Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Semyon Varlamov: The Colorado Avalanche are loaded with talent. There’s certainly no denying that. But despite the wealth of excellent young players they currently boast on their roster, it’s difficult to get excited about this team and their future.
This isn’t because of the talent they have on the ice, it’s because of the Old Boys Club that has completely taken over the organization. Specifically, the Patrick Roy Head Coach slash President of Hockey Operations and Joe Sakic General Manager slash Executive Vice President slash whatever braintrust that has been responsible for numerous poor decisions in terms of roster composition and in-game execution.
Over the past few years, the Avs have let go of Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly among others, largely because of the salary they were going to command, yet they’ve gone ahead and spent the money saved on players who simply aren’t as good. And this summer, with Tyson Barrie and Nathan MacKinnon, two of the team’s best and most important pieces moving forward, in need of new RFA contracts, there isn’t much reason for faith in how this front office will navigate through the tricky prospect of fitting them both in long-term.
To say that the Avs didn’t get a pretty good haul for Ryan O’Reilly would be unfair. They sent the soon-to-be free agent to Buffalo for thee of their top prospects, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and Nikita Zadorov, and a second round pick.
The issue with this deal, though, is that they didn’t believe O’Reilly was worth being a part of their future plans despite him having some of the best possession numbers in the league. Couple that with Patrick Roy’s attitude towards, and, well, understanding of analytics, and this trade along other questionable decisions begins to paint a picture of why there should be skepticism around this team’s management.
Anyways, the Avs had a pretty so-so season last year, finishing with a 39-39-4 record and were in contention for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference right up until the bitter end, mainly because the Minnesota Wild weren’t all too sure if they wanted it that badly or not. That said, the Avs, despite not being spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, actually probably overachieved based on their underlying metrics.
The Avs ranked dead last in the league in Corsi For percentage at a measly 44.2 per cent at even strength. This was largely because they allowed a whopping 62.2 shot attempts against per hour, which is really, really bad. And no, these numbers aren’t inflated because the other team took shots from the red line and that boosted their Corsi, the Avs also allowed the most high danger scoring chances against and the most shots on goal per hour in the league.
Based on the holy-crap-let-me-double-check-that information in the previous section, Colorado’s major weakness is pretty obvious — their defence is atrocious. Their top-four in terms of minutes played last season were Francois Beauchemin, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Nick Holden in that order.
Beauchemin was one of those questionable player personnel moves I mentioned earlier. He certainly isn’t a bad player, and has been a complete rock defensively for his entire career, but at 35 years old (when they signed him to a three-year, $13.5 million contract), and with declining possession numbers, it simply wasn’t sensible to bring him in to play a high-volume role. And that became very evident last season when he managed a 43.4 Corsi For percentage, albeit, with heavy defensive minutes.
Johnson, their next most-used defenceman, was signed to a seven-year, $42 million deal, but there isn’t really anything to suggest he’s a top pairing defender. He doesn’t chip in too much offensively, and the only time in his career that he’s ever been a positive possession player was when he was being used in heavy offensive zone situations. Holden was pretty solid for the Avs, but like with Johnson and Beauchemin, would be much better off playing lower on a team’s depth chart than he did last season.
Their best defenceman pretty easily is Barrie, as he’s really the only one out of this group that produces anything offensively and he boasted the best possession numbers of any blue liner on the team. At a glance, a 45.8 Corsi For percentage doesn’t seem too great, but when you look closer, it becomes clear that most players see their on-ice shot and goal numbers increase when they play with Barrie. Of course, this could mean that playing with Barrie also inherently means playing in offensive situations, but over the past two seasons, Barrie has actually made less than half of his starts in the offensive zone.
One things the Avs do have, and I alluded to this earlier, is a tremendous amount of talent up front. Matt Duchene scored a career-high 30 goals last season, Gabriel Landeskog has continued to be a consistent, two-way threat, Nathan MacKinnon bounced back nicely after his ugly sophomore slump year, and Carl Soderberg, who was brought in to replace O’Reilly’s minutes, was effective at both ends of the ice. Jarome Iginla and Blake Comeau can also chip in and score goals, and the Avs have Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Rantanen who could step in next season and provide more offensive depth.
In goal, the Avs appear to be set with Semyon Varlamov, who’s signed for another few years and, aside from a pretty average season last year, has been excellent for them. That said, the Avs have an interesting prospect in Calvin Pickard. While Varlamov was injured last season, Pickard played in 20 games and posted a .922 save percentage. If Colorado wants to save some money and look to the future, it could be possible to roll with Reto Berra and Pickard and shop Varlamov for draft picks and prospects.
