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Preparing for big step back for Colorado Avalanche (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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Jack Adams award finalists: Babcock, Cooper, Roy
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Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy talks during a news conference following Game 7 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in Denver. Minnesota beat Colorado 5-4 to win the series. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Everyone knows what the stats said.

The stats said the Colorado Avalanche, the team that nearly won the Western Conference with 112 points, should not have done so. They said the Avs were lucky to be there. They said a reckoning was coming.

And in that classic Game 7, in which neither the Avs nor the decidedly mediocre Wild seemed intent on putting themselves in a position to win, it appeared as though everything all those execrable stats people had been saying since about mid-November finally came true.

The Wild, a team that was in the bottom third of the league in terms of possession over 82 games this season (a crummy 48.6 percent fenwick close), dominated the puck control across seven games versus the Avalanche to the tune of 61.3 percent. That is to say, the Avs took less than four of every 10 non-blocked shot attempts in the series.

That is to say, they were awful. And lucky. Awful lucky.

You'll recall that the Avalanche kept going up in that game, taking leads of 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3, before finally succumbing in overtime. Not that any one game, or even seven, is indicative of how you can always expect things to go, but this is nonetheless because the Avs iced a pretty bad defensive corps. In front of a goalie who, despite what the numbers this season said, is really not one of the three or four best at his position in the world. Semyon Varlamov posted a .913 save percentage in seven games this postseason, which was on par with the league average over the regular season. There's nothing wrong with being league average, of course. Most teams would love to have goalies who could post those numbers across 63 games, which is the number Varlamov played this season.

But it was down from his .927 from October to April, and therein lies the problem with the Avs' success.

It was built almost entirely on something that was always going to be unsustainable. Even if you think Varlamov is better than his career .917 save percentage (and you're wrong about that, but let's just say you aren't, for fun), the gap between that number and .927 is the gap between league-average and Ondrej Pavelec. Were it not for Varlamov's heroics this season, the Avs would have found themselves fishing the puck out of the back of the net far more frequently; he faced 2,013 shots this season, the most of any goalie in the league by more than 100, and if his save percentage had been league average, as it was in this series, the Avs would have allowed an additional 29 goals. In the NHL this season, about every 5.5 goals allowed accounted for two points in the standings, which is to say it means one additional win or loss.

By that math, Varlamov earned the Avs about five more wins, or 10 more standings points, than an average goalie, which is what he was before this remarkable season.

And that's not to take anything away from the guy. He was great all year. No real lulls in his performance during the regular season. Just uniformly solid. He deserves to win the Vezina trophy as the top goaltender in the league.

But the point is that if you're counting on that again, you're almost certainly not going to get it. What you saw in the playoffs against the Wild — that is, Varlamov looking on helplessly as perfectly-placed shots fly over his shoulder and into the back of the net — is what should have been happening all along.

There is, though, the offense to consider. The Avs' defense being what it is (bad), they were at least redeemed quite often by the fact that their offense was extremely good this year. Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly, et al were major contributors to an offense that scoured 2.99 goals per game, fourth-best in the NHL this season. This despite the fact that the number of shots they put on goal ranked 20th in the league, at just 29.5 a night. Their 245 goals on 2,420 shots comes to a 10.1 percent shooting percentage, and no one can really be expected to keep it that high. Even if MacKinnon takes another big step forward and you get strong performances for the rest of the supporting cast, this isn't a number that can be kept up.

League-average shooting percentage is at about 8.7 percent this year. The Avs blew past that number, and will therefore likely regress. If they came in at league average this year, they'd have scored 34 goals fewer, or about another six extra wins in the standings, give or take.

Add that to the extra five Varlamov's save percentage earned the team, and you're looking at 11 fewer wins, or 22 fewer points in the standings. That's an extraordinarily high number.

But let's say the Avs aren't a league-average team (I'm not convinced of this, but here we go anyway). Even if they only drop 11 of the 22 points the math says they shouldn't have had this year, that still takes them from atop Conference III and drops them to the middle of the pack. In the Western Conference in particular, that's such a huge swing. They might have ended up being the team that faced the Sharks in the first round, instead of Los Angeles, and would have been relieved of their standing as a playoff team in short order. Or they would have gotten Chicago, or St. Louis, or Los Angeles, and suffered the same fate.

This is a team that does precisely three things well independent of everything else: Play a really fast game, score, and make saves. That relatively few of the league-leading 2,013 shots Varlamov faced this season blew by him so picturesquely and frequently as they did in that decisive Game 7 tells you a lot more about how lucky he was this year than he's going to be next year. That so many of the skaters' shots did the same against all other goalies they faced, more or less, says about the same thing.

And that's before you consider the fact that Stastny might walk in free agency this summer. Losing an offensive contributor of that quality who can also get back and play competently in his own end is going to take a huge toll, to say nothing of the impact on the team's center depth overall. Among regular contributors up front, his relative corsi was first on the team and he was the only forward north of 50 percent, and behind only heavily sheltered Tyson Barrie overall. He is deeply important, too, considering only Landeskog pulled tougher assignments in terms of zone starts and quality of competition.

Maybe he stays, though. Maybe he forgoes the massive checks Toronto, or some other big-money team, might cut him over the next six or eight years. Maybe he wants in on what the team is peddling. But even if he comes back, he's not the reason the Avs enjoyed so, so much luck this year. No one is.

All of that, then, suggests not only a step back for the Avs, but potentially a big one. It's not a total defeat, but a temporary setback. Given the quality on that roster, it's very likely they're going to return to prominence at some point in the next few years.

In the meantime, though, they join the Maple Leafs as just another victim of the Stats Wars currently raging in hockey.

They won't have died in vain. We all learned a valuable lesson.

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

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