The Avalanche are dead last in the NHL and haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas. Are they the worst team of the salary cap era? Down Goes Brown investigates.
The Colorado Avalanche are the worst.
That’s not a controversial statement. It’s not even an insult, really. It’s just a statement of fact. This year’s Avalanche wrapped up the title of the league’s worst team sometime around December, and they cemented that status over the weekend by being the first team eliminated from the playoffs. On Monday, they faced the league’s other worst team, and lost to the Coyotes 1-0 in what may have been the saddest game of the season.
But just how bad are the Avalanche? They’re not really in the “worst team ever” discussion; in this age of parity, we’ll almost certainly never see a team anywhere near as bad as the 1974-75 Capitals, 1991-92 Sharks or 1992-93 Senators.
But what about the salary cap era, dating back to the end of the 2005 lockout? That’s a tougher call. You could make a case on either side of that one, so let’s break it down five ways to see where we end up.
1. The wins and losses
That’s what matters, right? The NHL is all about whether you win or lose. Well, that and how often you lose but it’s close so you still get credit for half a win for reasons nobody fully understands. But yeah… wins and losses.
Right now, the Avalanche are sitting at 19-46-3 for 41 points through 68 games. That’s good for a points percentage of just .301, which ranks dead last among all teams in the cap era. It’s not even all that close; the next worse team is the 2013-14 Sabres, at .317, followed by the 2014-15 Sabres (.329) that same year’s Coyotes (.341), and the 2006-07 Flyers (also .341).
In fact, it may be even worse than it looks. Generally speaking, bad teams tend to get worse as the season goes on. That’s partly because they have nothing to play for, and partly because they typically ship veterans out at the deadline and ice a weaker lineup down the stretch. The Avalanche didn’t do much of that for some reason, but it would seem optimistic to expect them to suddenly hit their stride now that they’re already the laughingstock of the league.
What’s worse, the schedule won’t do them any favors. They face the Red Wings in back-to-back games this week – remember when that was a rivalry? – then close the season with 11 of 12 against playoff teams. They’ll see a lot of backup goalies over that stretch, and it would only take a handful of unexpected wins to nudge them out of 360th spot in the cap era standings, but right now it isn’t looking good.
Verdict: Score this one solidly in the “Avalanche are the worst” column.
2. The basic numbers
Looking beyond wins and points, there are plenty of other ugly numbers to be found. The Avalanche currently have the eighth worst power play of the cap era. And while the penalty kill is slightly better, it still ranks in the bottom 50.
They’re also on pace to join those two awful Sabres teams as the only ones in the era to finish with fewer than two goals/game, and they’re on track to be one of the worst 30 teams in terms of goals against.
Maybe most depressing of all, they’ve got a real shot at what once seemed like an unbeatable mark: the 2014-15 Sabres goals differential of -113. That’s well ahead of the second worst mark, held by the 2014-15 Coyotes at -102. Those are the only two teams in the cap era to finish worse than -100, but the Avalanche are headed off to join them. At their current pace, the Avs will finish the season at -110.
Put differently: Only four teams in the cap era have finished a full season with a goals differential worse than -90. The Avalanche are already there. And there’s still 14 games too go.
Verdict: They’re certainly very bad. But the worst of the worst? Those 2014-15 Sabres and Coyotes are still in the mix.
3. The advanced stats
We don’t have reliable advanced stats for the entire cap era; stuff like Corsi only appears in 2007-08, so we don’t know how any of today’s teams measure up to ones like the 2005-06 Penguins and Blues. But we still have a decade’s worth of data to work with, meaning we’ve got 300 team seasons to compare.
And in that sense, this year’s Avalanche aren’t all that bad. I mean, they’re bad – the Avs currently boast some ugly possession numbers, like their 47.8 percent Corsi at 5v5. But that doesn’t rank them anywhere near the worst team of the advanced stats era, the 2014-15 Sabres, who clocked in at an almost unfathomable 37.6 percent. A total of 15 teams have finished a season below 45 percent, so the Avalanche really aren’t even in the conversation here.
In fact, they’re not all that close to being the worst team in the league this year, ranking ahead of four teams. And they’re actually putting up the best possession numbers of any Avalanche team since 2012-13. That’s not helping if you’re a Colorado fan, but at least this year’s team hasn’t spent the entire season in its own zone.
Granted, things change a bit if you factor in how often this year’s Avalanche are trailing – on a score-adjusted basis, they start looking worse. There’s more bad news if you look at other advanced numbers, like expected goals percentage. And you can dig through the underlying numbers to find even more depressing nuggets.
They’re terrible. But at the same time, they’re still not anywhere near “worst ever” territory.
Verdict: If anything, this category offers some decent evidence that this year’s Avs may not be quite as bad as their record indicates.
4. The optics
Sometimes, the eye test can tell you more than the numbers. And in the case of the Avalanche, the eye test tells you that these guys can’t wait for the season to end.
That’s not to say that they’re quitting. But they can do basic math, and they know that they haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas. Some may have been hoping that the trade deadline would offer up an exit plan, but apart from Jarome Iginla, no such luck.
They have a first-year coach who’s struggling. Their last coach up and quit. Their GM is a beloved former star, but a former GM is already angling to take his job. One of their best players, Matt Duchene, is almost certainly going to be traded on the summer. Their captain, Gabriel Landeskog might be too. Their highly paid goaltender is hurt, and also might be bad, and the best-case scenario is that he somehow gets taken in the expansion draft.
You can even hear it in the soundbites coming out of the room. Landeskog recently compared them to a Junior C team.
Also, they’ve started doing stuff like this.
The Colorado Avalanche, everybody! pic.twitter.com/bArlqvpDjc
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 5, 2017
I think they need a hug.
Verdict: I don’t know if any of this makes them the worst team of their era, but they may be the most depressing.
5. The T-word
You’ll notice that whenever we start looking for terrible teams that compare to this year’s Avalanche, two teams keep showing up: the 2014-15 Sabres, and the 2014-15 Coyotes.
Hm. What else was going on in 2014-15?
Oh right, the Connor McDavid draft. And while we’ve been repeatedly assured that tanking doesn’t happen in the NHL, it seems awfully suspicious that the two worst teams of the cap era both came along in the same year that one of the best prospects in history was waiting for the lottery winner. You could even lump the terrible 2013-14 Sabres into the same group, since they were already paring the roster down in a kind of pre-tank maneuver. Um, allegedly.
What does that have to do with the Avalanche? They certainly didn’t seem to be tanking; they weren’t expected to be especially good, but they looked like a borderline playoff team heading into the season, and it’s not like they were selling off assets the way teams like the Sabres and Coyotes did. Besides, it wouldn’t make sense to tank this year, with one of the weakest draft classes in years and nothing resembling a sure-thing franchise player waiting.
And somehow, that just makes it all so much worse. The Avalanche were actually trying. This was the best they could do. And they were still one of the worst cap era teams we’ve ever seen. That’s almost tragic.
The final verdict: Barring a late collapse, the Avalanche probably won’t be able to reach quite the same depths as historically bad teams like the Sabres and Coyotes. But they may claim the title as the worst team of the cap era that wasn’t actively trying to be bad.
Is that worse? I think that might be worse.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.