After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Colorado Avalanche stormed to the Central Division crown in 2013-2014, their 112 points the second most in franchise history.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at an Avalanche team that has promising young talent, but also serious warning signs heading into next season.
First, the talent. Not many teams would prefer their forward core to the Avalanche group of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O'Reilly -- Duchene, at 23, is the senior member, so they could be together for a long time. Defencemen Erik Johnson, 26, and Tyson Barrie, 22, as well as 26-year-old goaltender Semyon Varlamov are other core players that figure to be big parts of the team for years to come.
Varlamov had an outstanding year in 2013-2014 and he's a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as a result, but goaltenders that vastly exceed past performance are likely to experience regression.
Of the 11 goaltenders to post a save percentage of .920 or better in 2013, Tuukka Rask was the only one whose save percentage didn't go down and, of the other 10, the decline in save percentage went from .924 to .914, collectively. Knock .10 off a starting goaltender's save percentage and, facing 2013 shots like Varlamov did last season would mean an extra 20 goals against.
Further reason for concern is that the Avalanche can't simply count on reducing the shots against. They ranked 27th in Fenwick Close, and face the prospect of losing their best puck possession forward, Paul Stastny, as a free agent. Maybe the young core will be able to take steps forward and improve those numbers, but that requires some projection and projection brings risk.
Essentially, this is a cautionary post. There is all kinds of optimism around a talented young Avalanche squad that enjoyed a breakthrough season, but they are a team whose statistical profile ought to temper expectations and that makes this summer's stakes significant.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Greg Sherman/Patrick Roy
Over the past two seasons, Matt Duchene has tallied 113 points in 118 games, which ranks 16th in the league, and while his points tilt towards assists rather than goals, Duchene isn't riding coat tails. In the past two years, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf are the only players with more primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. That's a player generating opportunities and he used his speed to generate the best penalty differential in the league.
There weren't a lot of forwards who played the kind of tough minutes that Gabriel Landeskog did, while posting strong relative possession stats, and his 3.02 shots on goal per game through his first three seasons ranks 11th since 2005-2006 (post Lockout I). Like Duchene, Landeskog set a career-high in points in 2013-2014, despite playing fewer minutes per game than the year before.
The first overall pick last summer, Nathan MacKinnon was eased into the lineup, playing 13:33 per game in October, but gradually took on more responsibility and was up to 19:48 per game in April (20:34 per game in the playoffs). His 63-point rookie season was impressive, and MacKinnon really took off in the second half of the year, putting up 39 points (14 G, 25 A) in his last 42 games, before adding 10 points in seven playoff games. While he was the beneficiary of fortunate percentages, MacKinnon has game-breaking speed that gives him a chance to be one of the game's premier offensive threats.
A knee injury limited Alex Tanguay to just 16 games last season, yet the 34-year-old remains productive. He's a ridiculously accurate shooter and has handles increasingly difficult ice time as his career reaches its twilight. If Tanguay is fully recovered for next season, he can be a valuable contributor.
With a decline in ice time, and his name in trade rumours last season, it's possible that PA Parenteau could be plying his trade elsewhere next season. He has 196 points (70 G, 126 A) in 264 games over the past four seasons, and his 0.74 points per game ranks 56th in the league (minimum 200 GP), so even if he isn't ideal for the Avalanche coaching staff, there should be some appreciation for Parenteau's ability to produce offence.
Checking centre John Mitchell rode some fortunate percentages on his way to a career-high 32 points, playing a bigger role than might have been expected given the Avalanche's centre talent, but injuries and Ryan O'Reilly and Nathan MacKinnon spending time on the wings gave Mitchell lots of time in the top nine.
Acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers, Maxime Talbot was given a big role with the Avalanche, playing a career-high 16:10 per game (16:19 per game with Colorado) and while Talbot has, at times, taken on tough assignments (based on defensive zone starts and quality of competition) it hasn't been enough to justify his poor possession numbers over the past couple years. He's a solid and respected veteran, but probably doesn't need the kind of ice time he's been getting.
