Colorado Avalanche: Among the best in the West but who’s talking about them?

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche Centre Matt Duchene. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To answer my own question not many are.

Besides the odd mention of the 46-21-7 Avs, much of the attention in the West diverts to your usual suspects.

The Kings, Hawks, Ducks, Sharks, and Blues garner the majority of contender conversation and understandably so.

But the season the Avalanche have put together- one year removed from picking first overall- cannot be overlooked and can’t help but make you wonder if they are a legitimate sleeper in the uber competitive Western conference.

Currently, Patrick Roy’s squad sit fifth in the conference, set to eclipse the hundred point barrier for the first time since 2003-04 (yes that’s pre-lockout) where they hit exactly 100 under current Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato. They will also qualify for the post-season for the first time since 2009-10, when the Sharks eliminated the Avs after six games in the first round.

As mentioned before, Colorado owned the top selection in this past year’s NHL entry draft thanks to a dismal 16-25-7 record in the lockout shortened 2013.

Along with their first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon who’s been terrific, several factors have played into the surprising bounce back campaign Colorado is experiencing.

Here’s a top five list of those factors and how the Colorado Avalanche find themselves where they do with nine games remaining before the Stanley Cup playoffs commence.

5. MacKinnon and O’Reilly

The Avs boast their two best chances at individual awards with the two young forwards mentioned above. The 18-year-old has lived up to, if not exceeded, the hype and expectations put on first overall picks year after year and has accomplished so in style. The Nova Scotia native has collected 23 goals and 32 assists with a +19 rating in 73 games thus far and posted a record for 18 year olds, when he rode a 13 game point streak from Late January into early March. MacKinnon looks like a lock for the Calder.

As good as MacKinnon has been, O’Reilly has been just that too. After moving past the Calgary offer sheet ordeal from last season, the Avs forward has come back this year and posted Selke like numbers in his fifth full NHL campaign. While O’Reilly offensive numbers are impressive- 26-32-58 – the most impressive stat of his season comes in the penalty category. 0 PIM’s. In 71 games O’Reilly has committed zero penalties while averaging 19:44 of ice time per game. Reason enough for serious Selke consideration.

4. Seymon Varlamov

After a forgetful first year in Denver, the Russian netminder has silenced critics wondering whether or not he could hold a number one job in the NHL. It’s only one season but the results are positive. Varlamov is currently tied for the league lead in wins with Sharks Antti Niemi (36), tied for sixth in save percentage (.925), second in total saves (1804), fourth in total goals against (136) while appearing in the third most games in the league to this point (57). All this amounts to a Colorado team placing 15th in goals against this season compared to 27th in 2013. He won’t be considered for the Vezina but nevertheless Seymon Varlamov has given his team a chance to win almost every time he’s been out there.

3. Offense from Defense

This is hardly believable what I’m about to tell you about Colorado’s defense corps last season. Albeit in a 48 game campaign, the Avalanche put up a total of FIVE goals from their defensemen, dead lowest in the league. That’s it FIVE. Although teams usually aren’t counting on your back-end for goal scoring, that is just unacceptable. The good news, however, is that the Avs have been astronomically better in that regard this year. 41 goals thus far through 73 games from their back-end, with five of the six regular blueliners having six or more. When your defensemen chip in offensively it lessens the load off your forwards and lets them know it’s not always on their shoulders to provide every single goal. Mission accomplished so far this year, aiding the Avs to the sixth highest goals per game (3.01) compared to 26th last season (2.38).

2. Patrick Roy

The former Montreal Canadien/Colorado Avalanche legend came to this Avalanche squad with mixed predictions on how he would fare in his first NHL gig, after eight seasons behind the Quebec Remparts bench. There was really no telling how things would turn out. However, almost a full season in, there is some evidence available now and the state of Denver couldn’t be happier with their former Cup winning goaltender leading this young group. Captain Gabriel Landeskog had this to say on his new coach to in a March 18th interview, “He’s in this together with us. It’s a partnership. It’s not coach vs. players. We’re all in this together and he made that really clear from the beginning,” Landeskog said. “He’s certainly earned the trust and respect that any coach needs for his players to work hard for him.”

1. Scoring Depth

Colorado has been arguably the deepest team in the league this year when it comes to scoring depth. They boast five different forwards- Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, and Nathan MacKinnon- who have all surpassed both 20 goals and 30 assists this season. They are the only team in the league besides Chicago that has five players in the top 60 in NHL scoring. Duchene leads the pack at 70 points, with MacKinnon, Landeskog and O’Reilly all poised to hit the 60 point plateau as well. Add in the fact that four defensemen have 20 points or more and you see why the Avalanche have turned into somewhat of a scoring juggernaut. Beyond the five forwards mentioned, role players like Jamie Mcginn and Pierre Parenteau are regular contributors as well. To make a playoff run, depth is essential and Colorado seems to have it. Whether it holds up during crunch time remains to be seen.

The Avalanche are likely set for a first round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks, not the most ideal of scenarios. The important battle will be for home ice, an advantage that the Blackhawks currently hold with a two point lead over the Avs at this time. That can change in the final ten games, however, and it may be the deciding factor on whether or not this young Avalanche squad  can advance past the much more experienced Blackhawks.