I called it earlier, but it's all but official. The Avs will finish out of the playoffs for the 4th time in the last 6 seasons. A spirited run to the finish to be sure, but the time has come to look to the future, which actually looks pretty bright. I won't get too mired in numbers...just a quick overview. Well, quick for me at least.
The Avs obviously improved their win total from last season, due in no small part to addressing their weaknesses this offseason and at the deadline. In addition to acquiring two new goaltenders (and at a hefty price) the Avs also abandoned their plan of relying on speed and offense and sought to make the team bigger, tougher, and yes, harder to play against. Surprisingly, the Avs are also the 3rd-best faceoff team in the league, something that even in the Sakic/Forsberg days was not necessarily a strength of the team. What's remarkable is that the Avs made that jump (up from 14th last season) with virtually the same players at center as before.
Statistically, some of these improvements paid off in spades. The Avs leapt upward in terms of team defense and penalty killing, going from dead last in both categories to 13th in terms of goals-against per game and 11th-best in shots given up (they were 23rd last season) as well as a 12th ranked PK. Even the power play improved slightly to rank in the top ten.
That did come at a price though. In making the team bigger and grittier, they also made the team's blueline corps slower and not nearly as deft with the puck. Colorado relied on their defense to jump into the play last season, which made for a potent attack but also left the team vulnerable if said attacks didn't lead to a goal. It's also clear management felt the team was too easy to push around and not nearly durable enough, given their high injury totals the last two seasons. Nevertheless, the team needs to find a way to improve its even-strength scoring.
So what's next? It's really all up in the air for now. The Avs have A LOT of restricted free agents to retain and some unrestricted free agents they may want to keep around as well. The Avs are well-equipped to retain all players since they have the lowest payroll in the league, the question now is, should they?
The league's youngest and cheapest team most obviously could use an infusion of skill, both at defense and up front. But with such a weak free agent market, will they opt instead to make the Lacroix-esque trade? Greg Sherman has proven he's not afraid to pull the trigger on a big deal if he feels it will improve the team for the long run. One thing that MUST improve if the Avs are to try and actually contend next season is offense. They fell from 18th to 23rd in goals-for this season, and last night's OT loss to Vancouver showed that while they can put shots on net, they don't have nearly enough finish to score with any sort of consistency, especially against defensive-minded squads.
As for key players going forward, the team was more or less buoyed throughout the entire season by the breakout performance of one Mr. Ryan O'Reilly, who currently leads the team in points. He is followed by Calder contender Gabriel Landeskog, who I believe currently has the rookie lead in goals. Semyon Varlamov's bounceback after a wildly inconsistent start has been key in the Avs' 2nd-half resurgence as well. The same applies to Paul Stastny, who really clicked with new addition Jamie McGinn. But while it was a season to remember for O'Reilly and Landeskog, it was one to forget for Matt Duchene. Following a 67-point sophomore season, Duchene is on pace to deliver the lowest totals in points and games played of his brief NHL career. It almost felt at times during this season that Duchene just didn't plain fit with the team's new focus on grit and defense. But to say he has no place on this team would be ridiculous. The team needs to retain him and needs to give him at least one skilled winger who fits his game as well as Tomas Fleischmann did.
On the back end, the defense is better defensively, but they also are in dire need of some puckmoving help. Erik Johnson can't do it all himself, and stopgap measures like Matt Hunwick aren't enough either. The need was so bad the Avs were forced to call up still-fresh-from-junior prospects Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie in separate stints. Now both players remain on the roster as the Avs make one last desperate push for the playoffs. Is it too much to ask two kids to anchor an NHL offense without even a single complete season in the AHL?
And all of this leads to the biggest question of the offseason: Will Joe Sacco be retained? The biggest black mark on his season thus far has been the abysmal divisional record. Absolutely unacceptable for a division as weak as the Northwest. But at the same time, if he gets the blame for this team's shortcomings, does he not also get credit for their successes? He took a rebuilding team to the postseason his first year with the club, and until the February collapse nearly did it again last year. Once again he has an incredibly young and inexpensive squad vying for a playoff spot. That has to count for something. Though it's the final year of his contract, Joe Sacco deserves a chance to show what he can do with this team with more talent and a larger payroll...even if that means the Avs have to let their head-coach-in-training, David Quinn, pursue other opportunities.
FREE AGENT WISH LIST:
Travis Moen - Fits right in with a gritty squad, and he would actually be an improvement upon the PK help lost when Winnik was traded.
Andrei Kostitsyn - Like Tomas Fleischmann, a talented, but wildly inconsistent forward capable both of scoring goals and making plays. He'd be a (potentially) great fit with Duchene.
Ryan Suter/Zach Parise - Duh. But both will likely cost too much and there's a good chance neither will even hit the market.
Jarret Stoll - He'd have to play more of a center/wing role, but he pretty much plays that role anyway. Also makes an already-potent power play even more potent.
Some other possibilties if we don't get any of the above-listed: Joe Corvo, Shaone Morrisonn, Radek Dvorak, Chris Campoli, Paul Gaustad, P.A. Parenteau, Matt Gilroy
All in all, I'm quite pleased with the way things worked out. But I will no longer accept mediocrity from this squad nor will I accept crappy divisional play, payroll and youth be damned. This team has proven it can play good hockey despite those two factors. It now falls on the shoulders of management, coaching, and the players themselves to do it over the course of an entire season.