After finishing dead last in the NHL last season, the Colorado Avalanche have experienced a recovery of sorts. Ten games into the 2017-18 season, the Avalanche have attained 10 points — 20 percent of the team’s total points last season — in just a fraction of the time.
One might think that things have changed for the better in Colorado, but relative to one year ago, the team has the same .500 record after 10 games.
With an identical start to what was ultimately a terrible 2016-2017 campaign, there could be real reason to worry about the Avalanche this season. Things are further complicated by a lackluster offseason and the persistent drama surrounding the status of Matt Duchene, but somehow, the Avs are in third place in a hotly contested Central Division. Only division leader St. Louis has more wins than Colorado.
What is different about this team? After a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado has an identical goal differential to last year’s team – 28 for, 31 against, for a minus-3 differential. Prior to the loss, the Avalanche were plus-4, which put them at No. 12 in the league.
If these seem like indicators that Colorado’s opening 10-game performance is inflated, and that the team might be in for another terrible season, you might be right. The problems start at the back and flow through the lineup.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has pumped his quality save percentage nearly a full point, from .478 last season to .571; however, he is still failing to find the plus side of his goals saved above average. His goals against average is still hovering over three, and his win percentage is just one game over .500 (.571.)
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Defensively, the Avalanche have some work to do. The bright side is that the Avs are scoring from the back end — defenseman Tyson Barrie is second on the team in goals and holds the highest offensive point share on the Avs.
With only 2.8 goals per game, the Avalanche are still in the bottom third in scoring. If there is any highlight to the team’s 28 goals, it is that they are spread fairly evenly; five players share the goal-scoring lead on the team with three. This includes rookie free agent Alex Kerfoot, who signed with the team after the Will Butcher debacle.
Aside from the team’s failure to sign Butcher, the offseason was largely defined by the mishandling of Duchene. While the Avalanche continue to shop the top-six forward, Duchene is doing his best to prove his value, and is one of those five players to lead the team in scoring.
His eight points have all come at even strength, which is where the Avalanche have improved this year. While a 14 percent power play conversion mark isn’t something to celebrate, it is important that the Avalanche have developed consistent 5-on-5 scoring.
The penalty kill could be the team’s Achilles’ heel. The Avs are again one of the worst teams in the NHL when shorthanded, and Colorado’s opponents have scored 33 percent of their combined goals against the Avalanche penalty kill.
Teams know they can draw penalties against the Avs, and they know they can convert on the ensuing power play. The blame falls squarely on the defense — Varlamov’s short-handed save percentage is the best it has been in three seasons. The penalty kill is allowing so many shots to penetrate that even with six goals against, Varlamov is just a few ticks shy of .900 shorthanded.
Improvements on defense and special teams could certainly boost the Avalanche; however, the team has given fans little reason over the last few years to believe that these flaws can be straightened out. Colorado’s young talent is playing well, and the seasoned vets are pulling their weight. If the coaching can develop successful special teams strategies, the Avalanche could avoid crashing the league basement for the second consecutive season.