Better Late than Never: Colorado Avalanche

DENVER - APRIL 11: Ryan Smyth #94 of the Los Angeles Kings has his wrap around shot turned away by goalie Craig Anderson #41 of the Colorado Avalanche as Paul Stastny #26 of the Avalanche helps with the defense during NHL action at the Pepsi Center on April 11, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Kings defeated the Avalanche 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

By now, you've probably gotten the hang of this series...


2009-10 SEASON IN A BOX

43-30-9, 2nd in Northwest, 12th in NHL

Regulation: 34-30-18 || OT: 2-4 || SO: 7-5 || 235 GF 224 GA

 

TOI/G

GF/60

GA/60

GD/60

SF/60

S%

SA/60

SV%

ES

48.7

2.60

2.39

0.21

27.1

9.6

31.3

7.6

ES Rank

18

7

13

8

29

3

25

8

PP

6.4

6.36

1.02

5.34

48.7

13.0

9.6

10.7

PP Rank

9

17

25

21

23

12

24

21

SH

5.9

1.00

7.48

-6.48

6.8

14.7

57.3

13.1

SH Rank

14

6

19

18

30

3

18

15

 


Not much was expected from the Colorado Avalanche this season.  They were coming off a 69-point season, last in the Western Conference and 28th overall in the NHL.  But they jumped out of the gate 9-2-3 to start the season, which gave them a head start on a postseason berth.  They played close to .500 hockey for the next 55 games (25-21-9) and then, just to instill confidence for the playoffs, went on an 0-7-6 slide to close the season, finishing four wins above .500.  In the first round of the playoffs, the Avs redeemed their late-season losing streak and gave the powerhouse San Jose Sharks a run for their money, eventually falling four games to two.  All things considered, 2009-10 was a nice season for the Colorado Avalanche.  Right? 

 

The truth is that it was a very lucky season for the Avs.  Colorado allowed so many shots against at even-strength that they ended up with a historically bad Fenwick % for a post-lockout team:

 

Team

Season

Fenwick%

W

L

T

LA

2007-08

45.9

32

43

7

NYI

2008-09

45.9

26

47

9

COL

2009-10

45.8

43

30

9

FLA

2009-10

45.8

32

37

13

EDM

2009-10

45.6

27

47

8

PHO

2008-09

45.5

36

39

7

PIT

2005-06

45.0

22

46

14

ATL

2007-08

43.0

34

40

8

 

They were saved by very good goaltending and one of the highest team shooting percentages in the last five seasons.  In general, goaltending is, to some extent, sustainable: Colorado made a brilliant decision to sign the clearly-talented by unheralded Craig Anderson to a value contract.  But high shooting percentages tend to crash to earth after a season-long high.

 

Now it’s true that Colorado’s team talent isn’t captured by what happens in general to our group of "average" bad teams.  Teams with winning records have the lead a lot and tend to allow more shots than they take, and vice-versa, and they also take higher-percentage shots than their opponents.

 

That last statement is the assertion that was most commonly-associated with Colorado, and we can investigate it in several ways.  We have recorded shot distances for every shot taken by Colorado and their opponents.  And we have a database of scoring chances for 45 of Colorado’s regular-season games, primarily from the first half of the season, and all six of their playoff games.  If a Colorado shot was more likely to be a high-quality scoring chance, then we’d expect to see them shooting from closer to the net than their opponents, and we’d expect them to be closer to outchancing their opponents than their Fenwick totals would suggest.   

 

And Fenwick percentage does, in fact, systematically under-estimate Colorado’s performance – they got the puck closer to the goal than their opponents when they shot, and their scoring opportunities were proportionally more dangerous than their opponents’:  

 

 

Pct

Fenwick

45.0

Shots<30 ft

45.8

Chances

47.8

 

The Avalanche look better in this analysis, but owning 47.8% of overall scoring chances is not a good figure.  Edmonton was the only Western Conference team to post a total that was clearly worse.  Indeed, Colorado had virtually no top-flight talent on their roster.  After they traded away Wojtek Wolski, they had – at most – two forwards and three defensemen who could play against another team’s top lines without giving up a disastrous number of shots:

 

Player

Age

Chance%

Ozone%

Hannan

31

48.5

42.3

Quincey

24

46.1

42.8

Stastny

24

50.6

45.2

Hejduk

33

43.8

47.5

Foote

38

46.4

48.2

 

Colorado’s vaunted "young players" didn’t figure into the mix on the top unit.  They saw average competition and produced somewhat below-average results:

 

Player

Age

Chance%

Ozone%

O'Reilly

18

44.6

43

Cumiskey

23

52.7

47.9

Galiardi

21

47.3

48.4

Duchene

19

49.6

50.3

Stewart

22

44.0

51.8

 

The older players facing middling competition didn’t fare much better:

 

Player

Age

Chance%

Ozone%

McLeod

25

44.6

51.9

Hendricks

28

42.2

44.2

Svatos

27

50.9

54.7

 

