Trending Topics: Did the Duchene trade really save Avs' season?

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(Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)

The big three-way deal that finally, at long last, after years of rumor, sent Matt Duchene out of Colorado for good happened on Nov. 5.

At the time, the Avs were 8-6-0 and seemed destined to be headed for another lost season in a competitive Central Division. Then they suffered another month of mostly losing hockey, and stood at just 12-13-2. Since then, however, they’ve cruised to a record of 24-16-3, meaning they’re 12-4-1 in the last 17 games (not including last night’s tilt hosting San Jose), including a seven-game win streak.

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Only suffering four regulation losses in five weeks is, of course, exactly what teams should be trying to do, and it’s fair to say the Avs are as “on one” right now as any team in the league.

But what a lot of people have been talking about lately is how much the Duchene trade seems to have helped them (and how much it may have doomed the Senators; maybe Duchene is just cursed). For the record, Colorado’s return on that trade was incredible: A first-, second-, and third-round pick, high-end prospects from the NCAA and AHL, Andrew Hammond (so it’s not all wine and roses), and defenseman Samuel Girard.

Now you’ll notice a lot of that return is futures or a salary dump, with Girard being the only guy who’s going to be playing for the Avs the entire season. He’s a good young defender and seems to do a lot of things well, but he’s being used as their No. 5 right now, in terms of ice time. Patrik Nemeth plays an extra minute and a half a night moe than Girard does, but Girard is also 19 so he too should be seen as a future.

Point being, to ascribe much of Colorado’s success of late to the Duchene trade is silly because, a) it took them another month after the deal to actually start winning, b) it would be deeply weird if their success hinged on upgrading at the No. 5 spot, and c) you usually don’t improve by trading good players. (I would argue that Duchene was the second-best player in the three-way deal, behind Kyle Turris, but that’s beside the point.)

So the question is, if Duchene — who, just by the way, had 10 points in 14 games, on pace for almost 60 points, at the time he was traded — wasn’t the catalyst, something had to have been right?

The thing is, there’s isn’t much to suggest in any of the underlying numbers that this team had miraculously turned some sort of corner until very recently. The team was horrendous around the time of the trade but didn’t really start to improve much, process-wise, until a few weeks later. The results naturally followed.

Even excepting the recent numbers, which see the Avs regularly clearing 50 percent in expected goals for the last 16 games, there’s no denying Jared Bednar has his team playing better hockey than it did early in the season or for pretty much all of last year.

Colorado had the fourth-worst CF% at 5-on-5 in the league prior to the trade and were similarly challenged (or worse) in every other underlying category. By just about any metric, this was pretty close to a bottom-of-the-barrel team. Since the trade, they’re still not good (below 50 percent just about everywhere) but far more middle-of-the-pack in their not-goodness, which is a reflection of both how good they’ve been lately and how bad they were even in the first month after the trade.

So the thing to look at is, what changed around the middle of December? I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that the answer seems to be two things: They’re doing a little better in terms of shot quality, and a lot better in terms of actually putting the puck in the net and keeping it out. They’re getting a .950 save percentage at 5-on-5 since Dec. 15, good for third-highest in the league behind similarly streaking teams Calgary and Boston, as well as the second-highest shooting percentage, trailing only the Bruins.

It is of course no great revelation to say that teams who are winning and generally playing well get higher percentages at both ends of the ice, but for right now, things are going a little too well for the Avs in terms of sustainability. Their before/after splits on that Dec. 15 demarcation line? Their shooting percentage is up to 9.66 from 8.5, which is the kind of swing that may not look like a lot but it’s pretty big (put another way: Goalies are all of a sudden stopping .903 at full strength, versus .915 before that). Likewise, their save percentage is at .950 from the previous .918.

One thing that cannot be dismissed as luck, one supposes, is Nathan MacKinnon’s breakout season. Even before the Duchene trade he was a point-a-game player (driven mostly by a run in which he got nine points in just four games right before the trade). But since then, MacKinnon has been ridiculous, racking up 16-24-40 in just 29 games.

And maybe the outside observer would say Duchene was a bit of an anchor on MacKinnon’s production, but they barely played together in any situations: Less than 7 minutes at 5-on-5, just 40 seconds on the power play. Just 15:13 total. It’s a small sample, obviously, since they only played 14 games on the same team this year, but what Duchene was doing should have had little effect on MacKinnon’s production since they were basically never on the ice together.

It’s difficult to say everything runs through MacKinnon offensively and both goalies at the back end, but MacKinnon has a point on 54 of Colorado’s 141 goals. He was on the ice for another 16. So that means almost half the goals the team has scored the entire season came in MacKinnon’s 835 minutes. And that was after a pretty slow start. Let’s put it this way: When MacKinnon is on in all situations, the Avs score ore than 5 goals per 60 minutes of hockey. When he’s off the ice, that number drops to a little more than 2.4. And not for nothin’, but in the seven games on this winning streak, Duchene has 14 points, so he’s scoring at an even higher clip than he has all year.

These splits are similar — though not to such extremes, obviously — for just about any post-Duchene timeframe you want to slice and dice. MacKinnon, even before the trade, was doing some scary stuff, and the rest of the team not so much, which I guess is part of the reason they made the trade in the first place.

It probably portends good things that MacKinnon can probably do this forever; all his underlying numbers indicate this isn’t just luck (though there’s obviously some of that). It’s not as though he’s even getting a ton of help from ultra-talented linemates; Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are on his wings, but they’re both about a mile behind him in points.

And again, the goaltending has been dynamite since mid-December. Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier are at .939 and .938, respectively, in seven games each since then. Unlike MacKinnon’s production, that has a far greater chance of collapsing in the relatively near future, especially where Bernier is concerned.

But as long as MacKinnon keeps driving everything at the other end, this team is probably going to get more and better chances, on aggregate, than it concedes. At that point, the goalies don’t have to be phenomenal, they just need to be competent, which they decidedly were not at the beginning of the season.

So as usual, big swings in expected results for any team, even as one as fun and entertaining as the Avs, seem to be driven by good percentages. Can’t knock ’em for it, but there’s a reason why they’re still near the bottom of the division even after five weeks of winning almost every game. They’re just not that good yet, but they’re getting there.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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