Cody McLeod has fought 90 times over the past seven seasons, but his production has been limited and he had the worst puck possession numbers of his career last season.
Part of the reason for those poor puck possession numbers is that McLeod spends much of his time skating on the fourth line with Patrick Bordeleau and Marc-Andre Cliche and that trio doesn't have the talent to keep pace. Bordeleau is a 6-foot-6 winger who can play the intimidator, but when he and McLeod are on the ice, they pack more punch than they do possess pucks.
Throughout his career, Marc-Andre Cliche has been a defensively-responsible forward with no offensive upside. After six AHL seasons in the Kings' organization, he earned a spot with the Avalanche last year and while he may have a defensiev conscience, Cliche was one of six forwards to play more than 800 minutes in an NHL season and register one goal or less.
A tremendous young two-way player, Ryan O'Reilly had a career-best offensive season after moving to the wing to play with Duchene. He plays a well-rounded game, which earned him a career-high 19:49 time on ice per game last season, and figures to be a priority for the Avalanche to sign as a restricted free agent, though that comes with some complications because the offer sheet he signed last season with Calgary paid him $6.5-million in 2013-2014. Working off that base means a pricey ticket going forward, depending on how O'Reilly is prepared to structure his deal.
Jamie McGinn is a solid physical winger who can contribute offensively, and had a career-high 38 points last season. He's a nice complementary piece for the Avs, and has handled playing with skilled linemates, making him a good fit in the top nine.
The Avalanche can still put together a legitimate top nine even if they lose Paul Stastny to free agency, but Stastny's departure would be huge -- he plays hard minutes and that helped free up Duchene for a more offensive role.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
After five seasons in the AHL, during which he got into a grand total of seven NHL games, Nick Holden not only earned a regular spot on the Avalanche blueline, but he was playing more than 20 minutes per game by the time April rolled around. Surely, his finishing ability helped earn him playing time, but Holden also had adequate relative possession stats for a team that didn't have good puck control numbers.
The first overall pick in 2006, Erik Johnson has gone through ups and downs to this point, but 2013-2014 may have been as good as any in his career, taking on the tough assignments and starting more shifts in the defensive zone on his way to tying a career high with 39 points. For all the questions on the Avalanche defence, Johnson appears to be one cornerstone around which they can build.
Jan Hejda gets pressed into shutdown duty, facing the opposition's best forwards and starting shifts in the defensive zone, but he's among those defencemen who get destroyed under that workload. He's a defensive defenceman, but one that tends to spend a lot of time in his own end and, no matter how good you are defensively, if you spend that much time in your own end, pucks tend to find the net.
In 2010-2011, Ryan Wilson was playing nearly 20 minutes per game on the Avalanche defence, but he's been battling injuries and has fallen out of favour on the Colorado blueline, playing a career-low 14:40 per game last season while getting into only 28 games. He's going into the final year of his contract and may not be more than a depth player for the Avs.
As part of the Avalanche plan to turn over their blueline to AHLers, 31-year-old Nate Guenin got into 68 games, after playing 32 career NHL games previously. His possession stats do suggest that there's some reason that Guenin hadn't previously been an NHL regular.
The Avalanche have been exceedingly patient with Tyson Barrie, perhaps too much so, but he finally secured his place in the lineup and contributed 35 points in his last 47 games last season. His playoff was cut short by a knee injury, suffered on a hit by Wild LW Matt Cooke, but Barrie is a dynamic puck mover who should be in line for a bigger role next season.
