Saturday, November 5, 2011

So Far So...Good?

Going into the new season I thought that I'd wait a month before writing my first DNP. My reasoning was that the month of October is no more of an indicator of success than the month of April is for baseball, or to a lesser degree, September for football. The hockey season, for good teams, can last nearly nine months, and often teams that go deep into the playoffs tend to flounder during the first month of the new season. Maybe it is because the guys don't want to stop golfing, but I'm told it is because defenses take time to build cohesiveness. Goaltenders often look like they don't belong in the NHL for several weeks after the first puck drops. Roberto Luongo is the best example of such floundering.

Luongo never does well in the month of October prompting angry Vancouver fans (and angrier fantasy hockey managers) to annually call for his ousting. Such frustration is amusing considering how everyone who pays attention knows that after October Luongo magically begins to turn out quality starts. Because Roberto Luongo is magic like that. Let me be the first to admit that Luongo has driven me to the drink on more than one occasion after destroying a fantasy week in the tenth month.

Yet he isn't alone in his ability to turn October into a preseason of sorts. Across the board seasoned NHL veterans universally take the month to get up to speed. Right on schedule Luongo, who played horribly during October, is gradually restoring his game to a competent level. This may come as a surprise to shortsighted fans who can see only red every time he steps on the ice.

During this age of the 24-hour sports news cycle, which is at best silly and at worst psychotic, the punditry across the NHL is always quick to point out how certain elite teams at the beginning of seasons just don't seem to have "it" anymore. As a team, the Detroit Red Wings always start slow before turning into a rolling apocalypse after the New Year, but this doesn't prevent some members of the punditry from decreeing that Detroit is on the decline every October.

Conversely, young teams and players with something to prove almost always start out of the gates quickly only to gradually burn out as the season drags on. Last season's Avalanche team was a perfect example. The Avalanche started hot only to hit the wall by December, after which the team virtually disintegrated both physically (nearly 450 man games lost to injury) and mentally (Craig Anderson).

This season the Avalanche have again started well along with the white hot Edmonton Oilers. Unsurprisingly, in the Press, we have been treated to several pieces extolling the virtues of the NHL's youth movement. While watching the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is thrilling, common sense tells us that once the older, more seasoned teams come online success will become more difficult for the younger teams to sustain.

We can then deduce that aside from perhaps one or two surprises, the usual suspects flush with seasoned veterans should end up in the thick of the race to the Stanley Cup. Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose, Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia should gain steam while the younger teams, like the Avalanche and Oilers, will gradually fall by the wayside. While watching such a fast game it is easy to forget that the NHL season is a marathon and not a sprint.

Whither Peter Mueller?

Peter Mueller should call it a career. Mueller, who was apparently ready to go at the start of the season, quickly landed on the bench with post-concussion issues and then spent the bulk of October off the ice. He is only now beginning to skate with authority in practice again and one has to wonder how effective he will be if he ever returns.

I spent much of my time in October contemplating the same issue regarding Sidney Crosby, who is also nearing a return to the action. How effective can a hockey player be if they are constantly worried about where and when they will receive their next concussion? Much of Mueller's game involves working in high contact areas and, like Crosby, is based on charging the net. If Mueller were to get back into action how is one to expect that he will return to the aggressive form that saw him rack up 20 points in 15 games with the Avalanche after he was brought over from Phoenix? To that end, how are we to expect Sidney Crosby, who is entering his prime, to play full seasons much less approach his massive potential? In this modern game, where players are massive hitting machines, I fail to see how any player who has suffered multiple concussions can be as effective knowing that they could be one hard hit away from retirement.

Semyon Varlamov is who we thought he was!

There was much hand wringing this offseason over the acquisition of Varlamov from Washington in exchange for first and second round draft picks. Many onlookers were quick to point out the potential value of the draft picks and some criticism went so far as to state that the Avalanche were taken for suckers in the trade. At the time I felt it was a fine trade and I stand by my assessment. Here's my logic:

The Avalanche were never in position to land either of last summer's big ticket goaltenders, Ilya Bryzgalov or Tomas Vokoun, nor could they stick with their stock and improve. First of all, the Avalanche could not have been seriously considering Vokoun as he was the ripe old age of 35. At best Vokoun has perhaps 2-3 more productive years left. Bryzgalov, though hovering around the age of 30 had, like Vokoun, spent the bulk of his career propping up substandard hockey teams,so he had no desire to support an Avalanche team which is several years away from contention. Secondly, the greater goaltending landscape, both organizationally and league-wide, was relatively sparse. Peter Budaj had run his course in Colorado and was clearly not a starting goaltender. Brian Elliott isn’t a starter either. If the Avalanche were going to continue with their plans of methodically rebuilding they needed to look for a young goaltender with potential.

