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Defensive issues, road woes were Avs' downfall

Thursday, 04.18.2013 / 1:21 PM / NHL Insider

By Rick Sadowski  -  NHL.com Correspondent

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Defensive issues, road woes were Avs' downfall
From struggles on the back end to an inability to win away from Pepsi Center, the Avalanche disappointed in 2012-13 -- but there are reasons for hope in the future.

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche began the season with high hopes after making a serious run for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011-12, a season in which they had 11 more wins and 20 more points than in 2010-11.

So much for great expectations -- the Avalanche regressed badly and will miss the playoffs for the third year in a row and fifth time in seven seasons.

The Avalanche figured to better with a roster that included Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog, who became the youngest team captain in NHL history at age 19 in September; free-agent signee PA Parenteau, who was coming off a career-high 67-point season with the New York Islanders; forwards Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn, who played so well down the stretch in 2011-12 after being acquired in late-season deals; and goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who had stabilized what has been an unsettled situation in net since Patrick Roy retired in 2003.

Instead, the Avalanche have spent a good chunk of the season trying to avoid finishing last in the Western Conference and the worst record in the League, a far cry from the team's glory days when it was a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Giguere was so frustrated in April with teammates' effort and attitude that he criticized them in public, saying, "Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games."

Here are five reasons the Avalanche will miss the playoffs:

1. Dubious defense

The defense just wasn't good enough, and that included poor support from the forwards. The Avalanche spent too much time in their own end, forcing Giguere and Semyon Varlamov to frequently fend for themselves against a barrage of quality shots. They have faced between 40 and 56 shots four times, and between 30 and 39 shots in 21 other games. The goalies were also under pressure because the Avalanche rarely scored the first goal, something they have done just 14 times.

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Ankle injuries have limited Ryan Wilson, one of the Avalanche's most dependable defensemen, to 12 games. Greg Zanon, signed as a free agent to add a veteran presence, was adept at blocking shots, but his minus-13 rating is the worst among the team's blueline corps.

2. No refuge on the road

The Avalanche were simply awful on the road and didn't make up for it at Pepsi Center, where they were mediocre. They went nearly two months without a road win, going 0-11-3 in a 14-game stretch between a 4-3 shootout victory in Minnesota on Feb. 14 and a 4-1 win in Anaheim on April 10.

Poor penalty killing played a major role in the Avalanche's inability to win on the road. They are among the best penalty-killing teams in the NHL at home and the worst on the road. The Avalanche have given up a League-high 77 goals in road games, and 24 of them were scored on power plays. They took too many penalties and, on the road, couldn't kill them off.

3. Depth scoring disappeared

An offense that was expected to be dangerous averaged a little more than two goals per game. The Avalanche were shut out three times in the first 10 games and five times overall. They have been held to one goal eight times and to two goals in 11 other games.

It didn't help that Downie sustained a torn ACL in the second game and was lost for the season, but several other forwards failed to contribute as much as expected. Paul Stastny has nine goals, McGinn has eight and David Jones three. Avalanche defensemen have combined for four goals: two by rookie Tyson Barrie and one each by Jan Hejda and Ryan O'Byrne; O'Byrne was dealt to Toronto at the trade deadline for a fourth-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

4. Inconsistent goaltending

After recording career bests for wins and shutouts in his first season with the Avalanche in 2011-12, Varlamov has been far too inconsistent. He hasn't receive much help from his defense and could be spectacular at times, but he has also given up too many soft goals. The Avalanche never knew what to expect from Varlamov from one game to the next.

The Avalanche gave up first- and second-round picks in the 2012 NHL Draft to acquire Varlamov from Washington in July 2011, and they still believe he can be a franchise goalie. He's young enough at 25 to fulfill that potential and is being mentored by Giguere, but has a long way to go to realize that promise.

5. No help from the East

A shortened season that didn't include games against the Eastern Conference turned out to be a distinct disadvantage. The Avalanche went 13-4-1 against East teams in 2011-12 and 28-31-5 against the West. Colorado's losing record against Western teams obviously continued, as did its futility against Northwest Division opponents. The Avalanche split four games with Calgary and had losing records against Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver. All of the Avalanche's losses against those teams came in regulation, so the failure to gain even a point in those defeats contributed to the team's poor record.

Here are three reasons for hope in 2013-14:

1. Loving the lottery

The Avalanche will get a crack at an elite prospect with a high first-round pick for the third time in five years. If the Avalanche are fortunate enough to win the lottery, they likely will select Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones, the son of former Denver Nuggets forward Popeye Jones. His presence would help to bolster Colorado's weakest link: defense.

Gabriel Landeskog
Left Wing - COL
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 15
SOG: 97 | +/-: -1
The Avalanche have chosen well with recent high selections, tabbing left wing Gabriel Landeskog with the second pick in 2011 and center Matt Duchene with the third pick in 2009. A lottery loss wouldn't be a disaster. The Avalanche could choose among several highly-regarded players to add to their stable of young forwards: the Halifax Mooseheads' Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, as well as Finland's Alexander Barkov.

2. A dynamic duo

Duchene rebounded from an injury-plagued season while teaming with Parenteau to form a dynamic duo that should be even more dangerous over 82 games. Projected over a full season, both would have produced 30 goals and 80 points. Duchene, who will be entering his fifth season with the Avalanche, has developed into a mature go-to guy in the locker room. Parenteau proved to be a valuable free-agent signee, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season.

3. Deep down the middle

Center Ryan O'Reilly will be in the fold after missing the first 19 games of 2012-13 because of a contract dispute. O'Reilly's absence was a distraction until the Avalanche matched the two-year, $10 million offer sheet he signed with Calgary on Feb. 28. The Avalanche will be deep down the middle from the start with Duchene, O'Reilly and Stastny.

Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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