NHL Re­port Even “worse,” the Avalanche hasn’t tried to tank

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Terry Frei, The Den­ver Post

Last sea­son, the Toronto Maple Leafs stum­bled to a league-worst 29-42-11 record, for 69 points. Then the Maple Leafs won the draft lot­tery and took Aus­ton Matthews with the top over­all pick.

This sea­son, the Maple Leafs — with three of the top four rookie scor­ers in the league — are on pace for 95 points and likely will make the play­offs.

While the Avalanche can hope to pull off that kind of re­cov­ery, the prob­lem with cit­ing re­cent prece­dents is that the start­ing point is so low. Colorado won’t crack 50 points this sea­son, and the pre­vi­ous worst in a non­lock­out year in the shootout era is Buf­falo’s 52 points in 2013-14. Un­like other teams in the NHL and, es­pe­cially, the NBA, the Avalanche doesn’t even seem to have tried to tank, or to embrace that ap­proach when it ap­peared the sea­son was lost. It hasn’t even needed to.

The Sabres came back with 54 points the next sea­son. Then, af­ter draft­ing Jack Eichel, had 81 in 2014-15 and are on pace for about 80 this sea­son, again miss­ing the play­offs.

The Avalanche had 39 points, the third-low­est to­tal in the league’s 48game sea­son in 2013, be­fore win­ning the draft lot­tery, claim­ing Nathan MacKin­non and then pil­ing up 112 points in 201314, fin­ish­ing third over­all. In­dis­putably, that sea­son wasn’t a har­bin­ger. I won’t go into all of the rea­sons again, but a ma­jor one is that the Avalanche’s draft fail­ures came home to roost.

Even if the Avalanche again lands the top over­all choice, the likely pick — cen­ter Nolan Pa­trick — isn’t be­ing touted as the sort of “gen­er­a­tional” pick who can spark an im­me­di­ate turn­around. The Avalanche will have had the top over­all pick twice in five drafts, but with all due re­spect to MacKin­non and per­haps Pa­trick, likely won’t have timed it right to land that build-a-fran­chisearound player.

The plan­ets must align for the Avalanche to be­come com­pet­i­tive — or more than that — next sea­son. That means:

• Se­myon Var­lamov shows his hip surgery has rid him of his re­cur­ring groin mus­cle is­sues. He has to be­come one of the league’s elite goalies again, liv­ing up to the stan­dards set by his an­nual $5.9 mil­lion cap hit through 2018-19. Trade him? Who’s go­ing to take him now, es­pe­cially with that con­tract? Ex­pose him to the ex­pan­sion draft? Sure, but he won’t be taken.

• Joe Sa­kic again ex­plores trad­ing Matt Duch­ene and Gabe Lan­deskog. (I’d in­clude MacKin­non in the ex­plo­rations too.) If no deal is made, ab­solv­ing the three for­wards of blame for this dump­ster fire be­cause of the cast around them is un­der­stand­able, but goes too far. They’re sup­posed to lead this team, and faith in them has been at the core of Sa­kic’s plan to tie them up con­trac­tu­ally and fill in around them. They have to step up. Fi­nally.

• The de­fense is up­graded. Tyson Bar­rie, while valu­able if uti­lized cor­rectly, can’t be ex­pected to play ma­jor min­utes among the top four. Nikita Zadorov‘s showy hits have caused some to over­look his propen­sity for mis­takes, but at 21, he is mak­ing con­sid­er­able progress.

• The “youth” move­ment is pro­duc­tive, il­lus­trat­ing that play­ers such as Mikko Ran­ta­nen, J.T. Com­pher, An­ton Lind­holm, Chris Bi­gras, A.J. Greer and Zadorov — and more — truly are wor­thy of the hopes the Colorado front of­fice has for them. (Ran­ta­nen al­ready has passed most of the tests.) Tyson Jost, who just com­pleted his fresh­man sea­son at North Dakota, could fig­ure in this, but he would be fol­low­ing the lead of his idol, Jonathan Toews, if he stays an­other year in Grand Forks.

• With cap room cleared, Sa­kic se­lec­tively mines the un­re­stricted free-agent mar­ket in the off­sea­son, while also avoid­ing the temp­ta­tion to “overt­erm” a vet­eran or two to get them to sign here. That has been his big­gest mis­take so far.

• Get­ting this toxic, bad-karma, noth­ing-go­ing-right sea­son be­hind them. Terry Frei: tfrei@den­ver­post.com or @TFrei

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