It is not time to worry about the Avalanche (yet)
Let’s talk about the Colorado Avalanche for a bit because they are not currently where they, or anybody else, expected right now.
They are 10 games into the season, have won only four of them, and find themselves six points out of a playoff spot in both the Central Division and the Western Conference Wild Card race.
For a team that has been one of the NHL’s best the past three years and was probably the most popular preseason Stanley Cup pick the past two years, it is a somewhat alarming start. Making matters worse was the news on Wednesday that their top offensive player, Nathan MacKinnon, is going to be sidelined for at least the next three weeks due to a lower-body injury that he suffered in Saturday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
None of that sounds promising.
But it is also probably too soon to start worrying.
Aside from the fact it is only 10 games, the Avalanche have not really had a full complement of players on a consistent basis this season. Between MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, Devon Toews, Cale Makar, and Sam Girard seven of their top players have combined for 30-man games lost due to injury or suspension at various times over the first month of the season. That is a lot, and it adds up.
Despite those injuries there are still signs that the Avalanche are potentially not far away from breaking out.
They are still doing a great job controlling possession and the pace of play during 5-on-5 play, owning a significant edge in shot attempt share and a commanding edge in scoring chances and expected goals. They are among the league’s best teams in all of those areas. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the puck is simply not going in the net for them right now in any situation.
During 5-on-5 play they have scored on just 7.24% of their shots on goal, one of the lowest marks in the league (down from 8.5% the previous three years).
They are also converting on just 10% of their power play opportunities. Colorado’s shooting percentage on the power play: Just 7.4%, 28th in the NHL.
Over the previous three years they converted on more than 20% of their power play opportunities and scored on 14% of the shots. Basically everything about their power play so far has been cut in half. That makes a huge difference. And it should not be expected to continue given A) their talent and B) the level this group has performed at over multiple seasons.
MacKinnon and Rantanen alone have combined to score on just four of their 49 shots on goal this season. That is not necessarily them playing poorly, or a sign that they forgot how to score goals overnight. It is a cold streak. It will reverse when they are both back in the lineup together and healthy.
If there is a potential concern, though, it might be in goal where Darcy Kuemper is replacing Philipp Grubauer following his departure to the Seattle Kraken this past offseason.
Grubauer was an underrated part of the Avalanche’s success the past couple of years and was one of the league’s best goalies a year ago. They paid a steep price to Arizona to get Kuemper as a replacement. With regular backup Pavel Francouz being part of the Avalanche’s extended injured list this season, pretty much all of the workload has fallen on Kuemper. He has been okay, but nothing outstanding. Between him and current backup Jonas Johansson the Avalanche have managed only a .904 team save percentage.
That is tough to overcome, even when the team is still playing fairly well defensively. For the most part, the Avalanche have. They are still a top-10 team in terms of suppressing shots and scoring chances. Kuemper was one of the league’s better goalies for a good portion of his time in Arizona while playing behind a non-playoff team. He has enough of a track record where the Avalanche should be confident in him playing out of this early slump.
So while the early record is a little eye-opening, it is mostly a team that has a sound process but simply is not getting the results for a variety of reasons (percentage driven luck, injuries, slow start for the goalie).
Stick with the process, the results will follow.