The Colorado Avalanche is the most improved team in the NHL this season.
With 75 points after 54 games, they've already exceeded last year's point total (projected to 67 points based on a full season) and are poised to blow away their 95 points in 2009-10 when they last qualified for the playoffs.
Under the tutelage of freshman NHL head coach Patrick Roy, the Avs are on pace to have their best record since they last won the Stanley Cup in the 2000-01 season. Roy is every bit as feisty as a coach as he was as a player and has instilled a new attitude in a team accustomed to qualifying for high draft picks. With the Avs winning 14 of its first 16 games this year, Roy quickly proved that he will not be another big name player turned mediocre coach.
The team’s personnel is much unchanged from last year's 29th place finish, save for top draft pick Nathan MacKinnon. Roy, who also holds the title of Vice President of Hockey Operations, shares g.m. duties with Joe Sakic. The duo also added veterans Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich. As Roy explained it, "They both have leadership and have won Stanley Cups." Unfortunately, both have lost significant time to injury this year.
Where was the improvement?
One statistic pops out immediately. Their goals per game average is up over a half goal as compared to last year, and goals against are down about the same. Improving the differential by more than a full goal per game equals more points on the board.
No. 1 goalie Semyon Varlamov is on pace for his best season as an Av. "He's played outstanding for us," according to his coach. His five-year contract extension was big news last week.
The addition of MacKinnon has been a plus, as he has more than held his own in his first NHL season. Gabriel Landeskog has shaken his sophomore doldrums and is back to his form as a rookie. The team’s strength, however, is at center, with MacKinnon, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, and Ryan O'Reilly all being on their game this season. The depth has allowed Roy to shift O'Reilly to wing alongside Duchene and Jamie McGinn.
Roy was not surprised by MacKinnon's first year success. As a coach in the QMJHL, he saw a lot of his future players, including MacKinnon.
He told a recent media gathering, "The first time I saw him I knew he was going to be something special. I think he improved his defensive side of the game. We didn't try to touch his offensive side."
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the offensive output from the blueline corps. In last year's abbreviated schedule the defense rang up a paltry four goals. At this juncture, essentially the same crew tallied 27 markers, led by Erik Johnson who had a goose egg last year but regained his offensive touch and has seven goals.
Second year defender Tyson Barrie, a scorer as a junior, has learned how to score in the NHL and has a surprising seven goals to date.
Although the defense is scoring more, one weak spot continues to be the number of shots relinquished, where Colorado is in the bottom group in the NHL.
Tanguay rejoined the team this year after seven seasons away. The cast is different but the 14-year veteran has been around the NHL long enough to recognize a promising team.
"Those kids are still young," Tanguay said. "They're still learning on a daily basis but also the coaching staff has been tremendous. The positive attitude and the commitment to winning they've been bringing to this team is contagious. Throughout our lineup we feel very confident heading onto the game and we feel if we play good we're going to give ourselves a chance to be competitive and win some games."
Roy showed passion as a player and a junior hockey coach and owner. He will continue to bring out the best in his players.