Colorado Avalanche Defence Takes Shape With Recent Signings

Samuel Girard Colorado Avalanche Defence

News broke Monday afternoon that the Colorado Avalanche defence retained another potential contributor. They signed defender Ryan Graves to a one-year extension with the organization. The two-way contract is worth $350,000 if he’s playing in the AHL and $735,000 in the NHL. Mike Chambers of the Denver Post was among the first to report the deal.

Colorado Avalanche Sign Ryan Graves

Graves was initially drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers. He was traded to the Avs in exchange for Chris Bigras in 2018. Graves has played in just 26 NHL games to this point, all in 2018-19. In those 26 contests, he posted three goals and five points while averaging 11:06 of ice time per game. He also contributed nine points in 32 games with AHL Colorado this past year.

The 6-foot-5, 226 pound, 24-year-old had originally declared for arbitration late last week, but must have been close enough to a deal to sign today. Graves’ lack of playing time makes it difficult to project his true ceiling. His best junior season came in 2014-15 in the QMJHL when he scored 50 points in 71 regular season and playoff games. He gives the team a total of nine defenders signed to a contract.

Projecting The First Pairing

The Colorado Avalanche defence will look to someone new to fill the blue line void created when star Tyson Barrie was moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The former Av produced a career-high 59 points in 78 regular-season games. Replacing that sort of production is far from easy.

If healthy, Alternate Captain Erik Johnson could headline the first pairing. The former first overall pick is recovering from summer shoulder surgery. The 31-year-old contributed seven goals and 25 points in 2018-19, all at even strength. His production has remained mostly steady for the past six seasons; Johnson has posted at least 20 points each season during that period except for a shortened 2016-17. He brings the veteran presence the team lost with Barrie’s departure.

Two names will jump out as partners or alternatives for Johnson. Samuel Girard and Cale Makar are two of the team’s best young talents and are expected to help anchor the defence for the next decade. They played together in the playoffs as part of Makar’s electric debut. Girard was second to Barrie in scoring among defenders with four goals and 27 points in 82 games. Makar didn’t suit up until the Game 3 of the first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames, but thrilled fans with one goal and six points in 10 games. The two will play huge roles in 2019-20 but might be on different pairs to start. Girard’s greater experience gives him a slight edge.

Projecting The Second Pairing

Makar on the second pairing would give that duo a puck-moving, offensively-minded star-in-the-making. The 2018-19 Hobie Baker Award winner has the makings of being a true quarterback at both even strength and the power play. The real question is who plays next to him.

Recent contract extension Nikita Zadorov is a good bet. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Russian bruiser led the team in hits with 228. Zadorov has led the team in hits for the past three years. He can also chip in somewhat on offence with seven goals and 14 points in 70 games. Because Zadorov isn’t a huge offensive threat, he makes most of his living on the penalty kill and harassing the opposition. His style is the perfect complement to either Makar or Girard.

Prospects Conor Timmins and Bowen Byram are also options. Timmons has battled concussion issues since being drafted 32nd overall behind Makar in the 2017 NHL Draft. His health and game readiness are big question marks to watch over the summer. Byram was the fourth overall pick in the most recent draft. He fits in the same mould as Timmins, Girard and Makar as an offensive defender who can skate and move the puck. Despite the potential both youngsters possess, it seems more likely that Timmins starts the season with Colorado’s AHL affiliate, while Byram is back in the WHL.

Projecting The Third Pairing

The Graves signing largely impacts the third pair. Without the big-bodied Graves, the most likely penalty killers would have been veterans Mark Barberio and Kevin Connauton. With Graves on the roster, the team can afford to experiment that much more with a youngster with Zadorov’s size. The three of them will combine to make up for the loss of Patrik Nemeth, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings. Expect toughness from this trio of possibilities, if not a lot of offence.

Also consider Calle Rosen, who was acquired in the same trade that sent Barrie to Toronto. The 6-foot-1 blueliner projects as a third-pairing defender. He’s knocking on the NHL door after putting up seven goals and 46 points in 54 games with the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate. He’ll play at the same level on Colorado but could slide up the depth chart based on injuries or contract situations.

The final piece of the puzzle is Ian Cole. The 30-year-old will miss the start of the year recovering from off-season hip surgery. He scored two goals and 15 points in 71 regular season games. Cole also finished third in hits for Colorado defenders behind Zadorov and Johnson. He’s a penalty killer when his health returns.

What This Means For The Future

The Colorado Avalanche defence is talented but complicated. Cole’s absence and Timmins’ health does cause some additional uncertainty. However, having more bodies is better than less; Graves, Girard, Zadorov, Barberio, and Cannauton are all up for free agency in the 2019-20 off-season. Head coach Jared Bednar will use the upcoming year to compete for a championship and bring prospects like Byram and Timmins along slowly.