The team is off to a slow start and while the sample size is small, the Avs are once again flailing in the possession department. The players see growth, but are the early results a harbinger of things to come?
How soon is too soon to sound the alarm bells? Looking around the NHL right now, you’ll see unlikely teams such as Boston and the New York Rangers struggling early, but with such a small sample size, that seems like more of a blip than a pattern.
On the other hand, seeing Colorado with one win in four tries seems a little more harrowing.
That’s because the Avs famously bucked the odds last season to win the Central Division despite being one of the worst possession teams in the NHL. They did so through amazing goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and the second-best shooting percentage in the NHL, so when the underdog Minnesota Wild knocked out the Avs in the first round of the playoffs, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
But the Avs still believe in themselves and in their minds, sometimes a slow start is just a slow start.
“Four games into the season…it’s early,” said center Nathan MacKinnon. “We’re still working out some kinks, but we’re not too worried. Since Game 1 we’ve been getting better.”
The latest setback came against another traditionally poor possession team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, the Avs were playing the second end of back-to-back games and did earn a point in the overtime road loss, so some slack is to be given. But they were destroyed by the Leafs in possession from the second period on, registering a Corsi For percentage of 33 percent in the middle frame and just 29 percent in the third.
The line of Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Dennis Everberg did a pretty great job shutting down Toronto’s top trio of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk for most of the night (Kessel scored twice when facing other lines) and their Corsi numbers reflected that. But much of the rest of the team suffered in that regard.
Funny enough, the line of Jamie McGinn, Jarome Iginla and Matt Duchene provided the offense for Colorado while also getting dinged hard in possession stats. To get away from fancy stats for a second, one thing that looked obvious in the Toronto game is an overall lapse in defensive concentration among the Avs. There were too many times when the Leafs were left alone with Varlamov and the netminder either made a great save or was bailed out when the marksman shot wide. The Avs’ defensemen can be aggressive and/or careless in igniting the breakout and sometimes that can bite them, as it did on Joffrey Lupul’s goal. Still, Colorado’s captain was pragmatic of his team’s overall effort.
“It’s a game of mistakes,” Landeskog said. “Sometimes you miss assignments, sometimes you miss loose pucks in the neutral zone, but I thought we played a focused game.”
The Avs have now lost the Corsi battle in three of their four games, including their win over Boston. You could point to the loss of Paul Stastny to free agency in the summer as a driver, but again, this team wasn’t strong in possession last year, either. And with Landeskog, MacKinnon, Duchene, Iginla and O’Reilly, the team still has an enviable forward corps. This year, however, they’re not sneaking up on teams.
“It’s a little different,” MacKinnon said. “We’re not going to surprise as many teams, but at the same time we’re a very talented team. We might not get 50 wins again, but we want to improve as a team going into the playoffs and hopefully go a few rounds.”
The challenge now is to either drive possession better, or prove the doubters in the advanced stats community wrong. Last year Colorado won its first six games and everything looked peachy. This time, they’ll have to dig out from an early hole in order to do so.