This morning, just months after trading prospect and AHL All Star Stefan Elliott for him, the Avalanche lost Brandon Gormley on waivers. Brandon Gormley was a 23 year old two way defenseman with potential to be an impact player for the Avalanche long term.
That's what today's headline could have read. And for what?
When asked about the decision to put Gormley on waivers, Patrick Roy told reporters: "Obviously its not something we're happy about but when some players return we're going to have to make some decisions. It doesn't mean anything today but it gives us some flexibility." Patrick Roy can't be too broken up about the Gormley's tenuous position on the roster, however, because he's done it to himself.
Then, just last week, Patrick Roy took to his weekly radio show to praise Gormley's play after a string of quality games to close out December. Now, just a week later, he's out of the lineup with the team willing to lose him for nothing on waivers. Talk about a short leash.
Yes, the Avalanche have a numbers problem with too many defensemen on the roster and injured bodies coming back in the near future, but there are number of ways the Avalanche could have approached that issue without risking their investment in Gormley, the best of their bottom four D. Why not waive Zach Redmond? The one dimensional defenseman doesn't have Roy's trust in his own zone, has struggled lately, and passed through waivers multiple times before and is likely to pass through again. Why not call up one of Colorado's many pro-defensive prospects in San Antonio instead of handcuffing your roster to a 27 year old waiver claim who hasn't panned out as a full time NHLer and isn't a part of your team's future?
But most egregious of all. Why not waive the 33 year old defenseman too slow and unskilled for the modern game? Why not waive one of the worst possession defensemen in the NHL one day after he coughed up a pair of goals and nearly cost you a division game. Why not waive Nate Guenin?
From the time Nate Guenin was drafted in 2002 to the day he signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013, the gritty, tough as nails defenseman played in 31 NHL games. In the three years since, he’s played in 169 games.
This isn’t a PA Parenteau story of a slow developing player, a bonafide NHLer who finally, after years of toiling in the minor leagues makes a name for himself. No. It’s the story of an AHL player who has somehow endeared himself with grit, attitude, and hard work to a coaching staff which appears completely blind to his many faults.
Now I’ve hesitated to write an article like this about Nate Guenin many times because it’s effectively punching down. It’s easy to criticize a third pairing defenseman or a 4th line forward, but they aren’t likely to be at the root of a team’s problems. Every team has some marginal players on their lower lines, thats why they play on lower lines. But with Nate Guenin things are different not because of what Guenin does on the ice, but because his continued presence on the roster and in the lineup is emblematic of a much larger flaw in the Avalanche’s approach to defense.
Take a look at Nate Guenin's track record in burgundy and blue:
In the HERO chart you can see that Nate Guenin performs consistently at or below the level of a bottom pairing NHL defenseman in all categories. According to War on Ice, Nate Guenin is the 3rd worst CF% defenseman in the NHL over the last three seasons combined.
This isn't really about criticizing Nate Guenin the player. Guenin is a leader in the locker room, a hard worker and tone-setter in practice, and a battler in games. Nate Guenin is who he is and that's not the problem. The problem is how the Avalanche continue to favor and deploy him over better players.
Why choose the immobile Nate Guenin over a young and still improving Brandon Gormley? It may sound hard to believe, but in the old fashioned shot blocking system devised by Patrick Roy and Dave Farrish, that's what Roy wants. Zac Urback, the Coordinator of Hockey Analytics for the Mississauga Steelheads and an NHL consultant took to twitter to point out the numbers behind the Avs' Guenin fascination.
You can tell that Patrick Roy just doesn't trust Gormley & Redmond defensively. He benches them when COL is winning. pic.twitter.com/jktjeMjXSL
Urback doesn't paint a pretty picture here for Patrick Roy, who appears to be shooting his team in the foot when they have a lead. Maybe "game management" isn't the Avs' only problem in the third period.
So while Guenin is most certainly the wrong choice for the Avalanche. Is there a right choice? Here's what war-on-ice has to say when it comes to relative possession:
Of course it's important to contextualize those statistics. Brandon Gormley and Zach Redmond are not more effective defensemen than Erik Johnson, both those players are given sheltered minutes under Roy. But what about Gormley and Redmond in comparison to Guenin?
As you can see here, Brandon Gormley and Nate Guenin face almost identical competition and zone starts and yet, Brandon Gormley's results are far and away superior. The Avs' insistence on playing Nate Guenin has always been a move that hurts the team on the ice, but now, risking young players on waivers for him while others, like Duncan Siemens, stagnate in the AHL, it's beginning to hurt them off the ice as well.
On a small scale just take a look at yesterday's roster moves by the Avalanche. The morning after Nate Guenin played one of his worst games in an Avalanche uniform the Avalanche elected to keep the 33 year old career AHLer on the roster while exposing a young defenseman with promising potential to waivers.
Not only is Guenin's roster spot secure, but his spot in the lineup appears untouchable as well. Without Erik Johnson, the Avalanche prepare for tonight, the biggest game of their regular season so far, with a defense that consists of: a 33 year old career AHLer in Nate Guenin, a 27 year old who's passed through waivers unclaimed a number of times in his Avalanche career in Zach Redmond, and a 27 year old waiver claim with 21 games of NHL experience in Andrew Bodnarchuk. Gormley, the 23 year old two way possession D with a top four ceiling is the lone healthy scratch.
In a year filled with savvy management and major coaching improvements for Patrick Roy, Nate Guenin's continual deployment is without a doubt the largest blackmark on the Avalanche coaching staff. It was one thing earlier in Patrick Roy's career when the Avalanche had a paper thin defense and there were no clear upgrades available, but now Roy looks like a coach insistent on leaning on Guenin in spite of the moves the Avalanche have made to replace him. If the Avs want to make a serious run at the playoffs in the second half of this season or in future seasons they need to change their mindset when it comes to NHL defense. It's long past time for the Nate Guenin era to come to an end.