Risk Factors: Colorado Avalanche edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you“Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Colorado Avalanche

1. Asking the world of Varly (again) – There’s no shame in voters handing Tuukka Rask and his sparkling .937 save percentage the 2014 Vezina Trophy, but Semyon Varlamov had a strong argument in his own right.

Simply put, no successful team asked more of their netminder than Colorado did in 2013-14. Varlamov faced 2,013 shots on goal while no other goalie cracked 1,900 (Kari Lehtonen came in second with 1,888 save attempts). The Avalanche allowed 32.7 shots per game overall, the sixth-worst rate in the NHL. No team below them made the playoffs and only two in the bottom 10 managed to make it past game 82.

Varlamov shouldered that burden last season, but one would understand if the team said “Look, we got away with that once, but let’s not allow that to happen again.”

Instead, it sounds like Patrick Roy seems content to defiantly stick with his “Ride Varly” plan, at least publicly speaking.

“I would expect Varly to continue to do the same thing,” Roy told Yahoo in a fascinating piece regarding the team’s polarizing philosophies. “He’s in his age where I think it’s time for him to shine, and I believe it’s only the start.”

Asking any goalie to replicate such success is a bit much, but Varlamov carries a few extra worries.

The 2013-14 season was the only time he carried the workload of a true No. 1 “workhorse.” (It’s difficult to put too much stock in 2012-13, since that campaign was limited to 48 regular season games.) Glancing at his year-by-year work, it seems like he’s endured two tough seasons, one middling one and two very good years:

2009-10: 26 games played, 15 wins, .909 save percentage
2010-11: 27 GP, 11 W, .924
2011-12 (first with Colorado): 53 GP, 26 W, .913
2012-13: 35 GP, 11 W, .903
2013-14: 63 GP, 41 W, .927

Is it impossible to picture Varlamov being great again? No, if nothing else, his talent is pretty apparent.

Still, the Avalanche are asking a lot from a guy who’s had an up-and-down career, and to say that the jury’s out on Reto Berra being worth the honestly startling amount of confidence management has in him is to make a serious understatement.

2. Defense – Time and time again, teams with seemingly crippling possession stats have trotted out the “shot quality” argument in pumping up their defensive systems. In the long run, results haven’t been kind to the teams that get massively out-shot and seem to live off of high shooting and save percentages. The disastrous finishes of the Randy Carlyle Era Toronto Maple Leafs simply illustrate such thoughts in the most dramatic ways.

Roy steadfastly believes that the Avalanche’s defense is better than people think.

“We’re not that far away on defense,” Roy told the Denver Post. “You look at (Erik) Johnson, who had a really good year, we have (Tyson) Barrie, who played really well at the end of the season, and we have Nick Holden, who we think is a solid defenseman. Are they where (the Kings are)? The answer is no, but now the (question) is, ‘Who are we going to add?’ You cannot just add the top players. You have to have a great mix, and you look at some teams as a model, and I think L.A. is a good example. If we could get the good mix — stay-at-home, physical defensemen playing with high-skill defensemen — I think that’s the approach that we’d like to have, and I think we’re heading in a pretty good direction. I think the future of our franchise on the defensive side of the game is a lot better than people think it is.”

Most people don’t share Roy’s optimism, and when you look at the group on paper and the massive amount of shots Colorado is supposedly OK with allowing, it’s easy to see why.

3. Losing Stastny and getting older in the offseason – The funny thing about the Avalanche is that youth is one of their biggest strengths … yet they may have erred in seemingly exchanging prime-age players for big names who might be a little long in the tooth.

The general feeling is that Colorado balked at Paul Stastny’s asking price, ultimately allowing him to become the most coveted free-agent center of the 2014 summer. At 28, he still has at least a few more prime years and generally did things that people believe Avalanche forwards do too rarely: drive play. Stastny’s deal is bigger and longer than Jarome Iginla’s three-year, $16 million pact, but many will frame the situation as giving up Stastny for Iggy.

Iginla’s much older than Stastny at 37, and he’s not quite the dominant force he once was, even if he can clearly still put the puck in the net. In a league where center play is at a premium, the Avalanche swapped a versatile prime-age pivot for an aging winger.

The Avalanche also leaned toward experience by trading a second-rounder for Brad Stuart, 34, and swapped P.A. Parenteau, 31, for Daniel Briere, 37.

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic emphasized that he was deliberately adding experience, but time will tell if the team’s better for essentially exchanging fresher legs for veteran voices.

It should be fascinating to see if Roy and Sakic will end up looking brilliant or foolish and stubborn as the 2014-15 season goes along.