Sixteen months after being eliminated by San Jose in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Avalanche found themselves in a similar spot against the hated Dallas Stars last Friday night. They were closer to sealing the deal this time with a lead in the final 4 minutes but ultimately weren’t able to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
First off, this is ok. Could a healthier, luckier team have moved on to the WCF and at the end of the road won the Cup? Of course, at this point of the season those things end up being determining factors as much as skill, scoring and defense. Last year they were a bubble team that buzzsawed through a #1 seed and ran out of assets in round 2. This year they were a strong contender most of the season and they will be again once the NHL restarts in a few months.
The caveat here is this is ok as long as the organization learns from the experience and continues the improvement that began long ago with the end of the 48 point season. The changes the staff have made to go from worst in the league by a mile to top 10 were major and broad. Going from here to top 1 in the league requires more subtle and narrow changes. We go from questions of how to change what you have to how to get the most of what you have.
There were so many things that went into the overtime loss in Game 7, a lot of noise, competing theories, misleading data. I think there are a few solid conclusions to take away from this post-season run and some others that aren’t quite as solid. I think the best thing to take away is that major surgery isn’t needed, the team has solid structure to build on and more on the way over the next few seasons. With that, let’s move on to the post-mortem.
The Avs power play wasn’t an embarrassment like it was against the Sharks last year but it wasn’t much help either. Once in a while they would stop doing the same ineffective bullshit that we’ve seen since Ray Bennett took over and score a goal but it was generally bland, predictable and underperforming. It went 4-for-32 with one of those a 5v3 tally. They have the tools to be one of the top producing units in the league but chronically fall way short. Special teams are pretty much all about system and coaching and it’s time to find someone new that can do the job competently. Bennett should have been fired 16 months ago, the staff can’t let this go on any longer.
The penalty kill was an abject disaster. Losing Erik Johnson in Game 1 really hurt, starting in Game 2 the Stars were generating high-quality chances at will. Pavel Francouz struggled in various ways 5v5 but he did a very solid job against the barrage despite the actual number of goals against. Michael Hutchinson benefited from some changes that limited quality chances but couldn’t make a save. There are a lot of things going on here, I don’t think the personnel choices, forced or not, were a help. The responses systemically or tactically were late and still not very effective. I just don’t think you can give a pass on losing a part of the team game here so badly. There were stretches during the regular season when the PK just couldn’t get it done either. I’m not as confident or comfortable saying that Nolan Pratt needs to be replaced but it’s something they need to examine very closely over their own season reviews.
Bottom line, after a slow start the Avs ended up positive at 5v5 over the series in scoring and save percentage but special teams were a big minus. This is what we saw over the regular season too. Coaches don’t count against the cap and are way easier to change than the players. An quick way to improve the team is to have the best possible coaches in place and that’s not what they got this year.
Coach Bednar remarked many times that he does not like to blame injuries for sub-optimal results but let’s be real here. They killed the Avs during the series and that was following a season where two huge injury streaks in October then again in February devastated the lineup. They lost Matt Calvert before Game 1 even began then Grubi and EJ went out within minutes of each other. Donskoi was dealing with something chronic all during the playoffs and only managed two ineffective starts. As it turns out it wasn’t just poor play that hampered Frank’s goaltending. Possibly a slash in game 2 by Corey Perry mangled his catching hand in some way and he was unfitted late in Game 4. In Game 6 they lost Conor Timmins midway through then Captain Gabe was cut in the leg by Makar’s skate which made him unfit for Game 7.
So both NHL goaltenders, the top PK defenseman, the captain and best defensive forward, a couple solid depth forwards and a promising rookie D were all on the shelf by puck drop in Game 7. Not helpful. No, it’s not like losing Mack, Makar and/or Sam but the sheer volume was a mountain to overcome.
I’ll get to how they handled this in the next section. What I wonder about is how any of these might have been prevented. Every team gets a little banged up at times, especially in the playoffs, but this has been an issue all year. Not saying anyone made an error or didn’t do their job here but as an organization they can’t look at the injured list over the past 12 months and be satisfied. If there’s anything at all that might give them a little more durability then it’s worth checking out.
