Saturday, December 24, 2011

Super 8

Of all the great teams the Colorado Avalanche have had throughout the years, none of them ever won 8 consecutive home games...until now!  The youngest team in the NHL, whose best players cannot even drink yet (Duchene, O'Reilly, Landeskog, Elliott), accomplished that feat last night, capped off with a Matt Duchene overtime goal.  Early in the season, the Avs could not buy a home win and were unstoppable on the road.  Fast forward to December, the Avs have won 8 straight at home, but have lost the last 9 in a row on the road.  If you could take the Avs' road play from October and their home play from December, they'd be virtually unstoppable!  Just got to put all the pieces together.  The Avs have also been phenomenal against the Eastern Conference, winning 9 games and losing only to the Penguins on the road.  Unfortunately, the new realignment doesn't have the Avs moving to an Eastern Conference.

Stastny and Johnson have picked up their play of late.  In their mid 20s and donning "A"s, they are somewhat "veteran" leaders on the team and the Avs need them to be good to be a successful team.  Both guys have huge expectations placed on their shoulders and their play has been good, despite the criticism that both players have faced.

While the Avs have dominated against the East, they have been abysmal in their own division.  Winning only once thus far and losing 9, this obviously has to change if the Avs want to be playing more than 82 games.  They'll get a chance to improve their division record right after Christmas against the Christmas-colored and division-leading Minnesota Wild in St. Paul.

Going into the Christmas break on a 4-game winning streak means that Joe Sacco's job is certainly not in immediate jeopardy, but some of his recent decisions are questionable.  The past 2 games, he's gone with the same lineup that won the previous 2.  Makes sense except that he has benched his supposed #1 goalie for all 4 games and the team's top-scoring defenseman, Kyle Quincey, is now healthy after missing 2 games with a groin injury, but has been a healthy scratch in the team's most recent pair of games.  Granted, Jean-Sebastien Giguere has played some fantastic hockey in his last 4 games, but Semyon Varlamov is supposed to be the guy, and at 23, he needs to have his confidence.  I have no problem with Jiggy getting starts when he's playing well like he is, but Sacco, McLean, or even Giguere needs to keep Varly's confidence up!  Remember how quickly Craig Anderson's stint in Colorado went south?  The difference between Andy and Varly is that the Avs did not give up 2 draft picks to get Andy.  As far as Kyle Quincey is concerned, are his days in Denver numbered?  He's been the Avs' best defenseman so far this season, but with the emergence of Stefan Elliott, have the Avs coaches and management deemed him expendable?  With his play, he should be able to garner a decent return, and I've been saying all year that the Avs could use some more help at wing.  Or even if they can get a 2012 first round pick back...

Finally, here are my Christmas wishes/New Year's Resolutions for the Avs:

-A healthy Peter Mueller.  The Avs have been fairly lucky thus far regarding injuries.  They have not lost any key players for an extended amount of time with the exception of Mueller.  It would be sad to see a player with his potential forced out of the league so young, but if he can finally shake his concussion issues, he can still be a player.


-Wins in the division.  Like I said, if the Avs hope to make the playoffs, they have to be good within the division!

Monday, December 5, 2011


Colorado Avalanche Ryan O'Reilly Pumps

In mid November, the Colorado Avalanche embarked on an 8-game homestand, the longest in team history.  The Avs started it with an underwhelming 2-3 record and all signs were pointing to continued home struggles for the Burgundy and Blue.  However, in large part due to the player nicknamed "Factor," the Avs rattled off three straight wins to conclude the home stretch.  This three-game winning streak the Avs are riding is the team's longest winning streak since their five-game streak back in October and the first time all season the team has won more than one consecutive game at home.

How good has Ryan O'Reilly been of late?  Over the past three games, Factor has scored 4 goals, 3 assists, and is a plus-7.  This does not even include the shootout game-winner against St. Louis.  He has also earned the #1 start of the game the past two games and was the #2 star the game before that.  This is by and large the best offensive strech of O'Reilly's young career.  Quite often, phrases like "wise beyond his years," "rink rat," and "work ethic" are used to describe the 20-year-old centerman.  Matt Duchene was the Avs' prize of the 2009 draft, after being taken 3rd overall and he has lived up to his billing.  He is by far the Avs' flashiest player and is very explosive and creative with the puck.  Duchene is the guy who is going to put up highlight reel goals for years to come. 

