MONTREAL -- The Colorado Avalanche are a study in contradictions.
The Avalanche won the Central Division, arguably the toughest in the NHL last season, while finishing in the bottom half of the League in shots on goal per game (20th) and shots on goal against per game (25th). In fact, no team that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs allowed more than the 32.7 shots on goal per game the Avalanche did, and three of the 16 playoff teams took fewer shots on goal per game.
Colorado has become a popular choice of the hockey analytics community for a regression this season because of the poor shot metrics, yet the Avalanche are built around a number of prime, young talents who are progressing in their NHL career.
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The word "regression" is not the first one that jumps to mind when you think of Nathan MacKinnon (19 years old), Gabriel Landeskog (21), Matt Duchene (23), Ryan O'Reilly (23), Tyson Barrie (23), Erik Johnson (26) or Semyon Varlamov (26).
It is a young team that is growing with elite-level talent coming off an impressive breakthrough season that many expect to fail because of the tendency of percentages to even out over time. But anyone expecting the Avalanche to drastically change their approach to how they play the game in an effort to sway the numbers in their favor will be disappointed.
The Avalanche will play the same way and will be almost defiant in doing so.
"We're always going to be an offensive team," coach Patrick Roy said Thursday before playing the Montreal Canadiens in a preseason game at Bell Centre. "Yes, we're going to give [up] shots, and we're certainly not going to stop doing that. Our fans are very important to us, and our fans know the Avalanche is an offensive team. Then we're going to give [up] shots, there's no doubt about it."
Varlamov had a tremendous season in goal, leading the NHL with 41 wins and finishing third in save percentage (.927) behind Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild (.933) and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins (.930). Varlamov was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the first time and just missed being a finalist for the Hart Trophy as League MVP, placing fourth.
Roy, who knows a thing or two about goaltending, said he doesn't expect Varlamov's level of play to dip, and that is a big reason he feels comfortable with Colorado's tendency to have its goalie get plenty of work.
"We're probably going to give [up] the same number of shots per game," Roy said. "But that doesn't mean we don't want to play defensively. If we can keep the shots on the outside, cutting down scoring chances is probably what we're going to try to focus more on than the number of shots we're going to give. We believe that we have one of the premier goaltenders in the League, and we believe that if we keep the team on the outside and reduce the scoring chances we'll continue to do well."
Roy will find many people who disagree with that point of view, but his players won't be among them. They appreciate the liberty Roy gives them to express their talent and creativity on offense, allowing them to work the puck in an effort to create scoring chances rather than simply pelting the opposing net.
"There are so many teams, they get over the blue line, they shoot the puck and they go and chase it," Duchene said. "We don't do that. A lot of us hate that type of hockey. I know I do. I can't stand it. When I get over the blue line, if I don't have a chance to score I'm not shooting it. I'm going to hold on to it and try to make a play."
Duchene has heard the criticism about the Avalanche's advanced metrics, and he said he refuses to pay attention to it. He said Colorado is an exception to the general rule that measuring shot attempts is a good indicator of puck possession because he said the Avalanche can possess the puck without generating shots they don't deem to be dangerous enough to score.
"We play a creative style, we want to make plays and create scoring chances," Duchene said. "We don't want to shoot the puck from the blue line on a great entry and have the goalie catch it and have a faceoff to the left.
"I don't like that type of hockey, and I don't think any of us do. That's the way we play, and it's fun. It's fun not to shoot the puck, it's fun to wait and be patient and handle the puck, get touches and wait for that opportunity so that maybe we don't have five shots, but we have one goal."
The Avalanche will be under a microscope this season after creeping up on their opposition for most of last season. The added scrutiny is a result of their unexpected success and because of the contradictions ingrained in that success.
There will be great curiosity to see if the Avalanche can sustain their level of play without making drastic changes to the way they approach the game. From the sounds of it, they're going to give it their best shot.
"It's really about winning hockey games; that's what it comes down to and that's what we did last year," Landeskog said. "But on the other hand, some games we felt we left [Varlamov] out to dry and let the other team test him a little too much. Those are the games where we need to be able to shut them down and give them not as many scoring chances. But the bottom line is winning hockey games; that's what we did last year and that's what we will continue to focus on this year.
"I think every team has things that they want to get better at and things that they want to adjust, and we've certainly got ours. But at the same time I think we're an exciting hockey team, and the way we played last year is the way that you win hockey games."