Coaching & Player Personnel
I’ve said my piece on the assistants, now it’s time to break down the macro issues on the ice and in the lineup and how Coach Bednar dealt with them.
One thing that jumped out at me right away was how unprepared the Avs looked opening the first game. JB is a wizard at crafting a game plan vs specific opponents in the playoffs and either he didn’t come up with the right one or didn’t have time to properly prime the players on it. They were lost out there and had no answers. They clawed their way back into the game by sheer competitiveness but the focus and strategy were missing. That’s how it went for the whole series, even when they were dominating. They never forced Dallas to play their game, maybe it’s just not possible. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, I just think it’s odd that a cohesive game plan of their own never developed over the 7 games.
The straight up goaltending numbers 5v5 between Francouz and Hutchinson are pretty stark. I’m pretty comfortable saying that Frank is at least a slightly better goalie in general and perhaps noticeably better. The difference wasn’t just different goalies, it came from some changes. Most noticeable was closing up the gap between the forwards and the D on the breakout. It’s hilarious because this issue crops up several times a season and every time it gets fixed it makes a defensive improvement. It’s also hilarious because it always takes a while before it gets implemented. Bednar doesn’t panic and that’s one of his best attributes, the downside to that is that a lag often occurs between problem and solution. In this case it took the Avs worst game of the series and facing elimination with a 3rd goalie to beef up some areas that were lacking for the first four matches. A little too safe and it hurt them.
Moving along with the safe theme, organizationally there is a terror of using young unproven players over dull vets with experience. When EJ was injured they went with Kevin Connauton, who played a fair first game but then sank to his own level of play for the next two. A predictable result, nothing against Connauton but this is who he is. Facing elimination in Game 5 they finally bit the bullet and used Conor Timmins. It worked! Was Timmins great? No, he wasn’t but he was skilled and smart and that was an edge that they didn’t have before. When they pulled the plug on Joonas Donskoi they went with Logan O’Connor and he was a needed spark. Playing young guys was working. Unfortunately in Game 7 safety returned and they went back to Connauton for Timmins and used Sheldon Dries with Landy unfit. Neither hit 15 shifts in a game where most guys got between 25 and 35. If nothing is asked of players in this situation then logically it doesn’t matter who is used so why not go with talent over experience. The Stars played some cat from the AHL and he scored a hat trick and won the series in overtime. It’s a minor point but when marginal gains are deciding a series there has to be serious questions why two talented 1st round picks never saw the ice and another was left in Czechia for administrative reasons. Be smart, not safe.
The final nit to pick with coaching in the series has to do with usage. Off and on leading in we saw Gabe Landeskog with Nazem Kadri instead of on the top line. It worked great and I can find no statistical evidence that the team played better with the top-heavy lineup. In one presser JB made a bizarre comment about how he needs to see the 2nd line guys playing better before moving Landy there. The concept of leveraging talent seems to have eluded him. Playing one of your best players on a lower line is done to make those players better, it’s not a prerequisite for same. This is some of the most flawed logic I’ve ever heard. Coach finally caved in Games 5 & 6 and once again the lineup became more balanced and dangerous. I’m absolutely baffled why this wasn’t the Avs default lineup throughout, any stat you care to look at indicates this is the way to go.
Once the panic subsides most fans will settle into the belief that the Avs aren’t lacking much at this point. They don’t need to do anything to stay highly competitive beyond some off-season maintenance moves. I said this last year but it’s a welcome change not to sit around trying to decide how they can get rid of half an uncompetitive roster for the umpteenth year in a row.
The team has left the bubble and will filter back home until next season’s plans firm up. Avs management are preparing for the draft early next month and off-season player movement soon after, as are we here at BR. It’s a weird time for an off-season but it’s 2020 and here we are. We’ll have draft coverage, don’t sleep on it just because the Avs are without a top-20 pick for the first time since 2014. Who knows, there might even be a dev camp. RFAs will be qualified or not then we move into Free Agent Frenzy.
A big thanks to all of you that read and listen and chat, you make it all worthwhile!