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The Colorado Avalanche wanted to surprise the hockey world last season, and the Avs did it. They leapt from second-worst in the NHL to third-best. In his first season behind the bench, Patrick Roy won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
Now they want to surprise the hockey world again – by sustaining success when the numbers say it’s unlikely, by dismissing analytics when much of the league is embracing it.
The Avs won last season despite possession numbers that seemed poor and shooting and save percentages that seemed inflated. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender – and should have been a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
GM Joe Sakic told the Denver Post on Wednesday that he doesn’t need analytics to tell him how to improve the Avs. Roy said he isn’t a math guy. They seemed defensive and in denial. Why wouldn’t they at least look at something that has helped teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks win Stanley Cups?
But let’s remember a few things:
Sakic and Roy aren’t delusional. They weren’t fooled into thinking the Avs were a Cup contender last season. They kept Paul Stastny at the trade deadline because they hoped to re-sign him and wanted to show they cared about the season after missing the playoffs for three straight years. But they didn’t add any major pieces, because they wanted to keep their assets and take a long-term view.
Roy is a student of the game, and he can be a progressive guy. This is the same coach who started pulling his goalie earlier than teams usually do, challenging conventional wisdom and starting a trend.
The Avs think stats like Corsi (percentage of shot attempts), Fenwick (percentage of unblocked shot attempts) and PDO (combined shooting and save percentage) do not accurately reflect their performance.
In short, they believe in shot quality, and their system is designed around it.
On offense, they generate a lot off the rush and do not necessarily funnel pucks to the net. “We don’t just shoot for no reason,” said center Matt Duchene late last season. “We shoot when we have a good chance, and if not, we hold onto the puck.”
On defense, they do not necessarily attack the puck-carrier. They play what they call a “soft lock,” gaining inside position, taking away the middle and forcing shots to the outside. “Varly will take care of those shots,” said forward Nathan MacKinnon earlier this month.
The Avs took 41.78 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play last season, 20th in the NHL. They allowed 46.14 shots against per 60 at 5-on-5, 26th in the NHL.
If they are taking high-percentage shots and allowing low-percentage shots, that should skew possession numbers based on shot quantity. It also should raise both their shooting and save percentages.
“It’s a bit the way we want to play,” said Roy in June as he was picking up his Jack Adams. “We’re an offensive team. We’re a team that want to go on offense. We have the speed and the skills up front. We gave up a lot of shots, yes. But it’s not a concern to us.”
The Avs track scoring chances. By their internal count, they gave up fewer later in the season.
Can they play the same way this season and win the same way they did last season? Yes, in theory. The shooters will have to score at the same rate. Varlamov, 26, will have to be great again.
“I would expect Varly to continue to do the same thing,” Roy said. “He’s in his age where I think it’s time for him to shine, and I believe it’s only the start.”
But the Avs might not play quite the same way, and they might not win (or lose) the same way for a whole host of other factors.
They have changed personnel. They parted with guys like Stastny and P-A Parenteau and added guys like Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere and Brad Stuart. They have young stars with plenty of room to grow.
They will adjust their system. Even if they don’t embrace Corsi and Fenwick, they know they need to possess the puck better. “The numbers last season don’t mean our numbers are going to be the same this season,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog earlier this month.
They know they can’t lean on Varlamov as much. “Obviously we need to help out Varly a little bit more,” MacKinnon said. “We can’t give up 40 a night.”
The Avs put up 112 points last season. That set the bar high. Independent of their philosophy, it will be hard to improve and easy to take a step back, especially considering increased competition. The Western Conference loaded up in the off-season. The Central Division is brutal.
Though Sakic told the Denver Post that “it’s who wins the game,” the Avs, in their own way, value the process and not just the results.
“It’s important to realize that we might not get 112 points, and we might not win the division this year,” Landeskog said. “But we’re still going to be a better team. I think once people understand that, there’s going to be some more realistic expectations on us.
“We want to win this year. We no longer just want to get to the playoffs. We want to get far, and we want to win. But like I said, we might not get 112 points, but we’re going to be a better team. We might finish eighth and still be a better team – a smarter team.”
How does Landeskog define better? Not much different than, say, the Kings or Blackhawks would.
“When we can keep teams under 20 shots or something like that,” Landeskog said. “When we can mix the exciting style of hockey and the conservative, boring style of hockey, we are going to win these 2-1 games and 1-0 games, and I think that’s the next step for us.”