As the saying goes in statistics, there’s an exception to prove the rule. The Colorado Avalanche and their incredible success in 2013-14 were just that – the exception – for statistically inclined hockey fans.
From the top down, it was the kind of year that baffles the mind. It seemed like each and every night the Avalanche would be outshot, pinned, and scrambling in their own end. Each night, it also seemed like the games would have the same result: an Avalanche victory.
For the whole picture, you need to go back to 2013. When regular season play began in the lockout-shortened season, goaltender Semyon Varlamov struggled early and often. In 35 appearances, the Russian netminder went 11-21-3 posting a 3.02 goals against average and abysmal .903 save percentage. Somehow, this worked in Colorado’s favor.
The draft lottery chips fell in the Avalanche’s direction and, with it, the prized first overall selection in the 2013 Draft. Just like that, the Avalanche had the draft pick they needed in order to add long-sought after “next one” Nathan MacKinnon.
Right out of the gates, Colorado was a nightmare for the champions of advanced statistics last season. After all, how could a team that gave up so many shots on goal and scoring chances continue to succeed? They couldn’t, it was said. They wouldn’t, pundits proclaimed.
Against all odds, Colorado succeeded with underlying numbers that were befitting a team in the hunt for another lottery selection.
Varlamov, who one season prior had a campaign to forget, backstopped the Avs to 41 victories while riding a 2.41 goals against average and .927 save percentage to a Vezina nomination. In front of him, MacKinnon put up Calder-winning totals of 24 goals and 39 assists. Stastny was the steady offensive and defensive rock the team needed. Landeskog led with passion, and his 65 points didn’t hurt. The Avalanche not only won, they prospered in arguably the most difficult division in the league, finishing atop the Central Division.
Sure, the Avalanche flamed out in seven games to the Minnesota Wild in the playoffs. And sure, it looked unrepeatable. But there was some glimmer of hope.
Of those who are involved in the Advanced Stats community, many suggested a fall was bound to happen. Even still, picking the Avs to finish outside of the playoffs this season seemed dicey. Just a handful of games into the season, the bound-for-regression Avalanche aren’t just living up to the predictions of faltering, they’re exceeding them. But if last season they were that, well, lucky, can they really be this bad?
The short answer is no. No one is going to suggest blowing it up, trading everyone, and rebuilding. There are areas to work on, surely, and being without Semyon Varlamov even if he is bound for a bit of a slide back to earth will hurt. That said, the same statistics that predicted the Avs as a playoff pretender last season may be a glimmer of hope.
In 2013-14, the Avalanche finished ahead of every team in the league (besides Anaheim), shooting an absurd 8.8 percent at five-on-five action. On the power play, for obvious reasons, that number went all the way up to over 13 percent. This season, albeit in a small sample, those totals are just a hair over five percent and under eight with the man advantage.
You can take this to mean that when they’re shooting the puck at even-strength or on the power play, Colorado is due for a few more pucks to the back of the net.
When it comes to goaltending, it’s too early to tell. Aside from a season-opening drubbing, Varlamov has only suited up in two games, but posted save percentages of .939 and .925 the following two contests.
What may be most predictive of the upward swing coach Patrick Roy and his Avalanche can expect is the one measure that said it all about the Avs last season – PDO. Generally speaking, teams should float around a flat 1.000. The eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings finished at exactly that mark. The 2013-14 Avalanche finished at 1.018. This season, the Avs have fallen to .958.
There’s room to improve in Denver, and if anything, the same measures that frustrated Avalanche fans last season should give them some hope early in 2014-15.