Sunday, November 3, 2013

Avalanche 12-1, and other awesome thoughts

With their 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Colorado Avalanche are now 12-1, matching the single greatest start to any professional sports season ever.1 The Avs have had two six-game win streaks sandwiching their lone loss... to the Detroit Red Wings, which from the perspective of the world's foremost Wings/Avs fan hybrid is about the best possible outcome. Detroit has to settle for a three-way (kinky!) tie for second in the Eastern conference, which is another way of saying they have the tenth-best record in hockey. Yeah, the East is weak... but Detroit will have to wait for their own blog entry, this one belongs to the Avs. Suck it, Wings!

At 12-1, the Avalanche are the talk of the NHL, and it's nice.2 Much has been made of the reasons behind this record—pure luck, amazing goaltending, Roy is a genius, etc, —and so today Fourth Assist is going to break down some of these theories and see what's really going on with this team.

1. Patrick Roy is the best head coach in the history of the sport.
Dis i'zakly what we plan, all along, wid a big start
to de seezon, and now I weenk at you all to show how
easy dis game is when you are Patrick Roy. Negts question?
It's hard to argue that Roy hasn't had a tremendous effect on this team. They are playing a simpler game than they did under Joe Sacco who, despite what many fans seem to think, DID actually have a "system" in place, and a fairly complex one at that. The problem was that the systems that Sacco coached seemed to be based on the type of game Sacco himself played, but the makeup of his roster was not really suited for that type of game. Roy has the team playing to their strengths, and the talent on the team is thriving.

However, it's still too early to say that Roy is a great—or even a good—NHL coach. Almost any new head coach brings a "bump" to the team, and when the team is winning every coach looks brilliant (Josh McDaniels, anyone?). It's not until that bump fades and the team faces some real adversity that you see how successful a coach is going to be long-term. Avs fans remember some pretty good stretches under Sacco, too, but in the big picture those turned out to be the anomaly. Coaching when the team is winning is easy, it's coaching in a losing streak that separates the men from the boys.

It's a chicken-or-egg question: is the team playing well because Roy is a great coach, or does Roy look like a great coach just because the team is playing well?  Is this 12-1 streak the anomaly, or not? Only time will tell. However, it's safe to say that all the evidence we've seen so far tells us that Roy is doing a pretty damn good job, and he seems much better prepared for coaching the NHL game than his skeptics—myself included—believed. Until we see how he coaches when things are going badly, the jury is still out, but initial signs are extremely hopeful.

How could you not want a guy like this on your team? ...Oh,
you mean they have to skate and move around? Never mind.
2. This is the same team as last year's other than Nathan MacKinnon, so it must be Roy making all the difference.
Even though the last section was praising Roy's job so far and so one might assume this would be included in the previous answer, since this Avs excuse is actually complete bullshit it gets its own section. I have heard Barry Melrose (among others) say this more than once, offering it as proof that since Roy has the same roster as Sacco had and is winning, that the reason for their success must be that Sacco sucked and Roy is amazing. However, this statement only really proves one thing, and that is that Barry Melrose has his head up his ass and doesn't do his homework.3

Although the core of young players is largely unchanged from last year's team, this is a very different team on the ice than it was under Sacco. David Jones, Shane O'Brien, Matt Hunwick, Greg Zanon, Chuck Kobasew, Milan Hejduk, Ryan O'Byrne, Tyson Barrie, Mark Olver, and Aaron Palushaj all appeared in over half of the Avs' games last season. That's a lot of miscast, average, or just plain sucky talent getting major minutes for last year's team, and of those only Hunwick and Barrie are even in the organization right now (Barrie lives in Roy's doghouse as a healthy scratch most nights, and the oft-maligned Hunwick is a safe distance from Roy's doghouse, living the dream in the AHL). Taking up those lost minutes have been Wilson, Sarich, Benoit, Guenin (essentially replacing 2/3 of last year's crappier-than-crap defense), Tanguay, Downie, and yes, MacKinnon.

In short, to say that this team is essentially the same as last year's team is idiotic. Give Roy the credit for what he has done, but so much dead weight was cut from last year's roster that it should be no surprise that they're playing like a different team... because they are a different team. Full props here go to Sakic and Sherman for their budget-minded yet extremely effective roster overhaul.

3. The Avalanche are just a lucky team, and they will lose as soon as they face a team that plays well against them.
There is no doubt that "luck," if you want to call it that, plays a part in sports. You play a good game and lose, you play a bad game and win. And to be sure, this 12-1 stretch includes a high percentage of games in which they played even with or were outplayed overall by their opponent, but still came away with the win. The most starry-eyed Avs fan needs to be honest and admit as much.

So, are we cool with people just ripping off
Gary Larson's entire schtick now, or what?
However, the same can be said about pretty much any really, really good team: they aren't always the best team for sixty minutes, but in those fleeting opportunities that decide games, they somehow find a way to make the play that ends up being the difference. So do we call this luck, or is it the sign of a good team? As the wins pile up, the Avs' detractors will need to come to the realization that it's less of the former and more of the latter.

The same thing goes as far as facing a team on a "good" night is concerned: some critics have said that the Avs are just meeting teams on their off-nights, and as soon as somebody brings their "A" game, the Avs will go down. This argument ignores the fact that the Avalanche has a significant part to play in how the other team looks... yes, it could be that the Avs have coincidentally just happened to face twelve teams on each of those twelve teams' worst nights of the year, but it seems much more likely that the Avs are doing something to make it difficult for teams to play their best against them.

