After the 2003-04 season, the owners decided to use a protracted lockout to curb player salaries. They insisted on getting concessions from the players so that a salary cap could be instituted. This would, in theory, prevent the rich teams like Toronto, New York, Detroit, and Colorado from spending big money on players and driving up costs for everyone else in the process.
Seven full seasons later, the owners are again using a lockout to get concessions from the players, but the Colorado Avalanche aren’t in quite the same position. In their first nine years, the Avalanche made the playoffs nine times, won two Stanley Cups, sold out their building almost every night, and spent as much on players as anyone. After the lockout, the Avalanche made the playoffs in just three of seven seasons, won just ten playoff games in total, saw attendance decline significantly — they’ve averaged less than 16,000 per game in each of the last four seasons — and perhaps most surprising of all, became one of a few teams that spent only to the salary floor.
The big changes began in the summer of 2009 when the organization hired Greg Sherman as the team’s new general manager in June after a disastrous season that saw the club finish in last place in the Western Conference. That summer, Sherman saw Joe Sakic retire, he traded Ryan Smyth to the L.A. Kings, and he drafted Matt Duchene third overall in the 2009 entry draft, and kept his budget to a minimum. It was the beginning of what looked to be a lengthy rebuilding process.
Clock Strikes 12
But then something strange happened. The Avalanche rode the hot goaltending of Craig Anderson and the NHL’s third-best shooting percentage to a 95-point season that also got them back into the playoffs. If we were to judge the team’s progress since then by their point totals (68 in 2010-11 and 88 in 2011-12), it looks very much like the team has regressed from their peak, but in reality, that 2009-10 season was a bit of a mirage — they had a five-on-five Fenwick Percentage of just 45.0% in 2009-10, the second-worst result in the NHL.
In 2010-11, that result actually improved to 46.4% (23rd) despite a run of horrific injuries, and in 2011-12, they inched up even more to 47.8% (22nd). That still leaves a lot of room for improvement before the Avalanche are among the NHL’s elite, and it’s a process that’s likely to take a couple more seasons, but at least by one important measure, the team is getting better. Of course, as with any rebuild, the success or failure largely depends on whether or not the general manager collects enough elite talent while also managing to avoid any catastrophic mistakes.
In my estimation, Greg Sherman hasn’t always been prudent, but the results haven’t been ghastly either. When he traded Wojtek Wolski for Peter Mueller, I thought it was a huge mistake, but Wolski has struggled mightily since the deal. I also thought that acquiring Semyon Varlamov for the team’s 2012 first round pick could be pretty disastrous, and while I’d probably take either Filip Forsberg or Mikhail Grigorenko for Semyon Varlamov today, having the pick end up 11th overall was a long way from the disaster it could have been.
Beyond those deals, Sherman has been quite conservative, not signing any players for more than $4M and none for more than four years, which should provide his team with the flexibility needed to make adjustments as they go along. I would take issue with some of the contracts Sherman has signed (David Jones for four years at $4M is probably the most glaringly overpriced), but I think it’s fair to say that he’s done a good job of avoiding that one absolutely crippling error.
Building a New Dynasty?
The other part of that equation is elite talent. This definition is somewhat arbitrary, but I’d argue that the goal here is acquiring as many players as possible who project to be one of the twenty best players at their position in two to three years time (or five to six years since the beginning of the process). As those players go, so go the Avalanche, both in 2012-13 and in the subsequent seasons when they’re more likely to compete for the Stanley Cup. Let’s take a look at each one:
Erik Johnson (D)
The Avalanche acquired Johnson from the St. Louis Blues, and recently signed him to a new four-year contract that will pay him $3.75M per season. Unfortunately for the Avalanche, they’re paying for potential (if you’re optimistic, if not, you might say they’re paying for draft pedigree). Johnson has never been able to handle top competition, and last season, the Avalanche had him take 59.2% of his end-zone starts in the offensive zone. Furthermore, after two very good seasons to start his career, he just doesn’t bring enough offense. The Avalanche had Johnson on the first power play unit for most of the year but he was unable to turn that opportunity into elite offense, posting just 12 points on the man advantage and 26 overall. Johnson may yet develop into an outstanding defender, but if that’s going to be the case, the swtich should flip soon. If it doesn’t happen, Sherman has a big hole to fill.