It would be conceivable that the Avalanche could lose Stastny as a free agent, then turn around and spend their money on a free agent to bolster their blueline. They could try to keep Andre Benoit, and still seek out Tom Gilbert, Anton Stralman, Stephane Robidas or Mark Fayne as guys that could play in their top four.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
After posting a career-low .903 save percentage last season, Semyon Varlamov bounced back with a career-best .927 save percentage in a career season. He's only 26-year-old, so there is reason to believe that Varlamov could be an above average goaltender going forward, but it would be more than a little surprising if he duplicated his career-best season in 2014-2015. That could be a legitimate issue if the Avalanche don't drastically improve their puck possession because a lot of their success last season was predicated on Varlamov's superior play.
Looking ahead to next season, the Avalanche acquired Reto Berra from Calgary for a second-round pick and the Avs sure better have some scouting that they like on Berra, because he had an .893 save percentage in his first NHL season, ranking 37th out of 38 goaltenders to play at least 30 games. That was enough to earn a three-year contract extension.
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||10-14-24, -10, 50 GP
||Owen Sound (OHL)
||4-22-26, -11, 55 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||2.85 GAA, .906 SV%, 43 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||1-3-4, -1, 46 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||14-14-28, -16, 61 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||2.65 GAA, .909 SV%, 36 GP
||Prince George (WHL)
||29-56-85, -4, 69 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||8-26-34, -9, 76 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||17-32-49, -12, 75 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||4-8-12, +1, 63 GP
||8-8-16, -3, 38 GP
It's really a shame how injuries, including concussions, have side-tracked Joey Hishon's career, because he was sizzling in his last year of junior. While 30 points in 59 AHL games since hardly assures that the 22-year-old is destined to make the NHL, the 17th pick in the 2010 Draft did get into three playoff games with minimal ice time.
A smart young defenceman, Chris Bigras was Colorado's second-round pick last summer and while he impressed in camp last season, the defensive blueliner could still play another year of junior before playing pro.
A second-round pick in 2010, Calvin Pickard's second pro season wasn't quite as strong as his first, but the 22-year-old remains a viable option for the future.
The 11th overall pick in 2011, Duncan Siemens may not live up to his lofty draft status, but he's a tough defensive defenceman. After a mediocre rookie year, a strong sophomore season would put him in a better place as a prospect.
Drafted in the second round in 2009, Stefan Elliott has 18 points with strong puck possession stats in 58 games with the Avalanche, but he hasn't been able to hold down a spot in Colorado.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2010, Sami Aittokallio improved in his second pro season, and may eventually have a shot at the NHL, but he needs further development.
Picked in the third round in 2012, Troy Bourke improved steadily throughout his junior career and, at the end of last season, chipped in seven points in 15 AHL games. With few premium forward prospects in the pipeline, Bourke has a chance to climb the ladder quickly.
Taken in the seventh round in 2012, Colin Smith isn't big, but he was productive in junior and did enough in his first pro season, putting up 18 points in his last 25 games, to be encouraged that there is more to show.
Undrafted second-year pro Andrew Agozzino has 101 points in two AHL campaigns. He may not have a high ceiling, but could have a chance to get called up if the Avalanche need forward depth.
Mitchell Heard, a second-round pick in 2012, has 16 points and 239 penalty minutes in 86 AHL games. He's tough, but will that be enough to make it to the next level?
An undersized puck-moving defenceman, Will Butcher had a fine first collegiate season and the 2013 fifth-round pick should get more responsibility as he matures.
Checking winger Garrett Meurs, big defenceman Mason Geertsen and Croatian winger Borna Rendulic are others to keep an eye on moving forward.
Avalanche advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
23rd - Roland McKeown, Conner Bleackley, Travis Sanheim.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Avalanche have approximately $45.1M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 17 players.
Check out my possible Avalanche lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top pair defenceman, depth forwards.
What I said the Avalanche needed last year: One top pair defenceman, depth forwards, starting goaltender
They added: Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Tanguay, Marc-Andre Cliche, Nick Holden, Andre Benoit, Cory Sarich, Nate Guenin.
PA Parenteau, Jamie McGinn, Ryan Wilson.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.