Some luck is involved, for sure, in any winning streak, and the Avalanche are not going to finish the season with 70 wins. It remains to be seen what kind of team they will be when those bounces aren't going their way... but to suggest that it's all luck is to ignore all the good things the team is doing to appear lucky.

4. The Avs are riding hot goaltending, which is masking their glaring weaknesses.
Here I think is perhaps the Avs criticism that comes closest to the truth. The Avalanche goaltenders have been playing exceptionally well, and their stats are not sustainable. I say this only because nobody has ever finished an NHL season with the stats the Avs goalies now have.4

The biggest concern from this viewpoint is that the Avs defense—while much-improved both from the actual play of the defensemen and the overall team play in the defensive zone—is still allowing more shots on goal than all but five teams in the NHL... six if you count the Sabres.5 There is certainly something to be said for the quality of shots being allowed, and nobody who saw last year's defense and this year's defense play would argue that there hasn't been a vast improvement, but it's safe to say that defense is still a weakness and goaltending is bailing them out to a large extent most nights. It's something that's going to have to either change for the better, or it will change for the worse.

So there you have it! All questions answered: Yes, the team is different, Roy is doing a great job, they are getting lucky... but they're also really, really good. Just not good enough to beat Detroit. All clear now?

Random Thoughts:
Dater's latest foray into yellow journalism was his recent opinion that Matt Duchene would not only make a good captain, but that he SHOULD be captain of the Avalanche. Dater's attempt to say that it was only his way of praising Duchene, without any hint of slighting Landeskog, rings hollow. One simply cannot say that

1) A guy who has never been captain,
2) would make a great captain,
3) and should replace the current captain

...without it being a slam on the current captain. Landeskog was named captain very early—too early if you ask me—but he's pretty clearly got what it takes to do the job. He's been a leader and a captain everywhere he's played, and in case you haven't noticed the Avs seem to be running pretty smoothly at the moment with him wearing the "C."

Dater could easily have written an article praising Duchene's growth and left it at that, or even gone as far as to say that if the team were choosing its captain now, rather than a year ago, that Duchene would have to be considered... but he didn't write that because that's not sensational enough. Dater remains all too often a clickwhore more interested in being read than creating something that's worth reading.

Semyon Varlamov's legal issues are nothing to ignore. Not everything that happens in a celebrity's personal life needs to get dredged up and made a spectacle of... the line on where the personal life ends and the public life begins is always a good and lively debate. When an athlete cheats on his taxes or smokes a doobie or smuggles pee across state lines to hide his doobie-smoking or drives over a curb in the middle of the night after running out for lottery tickets after too many Big Gulps full of wine, there's a certain amount of "his personal life shouldn't matter" discussion that rightly goes along with that, and it usually is settled with the athlete going back onto the field and most people forgiving and forgetting what he did, while a vocal minority never let him forget it for as long as he remains in the public eye.

The offenses Varlamov is accused of are not that nature of crime... they are very serious charges with a specific victim. The team is correct to stand with their teammate and support him until the facts of the case are known and decided, but too many people are confusing the "innocent until proven guilty" mantra with "let's pretend nothing has happened until we're forced by law to confront it." Sadly, the Avalanche has been totally silent on this issue, and they risk sending the wrong message. While there are good arguments for and against whether Varlamov should be playing while this is going on, I think the Avalanche must address the issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet to deal with it later. They needn't suspend the player to make a statement about the crime... how about they donate $ to a different women's shelter for each remaining Avs home game this season? Something to show that while they fully support their player, brother, and teammate, they also support the victims of a crime very much at the center of the team's current media image.

Dater's "Daterjinx" amuses and annoys me. For those unfamiliar, Dater's twitter feed is full of bold sports-outcome predictions that inevitably go wrong, which he then calls the Daterjinx: his way of forcing the other team win because he picked them to lose. I'm equally entertained and annoyed with these: entertained because he's obviously having fun with it and there's nothing wrong with that, but annoyed that he's taken his nearly total inability to read the pulse of a sporting event (which you'd think for a sportswriter would be somewhat essential) and used it to make it all about Adrian. When he makes a correct prediction, he doesn't call it a failed Daterjinx, of course... he pats himself on the back for calling it right.

Yeah, I know it's his twitter feed and the entire misguided notion behind this stupid fad is that anybody's thoughts are worth reading, and so of COURSE he's going to keep himself in his own spotlight... I get that. Maybe it's twitter that annoys me?

Nope, it's Dater, using something that annoys me to annoy me. Well played, Dater.

So much to like about this pic. I like
to imagine that Foote farted right then,
just to make it extra-great.
Adam Foote's number retirement ceremony was great. I was pleased to see how many teammates showed up for the ceremony, and it was great to see the Avs do it the right way, tacky painting and all. I also thought it fitting that the team went out and won that game in a very Foote-like fashion: not necessarily graceful, not particularly dominant, and not entirely skillful, but muscular and relentless and just kind of mean.

Dr. B

1. All statistics are subject to poetic license and broad factual haziness.
2. Mostly nice, with some very, very not-nice.
3. That may be two things, actually, but Melrose would count them as 1/4 of a thing.
4. Kind of guessing on this one, but I'm pretty sure I'm mostly right.
5. This stat is actually correct, please go ahead and ignore note #1 on this one.

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