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The Colorado Avalanche Went From Worst To First In No Time Flat

It wasn’t very long ago that the Colorado Avalanche were categorically the NHL’s worst team. Back in 2016-17, the club notched only 48 points — 21 fewer than any other team that year, and still the only full-length season below 50 points by a team in the NHL’s post-lockout era. According to Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which adjusts a team’s scoring differential for strength of schedule, the Avalanche were 1.32 goals per game worse than an average team that season, also dead last in the league. The franchise that had been among the NHL’s elite throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s was hitting rock bottom.

But in the three seasons since, the Avs have undergone one of the top turnarounds in NHL history. According to SRS, Colorado now ranks first in the league with an adjusted goal differential of +1.06, or 2.38 goals per game better than it had been just a few years earlier. In a league where every six net goals improves a team by one win, improving by nearly two and a half goals per game equates to a massive improvement. And most impressively, the Avalanche have done it in near-record time.

Only two NHL teams since 1942-43 (the dawn of the league’s Original Six era) have gone from last in SRS to first in fewer than five seasons: the 1967-1969 Boston Bruins, and — if it holds up — the 2017-2020 Colorado Avalanche:

The Avalanche have gone from worst to first in a hurry

Smallest gap in seasons between a team finishing last in the NHL in Simple Rating System (SRS) and first, 1943-2020

Last-Place Season First-Place Season
Team Year SRS Teams* Year SRS Teams* Gap
Boston Bruins 1967 -0.85 6 1969 +1.06 12 2yrs
Colorado Avalanche 2017 -1.32 30 2020 +1.06 31 3
Chicago Black Hawks 1958 -0.46 6 1964 +0.58 6 6
Colorado Avalanche 1991 -1.42 21 1997 +0.81 26 6
Detroit Red Wings 1959 -0.61 6 1965 +0.58 6 6
New York Islanders 1973 -2.10 16 1979 +1.76 17 6
New Jersey Devils 1987 -0.87 21 1994 +1.01 26 7

*Number of teams per league that year.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The Bruins arguably had it easier back then as well: They only had to improve from sixth place in order to escape the NHL’s basement, while the Avalanche were 30th out of 30 teams in 2017. The only other modern teams to leap from worst to first since the NHL went crazy with expansion in the 1990s were the New Jersey Devils, who were last in 1986-87 and first in 1993-94 (before winning the Stanley Cup the following year) … and an earlier incarnation of the Avalanche themselves.

Well, sort of. In 1990-91, the franchise was known as the Quebec Nordiques; it wouldn’t move to Denver until the 1995-96 season. But whatever name it went by, the ’91 team was almost exactly as bad as the Avs would be in 2017, finishing with 46 points1 and an abysmal -1.42 SRS. The roster had a handful of future stars onboard, including Joe Sakic (age 21), Mats Sundin (19) and Owen Nolan (18) — plus a 39-year-old Guy Lafleur, in his final NHL campaign — but it wasn’t ready to compete yet. That would change soon, though, as Sakic continued to mature into a Hall of Famer and the team added a bunch of talent around him. The franchise finished eighth in SRS in 1993, second in both 1995 and 1996 (winning the Cup in the latter year), and first in 1997. In the span of six years, the worst team in hockey had become the best.

Unlike the 1991 version, the more recent Avs were better in the seasons leading up to their 2017 debacle. Colorado finished seventh in SRS in 2014, earning then-coach (and legendary former Avalanche goaltender) Patrick Roy Coach of the Year honors, and it was around the middle third of the league in 2015 and 2016. But Roy abruptly left the team in August 2016 over a dispute with management, leaving the club rudderless right before the start of the 2017 schedule. Perhaps as a result, nobody on the roster ended up having a good season. According to goals above replacement,2 which estimates the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on their box score stats, Colorado’s 2017 leader was 21-year-old center Nathan MacKinnon — whose value dropped from 9.8 GAR to 7.7 in what was supposed to be a growth season. Nobody else on the team had more than 5.9 GAR; 20 of the 37 players Colorado used were below-replacement.

