Colorado Avalanche are not a test case (Trending Topics)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Maybe during Joe Sakic's long-expected and frankly overdue move up the hall to the GM's office, the memo received by every other team in the league got lost in the shuffle.

Maybe it fell in with all the early drafts of resignation letters Greg Sherman wrote before Patrick Roy came in and told him it was time he went on another Starbucks run for everyone at the office.

Maybe the guy in charge of bringing in that fax was also the one in charge of making a reasonable offer to Paul Stastny.

Whatever the reason, though, the memo that everyone else got this summer — “The nerds won. Give it up.” — has not made it to the Pepsi Center.

Yes, it's time for another “The Avs aren't good enough to outplay their possession problems” column, this time spurred by spurious claims made in the Denver Post and to Yahoo's own Nick Cotsonika as to the team's ability to continue racking up seasons of 100-plus points in perpetuity despite the fact that they absolutely and positively cannot.

Let's think a little bit, first, about the way Las Vegas operates. People travel there looking to have fun, sure, but many go there thinking they can make money. They think they have the formula to crack whatever code it is the casinos have created to build up their massive monuments to excess, opulence, and human misery. And while a few guys do leave a couple thousand dollars richer, maybe more, most gamblers head back just like everyone else: Short on money and long on regret.

Such is, or perhaps one should say “will inevitably be,” the case for the Avalanche. The math all checks out: Teams simply cannot sustain score-close possession percentages south of 50 percent and PDOs north of 102. To claim otherwise is to say that the math we've compiled over nearly a decade is wrong, and you are right.

Which is what the Avalanche say, really. The crux of the argument for their success, which they're more than happy to advance, is that Patrick Roy has figured out something which literally hundreds of NHL coaches have not in the past several years: How to sustain play which has otherwise been found to be wholly unsustainable.

There's no doubting that in the first year under their new coach, they were able to generate quality chances when they do get relatively few shots (which keeps their own shooting percentage high), and suppress opponent chances effectively so that even though they're getting more of them a smaller percentage is actually troubling their netminder (which keeps their team save percentage high as well). But how many times have hockey fans since, let's say, 2010 or so, heard a team assert that yes, they know they give up a ton of shots and everything, but they have the ability to do those two things reliably enough that they're going to be able to do it forever?

The answer is “about one per season.”

Literally. Stop me if you've heard this before, but the 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche started out the year very well, going 40-23-6 in their first 69 games, good for fifth in the West at the time. Getting 86 points from your first 69 games puts you on pace for a little more than 102 points for the season, which is very, very good. But because their luck had run out and their fenwick through 69 was 45.5 percent (26th in the NHL), they then lost 10 of their final 13 games, and went from a playoff lock to barely making it and then getting demolished by San Jose in the first round.

And prior that year-end correction, Colorado's score-close PDO for the year was 102.4, second-highest in the league (that number and all following courtesy War on Ice's fantastic stats-by-date tool). All the bloviating about the team being able to hold things up really didn't work out so well, simply because time passed and it became increasingly unlikely that they'd be able to keep the juddering ship from breaking apart.

A year later, the Dallas Stars were in much the same boat. They began the season 29-13-5 (63 points in 47 games, a pace for 110 points or so) and were on top of the world. Their PDO at the time was 102.9, tops among all NHL clubs, while their fenwick was 25th at 46.5. They were also fifth in the league standings, and third in the West. Then they lost two straight, then four straight, then five straight, then six straight. They finished the year with just 95 points, winning just 13 of their final 35 (PDO during the collapse was 99.4). They peaked very early, indeed, and their season ended up out of the playoffs and definitively in ruins, while everyone looked around wondering what had happened to them. Except the nerds who said the Stars were cruising for this all season.

The very next season, the 2011-12 Minnesota Wild started the year 20-7-3 and were atop the Western Conference. PDO at the time? Third in the league at 102.1. Fenwick? 42.3 percent. They immediately lost eight in a row, and never recovered. They finished at just 81 points, with more regulation losses than total wins. People blamed injuries, but they might have also tried considering the team's worst-in-the-league 97.2 PDO from the start of that eight-game losing streak to the end of the season.

That, too, was long predicted.

And of course you know who came next: The Toronto Maple Leafs of the lockout-shortened 2013 season. They got into the playoffs despite a season-long PDO of 103 (No. 1 in the NHL), and possession numbers of 44 percent (No. 30 in the NHL). They, too, claimed this was all part of their “system.” Had the season been a full 82 instead of 48, they, too, probably would have suffered the inevitable collapse that came last season instead.

Now we have the Avalanche, trying to ski uphill, in the dark, while whistling a cheery tune to distract themselves from the fact that they got bounced and significantly outpossessed by a deeply mediocre Minnesota team in last year's playoffs. They clearly learned nothing from the latest “test case” in Toronto that sent assistant coaches and GMs alike scurrying to the unemployment office and brought in all the thinkpieces about the nerds having definitively won once and for all.

The self-satisfaction that Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis expressed all the previous summer? Sakic and Roy must have missed it because they were too busy thumbing their noses at everyone who noted the brain trust in Colorado might not be as smart and innovative as it thinks it is.

The thing is, they might just believe that they're a team like the Bruins. Look at the PDOs posted by Claude Julien's clubs the last few years (first, third, 14th, and then first again from 2010-11 to present, and never below 100), and you'd have to say that whatever Julien has seized upon, it's leading to high save percentages and shooting percentages overall. I'd attribute this to world-class goaltending from Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, the minutes-eating of Zdeno Chara, and the fact that Patrice Bergeron is a world-class center.

