Prior to the start of the season, pundits were projecting a return to earth for the Colorado Avalanche, who won 52 games in 2013-14 despite having some of the worst advanced statistics in the NHL. They leaned on goalie Semyon Varlamov and a superb shooting percentage on their way to finishing second in the Western Conference, and more than a few observers were expecting that couldn’t last again.
About five percent of the way through the season, at least, both those projections have come to pass. The Avs were shut out in back-to-back losses at the hands of the Minnesota Wild to start the year and only managed four goals in their next two games. And now, worse news: Varlamov has been placed on Injury Reserve thanks to a wonky groin, and there’s no timetable for his return. And in Colorado’s first game without him Thursday – a 4-3 loss to Ottawa that saw the Avs blow a 3-1 lead after the first period – they sure looked like they missed him, especially when backup Reto Berra left the game after being hit by Kyle Turris in his crease and third-stringer rookie Calvin Pickard had to step in.
And now they’re potentially facing a serious quandary: if Varlamov’s injury is serious, do they go out and acquire veteran help?
The Avs seem high on Berra, but his .897 save percentage in 29 games with Calgary last season is, pardon the pun, a red flag. They’re tight against the salary cap ceiling, but the options that are on the free agent market – including Devils legend Martin Brodeur and Colorado resident Tim Thomas – wouldn’t be intending to break the bank with any contract. A relatively cheap, short-term gamble might be in order to turn around their season.
Regardless of who’s between the pipes for the Avs in the games ahead, it’s becoming apparent they’re going to have to do a lot of the heaviest lifting to return this team to the playoffs. The defense corps has looked lost and in need of comfort more often than not, and the free agent departure of center Paul Stastny has disturbed the team’s chemistry at forward. The truth is, they need Varlamov more than ever, and probably better than ever, to fend off the rest of the hard-charging West.
If Varlamov's groin acts up off and on for the rest of the year as goalie groins are known to do, and Berra looks like the Berra of last season, it’s not going to matter how astonishingly talented Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are.
They won’t be in a position to do much with the puck when it’s consistently in Colorado’s net.