With the 32nd pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, the Detroit Red Wings select...Landon Ferraro.  With that, the Avs management excitedly went to the podium and selected the player they were hoping would still be available.  While Duchene came into camp with a pretty good chance at making the team, especially after the retirement of longtime captain and top center, Joe Sakic, pretty much no one expected the 2nd round pick to stick with the big club.  In fact, O'Reilly was the first non-first rounder to immediately make the jump to the NHL since Patrice Bergeron did it with the Bruins in 2003.

Throughout his first two NHL seasons, O'Reilly became known as a hard-working penalty killing center and a solid defensive forward.  However, this year, he has spent the majority of his time on a line with 2011's 2nd overall pick, Gabriel Landeskog and recently received new captain Milan Hejduk on his right wing.  O'Reilly has used these new weapons to flex his offensive muscles and has already accumulated 21 points in 27 games.  In each of his first two seasons, O'Reilly posted 26 points in 81 and 74 games respectively.  Needless to say, Factor is on pace to clearly surpass his previous season's offensive output, probably even before Christmas.

O'Reilly experienced a very scary moment last season, in which he lost an edge and went what appeared to be head first into the boards very hard.  Very fortunately, O'Reilly only experienced a shoulder injury that just kept him out a couple of weeks.  You certainly never like seeing a guy being taken off the ice on a stretcher, especially a 19-year-old kid whose whole career is in front of him.  There are plenty of cases in the NHL and sports regarding head and neck injuries and Factor is very lucky that he avoided this!

Can Factor keep up this fervent pace?  Probably not.  It is unrealistic to expect any player to continue scoring at over a 2 PPG pace, but O'Reilly's hard work, new-found confidence, and inspired teammates will certainly provide him with opportunities to continue to succeed.  Factor may not be the most talented player in the NHL or even on the Avs, but his passion for the game is quickly becoming legend and his leadership despite his young age have many people in Avalanche Country calling for him to wear the "C" when Milan Hejduk hangs them up.  Paul Stastny suffered a torso injury last night and if he misses any time, O'Reilly will be counted on to continue to produce like a top center.  Over in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins' top stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both missed significant time in 2011, but the Penguins were able to stay competitive due to the emergence of their "3rd line" center, Jordan Staal.  While Staal certainly differs from O'Reilly in size and probably overall skill (Staal was a #2 overall pick), they are both centers who can be the next great 2-way players in the game.  Do not be surprised to see both these names being talked about for the Selke in the near future.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the play of Semyon Varlamov.  As I've mentioned before, he is probably the most scrutinized player on the Avs roster, as goalies often are.  Varly, by no fault of his own, also carries the burden of the eventual 1st round pick the Caps will receive.  With Giggy's three straight starts, there was talk of him usurping the #1 job from Varly.  However, once Varly got his shot to get back between the pipes, his play has been stellar.  He has allowed 2 goals or fewer in 6 straight games and has given the Avs a chance to win in all of these games.  His save % has risen and his GAA has fallen.  While I am still of the mindset that the Avs should employ a full-time goalie coach for the the 23-year-old Russian, Varly certainly seems to be playing with confidence now. 

Finally, with these three consecutive wins in the books, the Avs cannot take their foot off the gas as we have so frustratingly seen them do too many times so far this season.  Right now, we are exactly a .500 team and sit in 12th place in the Western Conference.  However, with 27 points, we are only 2 points behind the teams tied for 8th place.  One more win and the Avs will be right back in the playoff picture.  Three divisional road games coming up.  Yeah, it's only early December, but consistency and momentum are certainly things this young team needs to keep up.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Matterhorn

I thought that was apropos considering the roller coaster ride the Avs have been on of late.  There have certainly been flashes of brilliance and promising wins like Giguere's 3-0 shutout of Dallas and the Avs' first divisional win of the season over Edmonton, 5-2.  However, these promising wins were followed by flat, uninspired performances like a 4-1 loss to San Jose and a 3-1 loss to Dallas.  In fact, the Avs have not won 2 consecutive games since beating Montreal and Toronto on October 15th and 17th respectively.  Obviously, this has to change if the Avs want to put themselves in position to make the playoffs.  In the wins the Avs have earned, including last night's beat down of future hall-of-fame goalie, Martin Brodeur and the Devils, the Avs have looked like a very impressive, complete team.  However, in the losses, they come out flat, make costly mistakes and the offense never kicks it into anything beyond 2nd gear.

