Flames Nation continues its preview of the other teams in the Northwest Division with a look at Colorado.
Regular season – 95 points, 2nd in the division, 8th in the conference
Playoffs – lost 4-2 to San Jose in first round
Significant additions – None. Seriously, none.
Key players – Stastny, Duchene, Anderson
Injuries – Mueller
Cap Situation – At the floor
Predicted finish – out of the playoffs
If there was ever a team whose results didn’t reflect the quality of their play, it was last season’s iteration of the Avalanche. Outshot and outchanced by a significant margin, Colorado rode excellent goaltending and a crapload of good fortune to finish 8th in the conference, laughing at reality all the while.
It’s hard to pull that trick for consecutive years, though. Boston rode the percentages to a President’s Trophy finish in 08/09. Last season, despite almost certainly playing at a higher level, they were lucky to make the playoffs and didn’t break the 90 point barrier. The Avalanche aren’t as good as that Bruin team, and a very questionable trade at last year’s deadline might have begun the process that pulls Colorado right back down into the depths.
It isn’t as if the ‘Lanche don’t have some nice players. Paul Stastny is a very good center, and Milan Hedjuk is still a passable top-sixer. Stastny is the best forward on the team by a fairly wide margin, and he’ll almost certainly have to carry a bevy of younger players against the tougher match-ups. It’s pretty clear from the absence of summer moves that the club expects Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart to step into heavy lifting roles on a full time basis this year, and Ryan O’Reilly, Brandon Yip and T.J. Gagliardi will also be counted to perform at a level most competitive teams wouldn’t expect from kids. Stewart had a very lucrative summer, signing a contract that was more a reflection of good fortune than actually being a serious difference maker. As I noted in my comments about Manny Malhotra, players with abnornally high PDO numbers always leave me a bit suspicious, and Stewart is no exception.
The Avs decided to jettison Wojtek Wolski at last March’s deadlines, with all sorts of amorphous stuff about attitude and effort being offered as justification. I wasn’t in the room, but I know what I can see and count, and he was a good player that could handle decent competition without needing a lot of luck along the way. He made the Flames look pathetic on more than a few occasions last season, and I’m happy to see him out of the division. What makes the trade even more of a loss is that Peter Mueller, the return from the Coyotes in the deal, is out with his second concussion in less than six months. Mueller wasn’t the type of player that could handle the icetime Wolski managed, but he was an effective PP presence in his short time in Denver, and now his future looks very uncertain.
The Avalanche also chose to let Brett Clark move on via free agency, and although his absence won’t be felt as acutely as Wolski’s, he was a useful defenceman. They’ll rely on Hannan and Kyle Qunicey to carry the load at EV, and they might have a player that can beat the softer competition in Kyle Cumiskey. Like several of the other Colorado kids, he can motor, and he had decent results in context against the lesser lights of the opposition last season.
Craig Anderson deserved every bit of praise he received last year, proving that his quality work as Tomas Vokoun’s caddy in Florida was no fluke. He was excellent throughout the regular season, and was superb in the playoff loss to the Sharks. I have a feeling that his next contract might be for a smidge more than 1.85M a year barring a major slide, and I’m not counting on that occurring.
What I didn’t realize until I had a closer look at the numbers, though, was what a completely unlikely, and unsustainable, benefit the Avalanche gained when Peter Budaj was in net. Budaj’s best EVSV% before last year was .919, and he was mostly a goalie that posted numbers in the .905-.914 range. Mediocre, in other words. Last year, he posted a .935 EVSV%, which was better than Anderson, or Kiprusoff, or Ryan Miller, just to name three guys who were excellent last season.
Even more unlikely was the fact that the Avalanche shot the lights out with him in net. They posted a 10.6 EVSH% in front of the Slovak, so Budaj’s PDO was north of 104. Colorado’s goals for/against total at EV was +158/-151. With Budaj in net, they were +27/-21, so all but one goal of their differential happened with him in net, and the Avs were out-shot at an even higher pace when Budaj was in net than they were when Anderson played. Maybe I’ll just look like a sucker again for doubting what’s happening in Denver, but I wouldn’t bet very much on Budaj repeating that sort of performance, or the Avs getting that sort of efficiency out of his games.
I was a skeptic of the manner in which Colorado attained their results last season, and after the Wolski trade they looked about as they should, finishing the year on fumes and getting torched by San Jose in as one-sided a six game playoff series as any I’ve seen since Nik Khabibulin stole a couple of games for the Jets in ’96 versus the Wings.
The funny thing is that I suspect that Greg Sherman doesn’t think the Avs are very good either. Colorado struggled just to make the cap floor this week, signed no FAs beyond their own restricted players this summer, and generally have decided that it’s the kids or bust. I know that attendance has fallen off in Denver, but unless Wal-Mart is doing a hell of a lot worse than their financials would indicate, Stan Kroenke’s not so broke that he couldn’t sign a few guys to shore up the roster, which leads one to presume that any success will happen by chance rather than by design this season. I don’t have any issue with that approach, since spending near the cap only to be lousy is more the M.O. of teams that reside a bit further north along the Rocky Mountains, and Colorado’s time to seriously contend is a few years away. I do think that they take a step back this season, though, even if Anderson is Vezina-worthy again.