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Are the Colorado Avalanche Really as Good as Their Record Suggests?

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 19:  Head coach Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche watches the action against the Buffalo Sabres on October 19, 2013 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bill Wippert/Getty Images
Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

A year ago, the Colorado Avalanche had the second-worst record in the NHL, ahead of only the awful Florida Panthers. This season, the team is 19-6-0 and on pace for 125 points. When adjusting for games played, the team trails only San Jose and Chicago in the NHL standings.

The question now is where the Avs’ true talent level lies.

Are they a bad team playing well above their true level of ability? Are they the great team the early-season standings suggest they are? Or does the truth fall somewhere between those two extremes?

Before comparing the results of this season to 2012-13, let’s look at the possibility of schedule effects.

Colorado has had a slightly favourable schedule early in one way, with 14 home games to 11 road contests, but the team has a better record on the road than at home, so it seems safe to assume that isn’t driving success.

Also not responsible for Colorado’s great run is the quality of opposition the team is facing. Sixteen of 30 teams (53.3 percent) make the playoffs every year and Colorado has faced 2012-13 playoff teams in 14 of its 25 contests (56.0 percent).

In other words, we can safely eliminate schedule effects as a cause of the Avs' early dominance.

With that out of the way, we can start looking in finer detail at the team’s performance in different game situations. We’ll start with even-strength scoring and compare Colorado to the NHL average as well as last season's performance:

Even-strength scoring, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche
TeamShots/hourShooting percentageGoals/hour
Colorado, 2012-1329.67.32.16
NHL average, 2013-1429.27.62.23
Colorado, 2013-1428.69.32.65
ExtraSkater.com

There are some interesting numbers there. Colorado is scoring well above both last year’s pace and this season’s NHL average, but its shot rates are actually down at even strength.

All of this goal scoring comes from a 9.3 shooting percentage at even strength, meaning that the Avalanche turn a shot into a goal almost 25 percent more regularly than the average NHL team.

It’s possible that Colorado’s forwards turned into elite shooters, were elite shooters suffering through a rough patch last year or Patrick Roy’s new system puts a priority on top-flight chances.

Most commonly, though, this kind of shooting percentage increase turns out to be temporary and is generally seen as an indicator that regression may be on the way.

What about defensive play at even strength?

Even-strength defence, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche
TeamShots against/hourSave percentageGoals against/hour
Colorado, 2012-1330.10.9132.61
NHL average, 2013-1429.60.9242.25
Colorado, 2013-1431.40.9451.74
ExtraSkater.com

We see something similar here. Colorado has allowed more shots than last year, and more shots than the NHL average, but is allowing far fewer goals thanks to a 0.945 even-strength save percentagea total which would have led the NHL last season.

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Semyon Varlamov #1 of the Colorado Avalanche protects the net during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at STAPLES Center on November 23, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

While Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been excellent in the backup role, most of this is the result of the play of Semyon Varlamov.

Throughout his career, Varlamov has a 0.915 save percentagean average-ish number for an NHL starter. In 2012-13, Varlamov posted a 0.903 save percentagea number typical of a recalled third-string goalie. This season, however, he has a 0.933 save percentage, which is a better number than that posted by Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky last season.

Maybe Roy has completely overhauled the defensive system. Maybe he’s a goalie whisperer. More likely, Varlamov is an average-ish starter having a great season right after a terrible season.

There is good news on the power play:

Power play scoring, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche
TeamShots/hourShooting percentageGoals/hour
Colorado, 2012-1346.711.85.51
NHL average, 2013-1453.712.26.63
Colorado, 2013-1453.511.86.32
ExtraSkater.com

Colorado had a decidedly subpar power-play unit last season, but the new coaching staff seems to have elevated it to roughly the NHL average. That’s a big step forward.

What about on the penalty kill?

Penalty kill defence, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche
TeamShots against/hourSave percentageGoals against/hour
Colorado, 2012-1353.70.8706.99
NHL average, 2013-1453.70.8786.63
Colorado, 2013-1459.50.9065.62
ExtraSkater.com

The numbers here are decidedly less impressive. The goals-against number looks great, but once again we see the effect of goaltending. Varlamov’s penalty-kill save percentage has gone from 0.868 last season to 0.900 this year while Giguere went from 0.880 to 0.923.

Some of that jump is probably sustainable, but a lot of it isn’t. If the quality of goaltending dips, Colorado is going to pay for the number of shots it allows.

The situation overall, however, is not as bad as the numbers in all the situations above would seem to indicate. The reason is score effects.

Teams generally do a better job of getting shotsand consequently goalswhen they are down by one or two than when they are up by one or two.

Last season, the average team at five-on-five took 50 percent of unblocked shot attempts with the score tied or close. According to Behind the Net, that number rose to 57 percent when down two goals and fell to 43 percent when up two goals.

Colorado has spent a lot of time up by one or two goals. Looking at the five-on-five numbers from ExtraSkater.com, for example, the Avs outshoot their opponents 30-29 in situations where the score is close while being outshot 31-29 overall.

The Avalanche likely aren’t as good as their record, which is a reasonable conclusion from any standpoint given the massive improvement in the team's fortunes in a single summer.

The club’s shooters will probably cool off a little while the goaltending will drop off a bit.

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 03:  Goaltender Craig Anderson #41 of the Colorado Avalanche watches teammates warmup before facing the Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center on February 03, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.   (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Michael Martin/Getty Images

But this isn’t the 2009-10 team that rode Craig Anderson to a hot start before faltering, and it isn’t last year’s Avs either.

Colorado probably won’t finish in the top five in the NHL standings, but it is an improved team andgiven its young talentthere is every reason to expect the Avalanche to make the playoffs both this year and for some time to come.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of NHL.com and current through the start of games on December 3.  

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