Overall, while there is a significant amount of talent here, there’s a pretty big, gaping hole on the blue line that forces secondary players to be thrown into primary player roles. It also makes it very difficult for Colorado’s true talent up front to shine through, as they lack competent puck moving defenceman to quarterback their offence and get the ball rolling.
The Avs have $21 million in cap space this summer with nine forwards, six defencemen, and two goalies signed, but two of their best players are restricted free agents and need new contracts.
It’s virtually certain that Nathan MacKinnon will be signed to some kind of long-term contract, but Tyson Barrie’s status is up in the air, and it’s been widely assumed that the Avs will look to deal him rather than pony up the cash that he’s going to command.
If that does end up happening, the Avs will actually have quite a bit of cap space available to make some upgrades on their roster this summer. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely they’ll be able to use that money to find a player better at his role than Tyson Barrie is, unless they convince the Canadiens or Senators to give them P.K. Subban or Erik Karlsson, which obviously won’t actually happen.
Like I said, the first order of business for the Avs this summer is going to be dealing with new contracts for their RFAs.
I would be completely shocked if Nathan MacKinnon was traded rather than signed to a new deal in Colorado this summer, and I would also be pretty surprised if he was signed to a two-year bridge deal rather than a long-term contract. He had a fantastic rookie season in which he produced 0.77 points-per-game, a pretty forgettable sophomore slump the following year that still featured strong underlying numbers, and a nice bounce back season last year.
Obviously you can make the argument that MacKinnon should be signed to a shorter term bridge contact because he’s only ever played a full NHL season once, and he’s yet to crack the elite scoring plateau. But to me, this isn’t the type of player you want to take that risk with. If they do sign MacKinnon for two years, and he breaks out and becomes a point-per-game plus player, he’ll command much more than they could get him for right now on a six or seven-year deal.
Besides, pretty much everything that I’ve seen in the media suggests that the Avs are interested in locking MacKinnon up for the long haul, because even though there is a risk involved, he ultimately is the player they’re building their forward core around.
On the same note, everything I’ve read about their other key RFA, Tyson Barrie, suggests the opposite. Though Barrie ranks tenth among defencemen in the NHL in total points and points-per-game in the past three seasons, the Avs don’t appear to be interested in locking him up, and will apparently instead look to trade him this summer. This is because Patrick Roy is interested in putting together and big, strong and responsible mid-90s defensive core, which, well, the 5’10” offensive-minded defenceman doesn’t fit into.
If this is truly the case, the Avs should look to deal Barrie in a package for another good defenceman who can effectively slide Johnson, Holden, and Beauchemin down in the lineup. I’m not really sure who that would be to be honest, because the defenceman that the Avs need, ya know, the guy who can make a good pass to spring the offence forward, uh, they already have, in Barrie.
So, I guess maybe they can look to move him for draft picks and prospects like they did with O’Reilly last year? But that wouldn’t coincide with their “win now” philosophy that they showed at the trade deadline this year, so that’s pretty unlikely.
Regardless of what the Avs ultimately decide to do with Barrie, or what kind of return they get when they deal him, they really, really need to improve their defensive core. This can certainly be accomplished in free agency, as Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski had excellent possession numb—…Errrrr, I’m not sure if that’ll actually come into consideration here, with this front office and all.
Ugh. I don’t know what to say. This team has a lot of talent, and it’s really unfortunate to watch it get pissed away because of poor management, but that’s what’s happening here. The Avs really should sign both Barrie and MacKinnon, like they should have signed O’Reilly last summer, but their front office has a different prerogative and vision when it comes to putting together a competitive NHL team.
They’ll likely get Nathan MacKinnon signed to a new, long-term deal, then deal Tyson Barrie, judging by the market, for a collection of prospects and picks, and they’ll add a big, rugged defensive defenceman through free agency, and probably a depth forward or two. I could also see them signing Mikkel Boedker, too, depending on how the rest of their signings go and how much cap space they left left over at the end of the day.
This team certainly has the pieces for a bright future, but their management instills no confidence whatsoever in regards to actually building around it and fielding a competitive NHL roster, and beyond that, getting the most out of it on a night-to-night basis.
They had the worst underlying numbers in the league last year, and overachieved to a point in which their front office believed they should be buyers at the trade deadline. And now, for the second summer in a row, they’re more than likely going to trade away a good player who they don’t think should be paid accordingly for a package of draft picks and prospects that ultimately contradicts their win-now objective.
It’s unfortunate to watch, but I can’t see this team being successful until they rid themselves of the Old Boys Club hanging out in their front office.