September 14 2008 08:03AM
The OilersNation Research Department™ has been hard at work getting ready for the new season. As 2008-09 draws upon us, we’ve analyzed what the Northwest Division will look like. Check out the Canucks preview here and here. Part One of the Colorado preview can be found right here.
A first-rate defensive core is perhaps the best hope the Avalanche has of compensating for their abysmal goaltending. Despite the departures of the under-rated Kurt Sauer and the over-rated (at least by Cliff Fletcher) Jeff Finger, the unit remains among the best in the Western Conference. The addition of Daniel Tjarnqvist (stats taken from 2006–07) only serves to bolster the group.
Adam Foote: 0.46 PTS/60, 2.04 GFON/60, 2.04 GAON/60
Brett Clark: 0.72 PTS/60, 2.87 GFON/60, 2.55 GAON/60
Kurt Sauer: 0.44 PTS/60, 2.81 GFON/60, 1.70 GAON/60
Daniel Tjarnqvist: 0.57 PTS/60, 2.89 GFON/60, 2.67 GAON/60
Scott Hannan: 0.67 PTS/60, 2.42 GFON/60, 2.50 GAON/60
Ruslan Salei: 0.74 PTS/60, 2.30 GFON/60, 2.48 GAON/60
Jeff Finger: 0.73 PTS/60, 3.00 GFON/60, 2.38 GAON/60
John-Michael Liles: 0.57 PTS/60, 2.74 GFON/60, 2.58 GAON/60
Jordan Leopold: 1.13 PTS/60, 2.67 GFON/60, 1.95 GAON/60
Kyle Cumisky: 0.60 PTS/60, 2.26 GFON/60, 2.56 GAON/60
The loss of Kurt Sauer is mitigated by the late season addition of Adam Foote. I imagine the Avalanche will start the season with these pairings:
- Clark - Foote
- Hannan - Leopold
- Liles – Salei
Clark is a vastly underrated defenceman, while Foote, at 37 years of age remains a formidable force in the defensive zone. Scott Hannan and Ruslan Salei are also both legitimate options as top-four defencemen. Jordan Leopold is a guy who in all likelihood would have turned into a top-flight defender if only he could stay healthy—he’s had hip, leg, and head injuries as well as wrist surgery, and that’s just from last season. The 2006–07 season was a similar group of bizarre pains, including wrist and groin injuries and surgery for a hernia. J-M Liles is a power-play specialist who is a liability at even strength; in addition to playing some of the easiest minutes of Colorado defenders over the past two seasons, he hasn’t produced much offensively, comparing well to a mid-tier offensive defenders. Perhaps most damning, Vic Ferrari’s faceoff counter shows that he was on the ice for 122 more offensive zone than defensive zone faceoffs; more than double the number of any other Colorado defenseman, Daniel Tjarnqvist is under-rated but will probably start outside the top six after a season in Russia and a ton of injuries the past two years.
I’m going to take a different look at goaltenders, showing their numbers over the past three seasons, as it’s the position that’s hardest to quantify statistically and it’s also the most important position in the game. Here are Colorado’s tenders:
- 2005-06: 34GP, 14-11-6, 2.86 GAA, .900SV%
- 2006-07: 57GP, 31-16-6, 2.68 GAA, .905SV%
- 2007-08: 35 GP, 16-10-4, 2.57 GAA, .903SV%
- 2005-06: 30GP, 8-19-2, 3.71 GAA, .879SV%
- 2006-07: 72GP, 37-25-9, 2.99 GAA, .894SV%
- 2007-08: 19GP, 2-9-5, 3.92 GAA, .876SV%
This is the reason that many analysts have Colorado pegged to plummet in the standings this season (The Hockey News has them predicted as finishing 14th in the West), and it’s why they don’t really have much chance of contending for the division crown. Peter Budaj is a decent backup goaltender, but not much else. Of the 44 goaltenders to play more than 25 games, Budaj ranked 33rd in SV%. Even Dwayne Roloson (.901SV%) in an off year was in the range.
Rather than re-sign the inconsistent Jose Theodore (.910 last year, .891 and .897 the two years prior) or shell out money for a legitimate starter like Cristobal Huet (worst NHL save percentage: .907 back in 2003–04), Colorado signed Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft’s reputation as having starting ability is based almost entirely on his 2003–04 season, where he posted a .926 SV% and a 2.05 GAA. It’s a number he’s never matched, before or since, at any level of the game. Since the lockout, Raycroft has been unable to crack the .900 mark and last season looked for all the world like a guy who shouldn’t get another NHL start. The Avalanche would have been better off with almost anyone—an NHL castoff like Ray Emery, an elite minor league goalie like Michael Leighton, or even a prospect like Jeff Deslauriers.
If Budaj falters, this could turn into a very, very long season for the Avalanche.
Colorado had miserable special teams last season. Their powerplay fired at a 14.6% efficiency rate (good enough to tie for 28th in the NHL) while their penalty killing was only marginally better at 81.4% (21st in the NHL).
Looking at the Avalanche powerplay, rookie TJ Hensick scored six points in a little under an hour of powerplay time to be the most effective point producer on the team. Outside of that small sample, Joe Sakic (injured for much of the year) was the most effective scorer, averagine 4.88 PTS per 60 minutes of ice-time. Paul Stastny was the only other player to crack the 4 pts/hr mark (4.33). Among defenseman, John-Michael Liles (3.15 PTS/60) was effective on a poor unit. Players like Wojtek Wolski (1.93 PTS/60), Ryan Smyth (2.04 PTS/60), Marek Svatos (2.80 PTS/60) and Milan Hejduk (3.11 PTS/60) all failed to produce with the man advantage. New-comer Darcy Tucker (2.54 PTS/60) doesn’t look like he’ll be much help, but Smyth and Hejduk both should rebound after poor seasons, and Svatos and Wolski are still on the upswing. There’s reason for some hope, but yet again, the Avalanche are likely to have a sub-par powerplay.
The return of Adam Foote should have a big influence on the penalty kill. Foote easily lead Avalanche players in average ice-time 4-on-5 after coming over from Columbus (4.25 minutes/game) and also posted the best goal differential of any player (-3.95/60). Ruslan Salei was also a solid addition. On the other hand, reliable defensive forwards Ian Laperriere and Ben Guite were ineffective, as were Brett Clark and Scott Hannan. There’s likelihood of modest improvement here, but not above league average.
Despite a solid group of forwards and a well-balanced defensive corps, Colorado is unlikely to finish much higher than 4th in the competitive Northwest Division, and consequently is likely to be just outside the playoffs come April. The decision not to bring in a reliable goaltender to replace Jose Theodore will come back to haunt Francois Giguere, and a lack of depth up front means that if any of the top forwards go down with long-term injuries the team will struggle. Even without injuries, the powerplay and penalty kill are both likely to be below average, and will hinder a decent 5-on-5 team.
Colorado has enough talent to be competitive, but too many holes to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper & Blue, a blog dedicated to all things Oil, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.