Semyon Varlamov (G)
At the time of the trade, Varlamov had amassed an EV Sv% of .928 on 1,743 shots. Very good percentage, but not a large enough sample to come to any kind of solid conclusion. He wasn’t quite that good in Denver. Varlamov got off to an atrocious start and recovered later on to an EV Sv% of .923 on a sample of 1,312 shots. The gap there isn’t large, but it’s basically the difference between very good and slightly above average. The Avalanche will need Varlamov to be the former.
Paul Stastny (C)
Stastny is the old man of this group at 26, but that’s still young enough to be a major contributor when the team becomes a winner… if they can get his name on a new contract. Stastny will be UFA in two more years, and with his production declining in the last two years, it’s virtually certain that the Colorado will expect him to take a pay cut in order to stay (unless he has a huge season between now and then). Considering the team’s depth at center as well as Stastny’s age, I think there’s a chance that even a huge season will buy him a ticket out of town in exchange for help on the blueline.
Matt Duchene (C/W)
The man that the team was building around when this started, Duchene had a tough season in 2011-12. Duchene scored just 28 points in 58 games, and fell to eighth on the team in ice time per game (16:17). He was dogged by trade talk as the summer approached and seemed to be the source of some discontent because of the team’s decision to use him on the wing at times. On the plus side, Duchene had his best year of possession stats (his Corsi rate of +8/60 was third-best on the team), and has the background of a player who should be able to produce offense. His real problem was a near team low PDO of 97.4, caused mainly by an on-ice shooting percentage of just 5.79 at even strength. If the Avalanche can avoid selling low here, they should have a player who can help when his percentages rebound.
Ryan O’Reilly (C)
O’Reilly was drafted and arrived in the NHL at the same time as Duchene, but unlike the third overall pick, he’s been handling the tough lifting since he came into the league. His performance during the 2011-12 season was a huge step forward. O’Reilly led the Avalanche in points (55), led the team’s forwards in time on ice (19:32 per game), had the second best Corsi rate (+12/60) while getting an even split of OZ and DZ starts and playing the opposing team’s best players. He played a major role on the PK and pushed his faceoff percentage over 50% for the second consecutive season. It was far and away his best performance, so he may not be able to repeat it, but at just twenty-one, there’s a very good chance that he hasn’t even finished developing. I don’t think he’ll ever be an elite scorer, but I do think that he’s going to be a big part of this team for a long time.
Gabriel Landeskog (W)
The crowned jewel of the group, and the new captain of the team. Gabriel Landeskog had one of the finest teenage seasons ever, and certainly earned his Calder Trophy victory. He played tough competition out of the box and won the battle handily, leading the team with a Corsi rate of +14/60. He was protected a bit with 54.8% of his end-zone draws coming in the OZ, but when that’s the extent of your protection at 18 years old, you’re not getting much. The only remaining question is offense. Landeskog didn’t score well on the PP in the OHL, and with just 12 PP points in 82 games, that held true in the NHL as well. Still, Colorado’s new captin is already in the discussion of top twenty wingers and could easily be one of the best five or ten in two or three years.
So is this a group that you can win with? With the supporting cast they’ve been provided I think they’ll challenge for a playoff spot in 2012-13 (if we ever get around to playing games somewhere other than the boardroom), but unless Erik Johnson beats expectations and they have another player or two emerge along the blueline, I think they’ll struggle to turn this core group into a Stanley Cup contender by 2015. And for a team that’s been building for a few years already, that second question is the one that counts.
The other challenge facing the Avalanche is ownership’s reluctance to spend much past the minimum salary in the last few years. The club will have issues capably surrounding and augmenting their young core down the line if ownership isn’t willing to pay for talent.