A few seeds of success had been planted, however. MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, bounced back in 2018 to become an MVP candidate, posting 22.4 GAR. (He’s been the Avs’ top player this season as well, on pace for 29.3 GAR over a full season.) The team had also already drafted right wing Mikko Rantanen (No. 10 in 2015), who has produced 37.9 GAR since the start of the 2018 season. And 10 weeks after the 2017 season ended, Colorado drafted defenseman Cale Makar with the fourth overall pick; though Makar is injured at the moment, he has been the league’s fourth-best blueliner so far this season, with 7.8 GAR (trailing only John Carlson, Dougie Hamilton and Shea Weber), and easily its best rookie.

The rest of the Avalanche’s leading talent has come from shrewd pickups by Sakic, now the team’s general manager, since the 2017 disaster came to a close:

Outside pickups are at the core of Colorado’s turnaround

Acquisition status for players on pace for at least five goals above replacement (GAR) for the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche, through Dec. 11

Adjusted GAR*
Player Age Pos Off Def Gltd Total Acquired via…
Nathan MacKinnon 24 C 25.6 3.7 0.0 29.3 Draft (2013)
Cale Makar 21 D 17.0 4.3 0.0 21.3 Draft (2017)
Joonas Donskoi 27 RW 12.9 2.7 0.0 15.6 Signed (2019)
Ryan Graves 24 D 6.0 8.1 0.0 14.2 Trade (2018)
Andre Burakovsky 24 LW 12.1 1.7 0.0 13.8 Trade (2019)
Pavel Francouz 29 G 0.0 0.0 13.1 13.1 Signed (2018)
Philipp Grubauer 28 G 0.0 0.0 11.4 11.4 Trade (2018)
Nazem Kadri 29 C 8.2 2.2 0.0 10.4 Trade (2019)
Ian Cole 30 D 4.2 6.1 0.0 10.3 Signed (2018)
Mikko Rantanen 23 RW 8.6 0.8 0.0 9.4 Draft (2015)
Matt Calvert 30 LW 5.8 2.4 0.0 8.2 Signed (2018)
J.T. Compher 24 LW 2.3 4.4 0.0 6.7 Trade (2015)
Matthew Nieto 27 LW 3.4 2.8 0.0 6.3 Signed (2017)

*Adjusted stats are prorated to an 82-game schedule.

Players in bold were acquired by the Avalanche from outside the team since the end of the 2016-17 season.

After finishing last in goals per game in 2017 with a paltry 2.01 markers per contest, the Avalanche now lead the league in scoring with 3.7 goals per game. MacKinnon is tracking for 127 points over 82 games, and Makar is averaging nearly a point a game from the blueline — something that’s seldom been done in the league at all since the early-to-mid 1990s, much less by a rookie. The one-time laughingstock has become a scoring powerhouse.

Can it last? It’s fair to wonder if the Avs are due for a regression soon, given that they’ve climbed to No. 1 from No. 15 in SRS last season — particularly since they remain an average team in terms of their rates of puck possession and quality scoring chances. According to expected goals, no team has been luckier in the early going than Colorado, whose scoring differential is 29 goals higher than we would expect from the locations of its shots for and against. But the Vegas bookmakers believe in Colorado’s chances: Only the Boston Bruins (at 6-1) have better Stanley Cup odds than the Avalanche do at 10-1.3

And even if the Avalanche do fall slightly from their perch atop the SRS rankings, their season still represents an incredible improvement from where the team was just three seasons ago. They serve as living proof that, in hockey as much as any sport, there is always hope for a quick turnaround — no matter how bad things may seem.

Footnotes

  1. In an era before the NHL gave out free points for losing in overtime and shootouts.

  2. My own personal spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold, which I calculate via regression and properly rescaling Hockey-Reference’s Point Shares to a better allotment of value between forwards, defensemen and goalies. (Specifically, forwards are assigned 60 percent of leaguewide value, defensemen 30 percent and goalies 10 percent, in addition to widening the distribution of league goaltending performances.)

  3. The Lightning are tied with the Avs at 10-1.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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