Last year, the Colorado Avalanche made history as one of the most dominant Stanley Cup champions to ever take the ice. This year’s Avs are threatening to make history, too — but not the good kind.
Since 1971, only three defending Cup champs have failed to follow their title run with a return trip to the playoffs the next season: the 1995-96 New Jersey Devils, the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2014-15 Los Angeles Kings. If the 2022-23 regular season ended today, Colorado would join that group, despite back-to-back impressive wins over the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings over the weekend. With 40 games to go, the Avalanche currently sit fourth in the Central division and third in the West’s wild-card race, with four points still separating them from the conference’s final playoff spot.
So things don’t exactly look great for the Avs’ championship defense at the moment. But we probably shouldn’t count Colorado out quite yet. The Avalanche still rank third in our NHL Elo ratings, and there are a few reasons why this team may be able to turn its season around, even though the clock is ticking.
Better health ahead?
For one thing, the Avalanche have been among the most banged-up teams in the league, ranking third in standings points lost to injury earlier this season, according to ManGamesLost.com. Among the players Colorado has placed on injured reserve this season were three of the team’s top eight performers last season according to goals above replacement1 — Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin — plus numerous other important role players. As a result, no NHL team has employed a greater number of different players this year than Colorado, who has seen a league-high 38 total players don its sweater.
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But the Avs should spend the next month or so piecing back together at least some of their broken roster, which got a big boost Monday when Nichushkin returned to game action for the first time since Dec. 23. And any amount of extra production from healthy bodies in the lineup would help a team that has only four skaters — Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, MacKinnon and Devon Toews — tracking for 10.0 or more adjusted GAR this season, down from eight (which was tied for third-best in the NHL) last year.
Goaltending and defense can keep them in the hunt
Sometimes when a hockey team collapses, it can be because the pucks just won’t stay out of the net. (Just ask the Vancouver Canucks, who went from allowing the seventh-fewest goals per game in the NHL last season to suddenly tying for the 11th-most goals allowed per game of any NHL team in a season in the past 30 years.)2 But the Avalanche have stayed roughly steady when it comes to preventing goals — they’re No. 11 this year after ranking ninth a year ago — despite replacing Stanley Cup-winning goalie Darcy Kuemper with former New York Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, who has turned into one of the league’s more dependable netminders.
Instead, Colorado’s huge problem in the first half has been on the other side of the puck, where an offense that we called the “Greatest Show On Ice” last season has regressed badly. The Avs went from fourth in goals scored per game in 2021-22 to a shocking 22nd so far this season, with 13 of the top 20 current roster members (by 2021-22 adjusted points) tracking for a lower total this season.3 Some of that goes back to the aforementioned laundry list of injuries, which have slowed MacKinnon (the team’s most talented forward), robbed Nichushkin of a potential career-best season, generally hollowed out a forward group that has gone from fifth in points to 27th, and even taken a bite out of the NHL’s highest-scoring blueline corps from a year ago. (Makar coming back down to earth a teensy bit hasn’t helped there, either.)
But when a team is struggling to put the puck in the net, it’s nice to be able to fall back on puck possession and good, old-fashioned defensive hockey. By multiple measures — whether you look at Corsi percentage (seventh), Fenwick percentage (12th) or the share of expected goals (14th) and scoring chances (seventh) generated by a team in its games — the Avalanche have remained among the top half of the league at controlling the flow of play, even if hasn’t led to the same rate of goals as in the past. That should bode well for Colorado going forward, if not for its flagging offense then at least in terms of its ability to limit opponents at the other end. And with the big caveat that Georgiev still doesn’t have a huge sample of elite play (he’s already three starts away from setting a new single-season career high), a team’s goal-prevention tends to be “stickier” between halves of a season than its scoring anyway.4
The schedule is friendly
When all else fails, some weak competition might be the best medicine for a slumping team. And the Avalanche will certainly get a chance to feast on the league’s weakest squads during the second half of the season: According to the average Elo rating of its future opponents (adjusted for home-ice advantage), Colorado has the eighth-easiest remaining schedule in the NHL, trailing only the Arizona Coyotes, Canucks, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Seattle Kraken and Edmonton Oilers. This is part of a gift from the scheduling gods that has seen the defending champs already face the seventh-easiest slate in the league to date; an easy set of opponents stays roughly as easy from here.
The Avalanche must do a better job of capitalizing on the soft schedule, of course. After cleaning up against opponents whose Elo ratings fell beneath the league average last year — winning 75.0 percent of the time, good for fifth-best in the league — Colorado has beaten below-average teams only 57.9 percent of the time this season, which ranks just 13th. (They’re also winning just 50 percent of the time as favorites, which places an abysmal 24th in the league.) We saw an example of those letdowns last Thursday night, when the Avs went into Chicago as a 66 percent favorite against the dreadful Blackhawks, only to lose 3-2 after never holding a lead all game. But in theory, this team ought to be taking care of business more often against weaker foes — like it did over the weekend against Ottawa and Detroit — and Colorado will get plenty of chances against those kinds of opponents down the stretch.
All of these factors help explain why, despite the hole they’ve dug for themselves in the standings, the Avalanche still have a 75 percent chance of getting back to the playoffs according to our forecast model. (And why their Stanley Cup odds conditional on making the playoffs are roughly the same as those of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, two teams with much better records.) The NHL season is long, and a lot of things can happen in even a relatively short stretch of games.5 On paper, the Avalanche should be better than they have been, particularly once they cobble together a healthier version of themselves. But defending Stanley Cup champions shouldn’t miss the playoffs, either. With a half-season left to reverse course, it’s now up to Colorado to avoid adding themselves to that ignoble list.
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