NHL Report Even “worse,” the Avalanche hasn’t tried to tank
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or @TFrei