At the bottom of the roster, the Avs also had three defensemen who needed to be sheltered to get even mediocre performance out of them.  Liles, in particular, was a catastrophe:

 

Player

Age

Chance%

Ozone%

Wilson

22

45.9

51

Clark

33

51.4

52.1

Tucker

34

51.2

54

Liles

29

44.3

56.2

 

Overall, the first unit out-performed expectations, while the other two groups did not:

 

 

Chance%

FO%

Top Competition

47.1

45.2

Avg Competition

47.0

49.0

Sheltered

48.2

53.3

 

Colorado opened the 2009-10 season with four NHL players who’ve showed the ability to match up against top competition: Stastny, Hannan, Quincey and Wolski.  As we’ll see from their performance against the San Jose Sharks, that’s not enough to get the puck moving in the right direction against a good team.

 

Playoff Series vs San Jose

 

Colorado’s 4-2 loss to the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs was their season in a microcosm.  They took 36% of the shots in the series – and scored 37% of the goals. And this time, scoring chances at even-strength tell the same story:

 

Game

COL

SJ

Result

1

9

10

W 2-1

2

10

13

L 5-6

3

5

19

W 1-0

4

12

27

L 1-2

5

11

19

L 0-5

6

9

17

L 2-5

 

 

 

 

Total

56

105

11-19

Pct

34.8

 

 

 

In retrospect, this series doesn’t look close: Colorado was thoroughly dominated, particularly after Game 2.  But while the series was in progress, the conventional wisdom was that the Avs had the Sharks’ number – they won two of the first three games, after all! 

 

Even though those two wins came via fluky goals – Chris Stewart scored from behind the goal line in Game 1, and the Sharks shot the puck into their own net in Game 3 – the "Sharks choke again" story was already being written by journalists nationwide.  One contention was that even though Colorado had one third of all goals, one third of all shots and one third of all chances, their chances were still of higher quality than the Sharks chances.  If this were true, then we’d expect to see it in the chance breakdown:

 

Chance Type

COL

SJ

Dump-In

17

16

Ftc/Gv

14

13

Skate-In

11

38

Rebound

2

17

2-on-1

0

3

3-on-2

5

7

Breakaway

1

2

Faceoff

3

4

 

‘Ftc/Gv’ refers to situation where the defensive team either failed to clear the zone or gave the puck away directly.  As with all observed data, this table isn’t a perfect assessment of what happened, but it tells us a lot about the differences between Colorado’s style and San Jose’s.  For example:

 

-          Colorado was twice as likely as San Jose to dump the puck in order to gain the zone

-          Colorado generated virtually no chances off rebounds

-          San Jose’s defense had a lot of trouble breaking out; even though Colorado rarely had puck possession in the Sharks’ zone, they got just as many chances from defensive miscues

-          There were virtually no odd-man rushes during the series, and San Jose had 2/3 of the few that there were

 

Overall, Colorado lacked the skill to carry the puck into the offensive zone but they could dump-and-chase and take advantage of San Jose’s relatively weak defensemen.

 

But that wasn’t enough.  Colorado’s top line did extremely poorly at controlling chances against San Jose’s top line:

 

Player

Chance%

Ozone%

Hannan

41.1

38.9

Quincey

42.3

39.2

Stewart

36.7

41.4

Galiardi

34.5

44.3

Stastny

33.9

47.8

 

If this playoff series was Colorado’s year in a microcosm, then one particular shift was Colorado’s series in a microcosm.  In the second period of Game 3, the Avs sent out their top line against Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Manny Malhotra, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray.  They didn’t get the puck out of the zone for 1:45 – the Sharks put 15 players on the ice before Colorado was able to change their defensive pairing.

Not that the players who drew the Sharks’ second line did any better:

 

Player

Chance%

Ozone%

Hejduk

40.0

37.5

Cumiskey

24.2

39.6

Foote

28.1

41.2

Duchene

36.9

47.9

Yip

23.5

61.5

Svatos

37.9

66.7

 

Brandon Yip may have scored two goals in this series, but he certainly gave it all back at the other end of the ice. 

 

The bottom of the roster looks even worse – only Ryan O’Reilly fared well against San Jose’s 3rd and 4th line. 

 

Player

Chance%

Ozone%

Yelle

31.6

31.3

O'Reilly

37.5

35.6

Tucker

28.1

45.8

McLeod

29.2

55.6

Hendricks

40.9

60

Liles

37.2

65.8

 

John-Michael Liles’ performance was pure ugliness despite complete sheltering.  His contract, which pays him $9M over the next two seasons, is one of the underrated bad deals in the league.

 

The Bottom Line

 

The bottom line is that Colorado did not play very well this season.  They were better than their underlying numbers appear, but substantially worse than the standings would suggest.  Craig Anderson will keep them from crashing completely to earth next season, but this was a 12th- or 13th-place team that rode a wave to a playoff berth.

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