Much of the criticism centered on the quality of the draft picks. But in my book draft picks, much like corporations, should not be considered people. People should be considered people. Joe Gibbs, the legendary coach of the Washington Redskins, lived by this philosophy. Draft picks are unknown commodities and considering how their relative worth is dictated by the success or failure of the team from which they were traded can turn out to be a lot less valuable. If the Avalanche kept the draft picks and instead threw money at substandard goaltending there was no guarantee where they would land in the draft. Also, whom they could draft and whether or not the players they picked would turn out to be valuable meant they could still have been stuck with crappy goaltending.

Varlamov, age 23, had already shown flashes of excellence during his time with the Capitals so the potential was there. His development, however, was hampered by injuries along with splitting time with Michal Neuvirth. It was looking that he was headed for the KHL. This meant he was expendable, especially since it appeared he was forcing a trade. The Avalanche could not afford to send Washington any of their current players (read offense) as they had already given up a major piece of their puzzle, Chris Stewart, in order to acquire Erik Johnson and I think,, three McRibs. Furthermore, Greg Sherman didn't feel confident sending the restricted free agent an offer sheet, which Washington could have easily matched. Therefore, Varlamov, who was a known commodity, was worth the risk as the Avalanche were in a pinch and the brass knew that getting a living, breathing backstop would be better than another rough season with no guarantees.

As it stands, Varlamov is 5-5 with a 2.85 GAA and a .906 SV%. By any account his numbers stink but, again, he's young. He has plenty of years to grow into the elite goaltender the Avalanche believe he will become. Under the tutelage of J.S. Giguere, he has the opportunity to evolve into a truly dominant netminder. Given their strong start, if the Avalanche can improve on last season’s performance the draft picks will lose value and the Avalanche, barring miraculous drafting by Washington, will win the trade in the long run.

Ryan O'Reilly Is Kind of a Big Deal

Quick! How many third line centers are among their respective team's leaders in power play minutes? So much of my time watching the Avalanche is spent observing Matt Duchene and his ability to handle the puck that I often overlook the other 20 year old center who has shown massive potential. If the Avalanche have done anything incredibly well during their seemingly century-long rebuild it has been to draft centers who play well offensively and defensively. In this way, the Avalanche are benefitting immensely from the growth of Ryan O'Reilly.

If there was any important yet under-appreciated piece of the Avalanche's dominant teams of years gone by, it was the play of a strong two-way center. Stephane "Rebel" Yelle was the last grinding Avalanche center of note and O'Reilly is already outclassing him. For any team to garner respect in the NHL they need third lines that not only kill penalties but also have the ability to score when needed. O'Reilly scores and plays defense and appears to possess mystical abilities which allow him to see into the future so he can take advantage of opposing teams during the penalty kill. The kid is truly a jack-of-all-trades and will continue to be an integral part of the Avalanche as they improve.

About that Chris Stewart Trade...

Since I never got around to writing about it at length, what with the massive heart attack it caused, let's go ahead and break down the trade.

The Avalanche traded Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues in exchange for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement on a dark day in February 2011. Little did everyone know that had it not been for the work of superhuman Chris Drury an asteroid, which was headed for Denver and was causing all the darkness, would have crushed the Pepsi Center the moment the trade was announced. But, I digress.

For all intents and purposes the trade boiled down to Stewart for Johnson. Johnson had in previous years been considered untouchable by the Blues’ front office as he is an ox of a human being. Stewart, before breaking his hand in a fight, appeared to be living up to his potential as a dominant power forward and was quite valuable as well.

Ultimately, the Avalanche felt that oft-injured David Jones was capable of filling Stewart's role on the team so long as he stayed healthy and landing a quality defenseman was an opportunity that could not be ignored. Considering how the Avalanche defense, on a good day, had more holes than Royal Albert Hall in that one Beatles song, it was a move that was necessary. Additionally, it was revealed that the Avalanche had future defensive super weapon Stefan Elliott primed and ready to go and all would be well...especially since Greg Sherman can apparently predict the future and foresaw drafting Gabriel Landeskog. The Blues, on the other hand, politely pointed out that Johnson was expendable as they felt he was not panning out and was, in fact, not as valuable as Alex Pietrangelo—the actual #1 defenseman on the team.

Since the trade made so much sense and everybody was so happy, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper immediately renamed Pikes Peak Mount Greg Sherman and forevermore a Technicolor halo of hope and happiness will encircle its summit, raining jellybeans on the hikers below.

So...where do we stand on that?

As of November 6th, 2011:

Chris Stewart- 13GP, 2 goals, 1 assist, -4, 27 penalty minutes
Kevin Shattenkirk- 13GP, 1 goal, 6 assists, +3, 6 penalty minutes

Erik Johnson- 14GP, 0 goals, 7 assists, -7, 0 penalty minutes
Jay McClement- 14GP, 1 goal, 0 assists, -1, 4 penalty minutes

Verdict: Everybody is stupid.

Next up on the DNP I trade Greg Sherman a sack of #2 pencils for pristine acreage in the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

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