwellers with a dismal 13-27-1 record for 27 points after 41 games last year.
Currently the Avalanche already matched last year’s wins with a 22-16-3 record for 47 points and vying for a playoff spot. Yeah, wins are an old fashioned statistic, but it’s a lot easier to understand than Fenwick. And it’s still the one that matters most.
Not all of the Avalanche’s improvements can be attributed to the change in personnel, although there’s something to be said about winning through attrition. There are a lot of significant factors that feed into the team’s evolution, including the rise of players like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Erik Johnson all going into beast mode. Coach Bednar had a year to get familiar with the team and what’s needed to succeed at an NHL level – what a novel concept. The Avalanche were able to draft and acquire players who matched the organization’s new direction – refreshing. Their coach didn’t leave two weeks before training camp – always a good thing. And Bednar hired his own assistants this year instead of relying on the holdovers from Roy’s regime – which is an even better thing.
The rise of the new additions, however, and their effectiveness at contributing both offensively and defensively on the ice, play a significant role in the upward spiral. While the young players still make mistakes, it’s exciting to see them learn and improve from their errors. Unlike watching veterans who have given up on the season, observing the evolution of this year’s Avalanche offers a lot to be excited about as the rookies learn and improve. The current Avalanche teams gives fans a reason to cheer – and opens the door to playoff hopes down the road. Maybe some of those opponents’ fans will start actually wearing Avalanche jerseys to home games. If not, hopefully there will be enough Colorado fans to shout them down as the Avalanche routs their enemies – er – opponents. Yeah, it’s a friendly game of hockey, right? Right? Maybe.