American Thanksgiving is said to be one of the more telling dates on the NHL calendar, an early indication of which teams are heading towards post-season play and which clubs will be falling either disappointingly or woefully short. And by that measure, one would have believed the Colorado Avalanche were nothing but a playoff-bound bunch, a message they drove home on Thanksgiving Day by moving within a single point of top spot in the Western Conference and only a pair of points behind top spot in the entire NHL with a convincing 6-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Avalanche’s success was highlighted, undoubtedly, by the play of their all-world top line. The unit of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog were giving opponents fits. Following that contest against Penguins, a game in which the trio combined for two goals and eight points on the night, Colorado saw its dominant line atop the NHL’s scoring lead; Rantanen was the leader in the Art Ross Trophy race with 10 goals and 40 points in 24 games, and MacKinnon wasn’t far behind, second place with 17 goals and 37 points in the same number of outings. Landeskog, further down the point register, was also more than a point per game player with 14 goals and 26 points of his own.
A return trip to the playoffs seemed almost preordained for Colorado at the time, particularly given the defeat of the Penguins’ marked the Avalanche’s sixth consecutive win, and it seemed clear that it was going to be the club’s top line that drove them to the post-season.
In the time since Thanksgiving, Colorado’s record has been that of an entirely different team. It’s gotten to the point that it’s increasingly difficult not to feel as though the late-November winning streak was a case of an inexperienced club peaking at the wrong time, reaching its zenith at a point far too early in the campaign and being unable to maintain that level of play. The results tell the story.
Since Nov. 29, the day after the defeat of the Penguins, the Avalanche have won only seven games and have accumulated just 18 points, fewer than any other team in the NHL, including the last-place favorite Ottawa Senators, the sliding Buffalo Sabres and even the Anaheim Ducks, who began a 12-game losing streak in mid-December and didn’t end it until mid-January. And because of this tumble down the standings, the once-Central Division and Western Conference contending Avalanche are waking up Monday morning two points outside of the second wild-card spot in the conference. Worse yet, two much hotter clubs, the resurgent St. Louis Blues and inexplicable Arizona Coyotes, are a mere two points shy of leapfrogging Colorado in the race for the final wild-card berth.
But maybe as telling an anything about the state of the Avalanche across their past 26 games is what coach Jared Bednar felt compelled to do heading into Colorado’s first game out of the all-star break.
On Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks, the Avalanche’s star-studded top line was split. MacKinnon skated between Alex Kerfoot and Colin Wilson. Carl Soderberg moved into MacKinnon’s old spot between Rantanen and Landeskog. And the explanation from Bednar, unintentionally or otherwise, was telling. “We’re trying to put some combinations together that gives us a little bit of depth and see if we can get some of those top guys to drag some of our other guys along, get us moving in the right direction and get some guys excited about playing with them,” Bednar told reporters, according to the Denver Post.
When a coach refers to his star players needing to “drag” the other offensive players along, that’s never a good sign. That’s the disappointing reality for the Avalanche, though, who have gotten very little contribution outside of their top line. To wit, Rantanen, MacKinnon and Landeskog have 74 points, 71 points and 54 points respectively. The next-best offensive outputs from forwards belong to Soderberg (31 points), Kerfoot (26 points) and J.T. Compher (20 points). Make no mistake that the lack of offensive depth is the biggest issue facing the Avalanche, too.
While in seasons past it would have been safe to suggest that poor possession metrics led to offensive ineptitude, that’s not at all the case this season under Bednar. At 5-on-5, the Avalanche rank 11th in Corsi percentage (50.6), 11th in shot percentage (51.2), seventh in scoring chance percentage (52.6) and 17th in high-danger chance percentage (50.3). Limited to their past 26 games, too, Colorado’s underlying metrics are just as favorable, with ranks of eighth, ninth, fourth and 14th in the respective categories since Nov. 29. Despite the positive metrics, though, a lack of finish has tanked the Avalanche’s offensive output. Over their past 26 games, Colorado’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is a league-worst 5.7 percent. They’re now among the 10-worst teams in the NHL in shooting percentage at 5-on-5, boasting a 7.7 percent rate on the season.
That points to a major issue that needs addressing: the dearth of secondary scoring in Colorado. True as it may be that MacKinnon has fallen victim to a downturn in shooting percentage — as well as Landeskog and Rantanen, though to lesser extents — that no one has been able to pick up the slack is concerning, to say the least. And though there were cries for GM Joe Sakic to address the depth up front in the past, it has never seemed as pressing as it does right now. The Avalanche need some support for their top trio, and the kind of support that will allow one of the best lines in hockey to remain a unit, if they’re going to lock down a wild-card spot and maybe even climb back into a divisional playoff spot. And there’s no reason not to seek that kind of addition.
Some will suggest that Colorado could do with missing the post-season, or that this isn’t the time to strike. There might be some truth to that, too. But this is also a team that put a legitimate scare into the Nashville Predators in the first round last season and could make noise if the goaltending — which, admittedly, has also been a concern since late-November — gets hot at the right time. And if the playoffs are indeed the goal in Colorado, as they should be, the Avalanche need someone, anyone, to come aboard and inject some life into an attack that has been rendered ineffective over the past two weeks. If they don’t, Colorado may need to prepare to kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)