The word “abysmal” doesn’t even begin to describe the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche. Totaling just 22 wins and 48 points — the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers — the team was one of the worst in NHL history.
Fast-forward one year later, and the Avs nearly doubled their point total with 43 wins and 95 points, and made the playoffs this seaosn. How does one of the biggest turnarounds in league history happen? It’s somewhat simple: luck and talent.
Last season, Colorado’s even strength performance was horrific. Ranking dead last in the NHL with a -80 goal differential in five-on-five play (54 worse than second-place Arizona), the Avs couldn’t buy a goal at even strength. That’ll happen when a team collectively shoots 6.3 percent and gets subpar goaltending. Finishing with a +12 goal differential five-on-five in 2017-18 and getting superior goaltending was a huge reason why the team was able to make such a huge jump.
However, where the Avalanche succeeded most was with their incredible top line.
Collectively, in 2016-17, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog scored a combined 54 goals and 127 points. In 2017-18, the trio posted a combined 93 goals and 243 points — almost double the production.
The 22-year-old MacKinnon was among the NHL’s most improved players and has a legitimate shot at bringing home the Hart Trophy. The 21-year-old Rantanen more than doubled his point total in his sophomore season. Considering Landeskog is still only 24, the Avs’ top line will do some serious damage for years to come. Unquestionably, the trio was the biggest reason the Avs jumped from pretenders to contenders.
An influx of depth from key moves further bolstered Colorado’s roster. Free agent college signee Alexander Kerfoot had one of the best under-the-radar rookie campaigns, scoring 19 goals, 24 assists and 43 points. Sam Girard shored up the D and chipped in 20 points after coming from Nashville early in the season. Meanwhile, holdovers Matthew Nieto, Tyson Jost, JT Compher and Sven Andrighetto chipped in 48 goals combined in their first full seasons with the team.
Gone were guys like Cody McLeod and John Mitchell who had no future with the team. With improved depth, the Avs finished top-1o in both power play and penalty kill percentage a year after being average to below average in the categories.
It also should be mentioned that dumping Matt Duchene, a talented but unhappy forward, seemed to change the team’s attitude tremendously. But that’s my own speculation.
Speaking of goaltending, not having to rely on Calvin Pickard (who appeared in 50 games in 2016-17) and getting 51 from Semyon Varlamov swung the Avalanche from awful to above average between the pipes. Furthermore, establishing depth behind Varlamov by adding a qualified backup in Jonathan Bernier swung the team’s even strength save percentage from .906 to .932. Losing both goalies didn’t help the team’s already small chances against Nashville in the opening round of this year’s NHL playoffs.
Colorado has to look at 2017-18 as an exception, not a trend.
The team still has a long way to go. Defensively, the club’s depth is still among the league’s worst. Acquiring Girard and having solid vets like Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson helps, but the team could still use a top-pairing guy to help slot each guy into lesser roles where their skillsets are better served. It’s also hard to bet on Varlamov. His struggles to stay healthy have plagued Colorado since he joined the team in 2012-13.
That’s not to say the Avalanche won’t be back in the playoffs next year, but for a team that still struggles somewhat with puck possession and is coming off a year when luck played a huge factor, addressing depth and not going all-in is the way to go. Sustaining the same high shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength is unlikely, meaning the team’s PDO will dip. So, adding more depth, especially on defense, is paramount this offseason.
With that said, there a ton of positives and little reason to believe the Avs will regress back into one of the worst teams in league history. MacKinnon is the real deal, there’s a solid group of young players and there’s reason to believe the Avs can be really good for a really long time with the right moves. As long as Joe Sakic further addresses depth and continues to develop talent and embraces his younger players, the future in Colorado should be really bright.
It’s crazy to say one year after the team completely bottomed out in the most embarrassing fashion imaginable, but the Avs aren’t screwed. In fact, the team’s future is firmly in their hands.