But with that high PDO — which you can't call unsustainable, based on what the evidence here suggests — comes with the fact that the Bruins' possession numbers have been sky-high as well (16th, fifth, fourth, sixth). They are also literally the only team that does this consistently over the last few years. Even teams like Chicago and LA, the other definitive elites over that time, can't really keep up the shot-quality efforts as routinely as Boston, even as their possession numbers are almost invariably better. 

Another thing is, too, you can almost see where Patrick Roy and Co. are coming from. They have a very high-quality top-six, which I'd say has moved laterally at the very best in replacing Paul Stastny at center with an improving Nathan MacKinnon, then slotting Jarome Iginla into the wing slot MacKinnon previously occupied. Stastny drove play consistently in a way that we haven't seen MacKinnon accomplish yet, especially on the road, or against tougher competition. If he's being asked to play the middle, instead of Ryan O'Reilly for instance, that could lead to more questions than answers at the other end of the ice. But their bottom six is awful, and they made it actively worse this summer by acquiring Danny Briere for no reason at all.

The Avs are, therefore, counting on a lot of development from MacKinnon, and continued dominance from Matt Duchene, despite the fact that the guy who ate all of Colorado's toughest minutes last year is now playing for a different team in the same division. And Chicago got better. And Dallas got much better. And Nashville got marginally better. And Minnesota got better. And so on. Conference III is going to be a knife fight from beginning to end, and the Avs somehow saw fit to actually make sure their switchblade was a little bit smaller than it was last year, when it absolutely didn't have to.

To that end, when you consider the Avs' blue line, one has to really wonder who's going to do what to improve. The number of even-strength shot attempts conceded by the Avalanche last year was 26th in the league, ahead of only some really awful teams, like Calgary, Edmonton, Buffalo, and Toronto. They didn't add anyone that's going to help, and in fact brought in someone who's going to hurt (Brad Stuart, who is awful these days).

This is a D corps that's going to get run over once again, and it's tough to be sure that they can keep suppressing shot quality, if that's what you want to call what they did last year. Me, I'd go for, “got lucky.” Shot-quality reduction isn't really a big factor for any team in the league — save, again, for Boston, but the Bruins have top-shelf goaltending —and that's if teams have a strong collection of defensemen from Nos. 1-6; do you really think Colorado's D corps is in the same league as, say, Chicago's?

If Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, and Niklas Hjalmarsson can't keep opponents from getting quality chances (they were unlucky in this regard last year, for sure), how then can you say Erik Johnson, Brad Stuart, Jan Hejda, and Tyson Barrie? I like three of those guys a lot more than I probably should, and I still couldn't do it with a straight face.

So let's examine goaltending, which is the ultimate determiner of save percentage at any rate. Colorado's even-strength save percentage last season was almost .931, fifth in the league. That's about three or four points higher than what Semyon Varlamov (.935 all by himself) has done the last few years, and it may not sound like a lot, but it's a potentially huge difference given the gargantuan number of shots he faces per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time (32.5). If he plays 3,200-plus ES minutes again this season, and faces even a similar number of shots to the 1,772 from last season, a six-point drop in save percentage does major damage: That's an extra 13 goals against, or more than four points in the standings just from him alone.

If Varlamov plays fewer minutes — for example, if he gets hurt — and backup Reto Berra has to take a heavier workload, that's an even greater number of minutes in which the Avs' goaltending will be worse. JS Giguere's ES save percentage last season was .924 in nearly 975 minutes. Give that much time to Berra (an abysmal .905 ES) and you're looking at another nine goals conceded, or another three points standings conceded, thereabouts.

So from a goaltending standpoint alone, regression to historical norms cuts the Avs' point total by seven. Even before you factor in the D's so-called ability to inhibit shot-quality.

Let's also consider Colorado's health last year. They only lost 204 man-games to various ailments, putting them at 19th in the league. You can probably expect that number to go up as well. That's where the team's depth kicks in, and as discussed, they have none to speak of.

In reality, the numbers guys say this is a team that could lose as many as 20-plus points from last season's total by the time it has played 82 going forward. Even being more conservative at a drop of 12 or 15 (I'd suggest it's unwise to bet on a conservative drop here, but stranger things have happened; see also: all of last season), that presents big problems. Given the league's new divisional playoff format, dropping into the high 90s them from “comfortable in their division” to “oh my god we have to play the Blackhawks/Blues/Stars in the first round.”

This is not a team equipped to stand up to what Chicago or St. Louis or (potentially) Dallas will be able to do for seven straight games. Hell, they couldn't take it against Minnesota last year. They'd probably call that bad luck, which is funny.

Analytics have proven time and again, year after year, that these kinds can't happen over, say, 50 (or in outside cases 100) games. Over 164, forget about it.

People will say all year that Colorado is a “test case” for analytics.

The hockey world outside the greater Denver area largely accepts as gospel that this kind of play simply cannot be kept up. All the tests are over. Colorado is a trivia question for which you remember the thing you learned on the test some time later. There's nothing left to learn when it comes to possession numbers and luck. We're on to the next lessons by now. Some people have been for a while.

So for Colorado, with its bottom-scraping ability to keep the puck, to suggest it's figured out a cheat sheet seems a bridge too far, and blown-up already by the Colorado club that said the same thing five years ago. In hockey, everything that rises must converge.

The Avs are no different, even if they think they are.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.