by PuckStopsHere on 10/28/09 at 01:03 PM ET
I would never have predicted that twelve games into the 2009/10 season, the Colorado Avalanche would be in first place in the NHL. I picked the Avs to finish second last in the West Conference and my prediction was not out of line with most common opinions.
Colorado has a 9-3 record (with 2 losses counted as overtime ties). That is a very good record, but it is the overtime ties that propel Colorado into first. Without them, they would be near the top, but below Pittsburgh in the standings.
For the most part, Colorado has been outshot pretty badly while winning. They average 26.6 shots per game and allow 33.2. This almost seven shot per game deficit is more typical of a weaker team (for example Anaheim has three wins in ten games and has an eight shot per game deficit). Colorado has won largely due to goaltending. Craig Anderson has been outstanding.
Anderson has a .940 saves percentage and a 1.96 GAA. Those are great statistics. They are most likely above any sustainable level. Anderson has not received much media attention in the past, as he has been out of the limelight as the Florida Panthers backup goalie, but he has put up good numbers. As the number one guy, who plays every day (thus testing his stamina) against stronger opposition that a backup goalie and with more scouting attention to find holes in his game, it is reasonable to expect that Anderson will not be able to maintain this elite level of play. If he can, he would be one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of hockey. A team that is outshot as badly as Colorado is and winning requires great goaltending. They have had it so far, but if it regresses a bit and merely becomes good goaltending, there will be a significant drop in the standings.
Colorado has four players with double digit point totals. They are Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, Milan Hejduk and Ryan O’Reilly. Only Stastny is likely be able to maintain that scoring rate over the season (though he has had injury problems in the past). Wolski has scored between 40 and 50 points a season in every full season of his career. It is reasonable to expect he could improve a bit from those numbers, but not to the point per game level. Milan Hejduk is 33 and has scored fifty-something points the last two seasons. In 2002/03, he scored 98 points, but he is in decline from those days. In a best case, Hejduk could rebound to about 60 points, but a lower final total is likely. Ryan O’Reilly is probably the least sustainable of the bunch. He is an 18 year old second round draft pick. It is amazing that he is in the NHL. It is well beyond any reasonable expectations to think he could maintain this level of scoring through his rookie season.
Beyond those four, Colorado does not have great offensive depth. Too many players are unproven like Matt Duchene and TJ Galiardi or lack any real upside like Darcy Tucker and Cody McLeod. This is not the offence of a typical first place team. This might be the offence of an over-achieving young team (much like St Louis last year), but it doesn’t have first place skill.
On defence, Kyle Quincey is as close as this team comes to a star. He has played very well since getting his NHL shot in Los Angeles last year, but is not among the best defencemen in hockey. For depth there is John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan and Adam Foote. This is not a top group of defencemen.
Why is Colorado in first? A bit of good luck and some great goaltending are the reasons. For the Avs to have a successful season, they will need to have great goaltending. Can Craig Anderson provide? My guess is that Anderson can play pretty well, but the level he has shown so far is well above any sustainable level. It is just a matter of time before Colorado comes crashing down to reality. The Avalanche have been a big surprise so far this season and may remain a surprise (merely by competing for a playoff berth), but first place will soon be well out of their grasp.
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