As I've previously addressed, I think the goaltending and defensive corps of the Avs is solid, especially since bringing up Stefan Elliott, who should have been on the roster since opening night.  Elliott's call-up to the Avs was made possible by a groin injury to Erik Johnson, who may return as soon as tomorrow.  After sitting 3 games while Giguere was in net, Semyon Varlamov seems to be back on his game.  He has a GAA of 1.75 and a Save % of .939 over his last 4 starts and has gotten his Save % on the year back up to .901.  When EJ does return, Sacco will have to decide which other defenseman (in addition to Hunwick) will be a healthy scratch.  My guess is Ryan O'Byrne.  I think that EJ will benefit greatly from having the exciting, young Elliott on the blue line with him.  Elliott has 2 goals and 1 assist in his first 3 games and has a quick, deceptive wrist shot from the point.  The Avs' PP and EJ especially, have suffered from not having Peter Mueller man the point on the PP.  Guys like Joakim Lindstrom and Matt Duchene are not PP point men.  However, a PP blue line of EJ and Elliott could really open things up.  PKs will have to respect the shot of Elliott, which will free up time and space for EJ to unload his slap shot.  Not having Elliott up until now is the single biggest reason EJ does not have a goal on the season.

In the games where the Avs only score a goal or two or get shutout, it is clear that they still could use some help at the forward position.  Rene Bourque, Zach Parise, Jason Spezza, and Bobby Ryan have all been rumored to be on the trading block, it's just a matter of what the Avs would have to give up to acquire one of these talents.  There are a handful of players who are untouchable (Duchene, Landeskog, Varlamov, O'Reilly), but the Avs do have organizational depth at defense and goalie that could be used to acquire a proven winger.  I would put Erik Johnson, Stefan Elliott, and Duncan Siemens in the untouchable category, but current Lake Erie defenseman, Tyson Barrie is highly touted and plays a similar style game to Elliott.  He could be a big piece in a trade.  The Avs also have the top scouted North American and European goaltenders of the 2010 NHL draft in Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio.  One of them could certainly be used as trade bait, especially if Semyon Varlamov is in fact the answer in net for years to come.  Of current Avalanche players, guys like Ryan Wilson, Kyle Quincey, and David Jones have put up respectable numbers so far this year and could garner respectable return.  There have also been rumors of a Paul Stastny trade, but I don't like that call at this time.  First of all, I would only trade Stastny if Joey Hishon, the Avs 1st round pick of 2010 is ready to emerge as a top NHL center and to my knowledge, he has not played since last season due to a concussion.  Avs fans have certainly become aware of the impact concussions can have on one's career.  Moreover, Stastny has not performed up to his ability yet this season.  When a player is underperforming is not the time to trade him.  You ideally want to trade a player when he's playing well, in order to get the most for him.  If the Avs could get a guy like Bobby Ryan for Ryan Wilson and Tyson Barrie, I would pull the trigger on that deal in a heartbeat.

Over the course of the past four days, the NHL has had a bit of a coaching carousel.  On Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals relieved their head coaches of their duties and late last night, the Anaheim Ducks fired their head coach and replaced him with Bruce Boudreau, the former head coach of the Caps, whose unemployment lasted for only about 70 hours.  Is turnaround like that a good sign for our economy?  I would have liked the Avs to make a run for Boudreau, who made a name for himself dropping F-bomb during last years 24/7 HBO documentary.  While that won't happen now, Randy Carlyle, the recently fired former Ducks coach is currently looking for work.  He led the Ducks to a Cup win in 2007 and is known to coach gritty and tough teams.  Can you imagine Jan Hejda, Ryan O'Byrne, and Erik Johnson with some grit instilled into their games?  That could be the key for EJ to finally develop into the dominant defenseman the world has been waiting for.

One casualty thus far has been winger Joakim Lindstrom.  He was waived by the team the other day, in a move signifying that Stefan Elliott is here to stay.  Lindstrom had a great Avalanche debut, scoring 2 goals, but tapered off very quickly after that.  At the time he was waived, he had 5 points in 16 games and was a minus-9.  For whatever reason, the Avs European, specifically Swedish scouting just isn't there.  Lindstrom joins the list of European imports who have failed to really make an impact with the Avs.  Per Ledin, Jaroslav Hlinka, and Jonas Holos are a few others.  While Gabriel Landeskog is of Swedish nationality, he played juniors in Canada, making him a de facto North American prospect.  Even Peter Forsberg was drafted by the Flyers and not us.  How do the Red Wings end up with guys like Lidstrom, Zetterberg, and Datsyuk, while we get the aforementioned former Avs?

Note to the Colorado Avalanche:
-Trade for a top winger (Bobby Ryan would be ideal)
-Bring in Randy Carlyle
-Bolster up the European scouting
-Hire a full-time goalie coach (even if it's simply making Kirk McLean a full-time guy)
-This goes without saying, but WIN and WIN consistently!!!