Depth is important everywhere in the modern NHL and that is especially true on defence. This is where the Colorado Avalanche defence has focused their efforts in recent years. The work they have done has made the team’s blueline one of the most intimidating for years to come. How have they built such an imposing unit?
Colorado Avalanche Defence Possesses Depth
There is absolutely no question that the team’s first defensive pairing will include Cale Makar. The sky is the limit for the young defender. He finished second on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 50 points in 57 games while averaging 21:01 minutes per game. The team’s first-round pick in 2017 did basically everything right as he won the Calder Trophy over very stiff competition. Some of his production relies on his 62.1 percent offensive zone start rate, but there is no reason to think experience won’t counteract some of the drawbacks caused by less sheltering.
The challenge will be determining who plays with Makar. Many will look at Devon Toews as the ideal partner. The former New York Islanders skater broke out in 2019-20 and should excel in Colorado’s blueline scheme. It makes a lot of sense to put two puck movers on the same pairing, but that could mess with the chemistry Makar had with bruiser Ryan Graves. The two had a solid 53.05 percent Corsi For and were simply a dominant pairing. It’d be dangerous to disrupt that combination of scoring and checking.
Colorado Avalanche Defence Second Pairing
Whomever doesn’t make the first pairing will surely move to the second. Given Graves’ chemistry with Makar, that should mean either Toews or Samuel Girard. One of those two will act as the offensive half of the duo. Girard occupied that role much of last season and did perfectly fine. He increased his scoring for a third consecutive year and ended the regular season with four goals and a career-high 34 points in 70 games.
Joining either of those two is likely Erik Johnson. The veteran had a tough 2019-20, but is poised to do more with an improved supporting cast. His offensive skills are limited, but he can still control the puck at a respectable level. He and Girard had a combined 50.65 Corsi For in 606:51 minutes together. There might be some experimentation in who skates with Johnson, but the second pairing is his to lose.
This pairing should be much improved despite a lack of major changes. The only real shift is switching out Nikita Zadorov for either Girard or Toews. Both of those players had better possession stats than Zadorov, but do sacrifice some physicality. However, that won’t matter with Graves handling the bulk of forechecking duties. Either Girard or Toews gives the Avalanche much more firepower when the third pairing is on the team. Opponents won’t be able to rest when yet another duo capable of moving the puck effectively takes the ice.
Ian Cole will take the opposite spot in this pairing and will act as the primary checker. He did a good amount of that last year with 83 hits and 122 blocks, but that should increase in the coming year. The 31-year-old should be a fine shield for his offensive partner and help shoulder tough defensive minutes at even-strength.
Seventh and Eighth Defenders
Last year, this role was reserved for Mark Barberio and a combination of seldom-used options including Kevin Connauton and Anton Lindholm. The team has upgraded its depth, replacing almost all of its extra defenders from 2019-20 with younger skaters. That should give the team much more flexibility in the event of injuries or underperformance.
Many fans will focus heavily on the young duo of Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins. Timmins appeared in two games last season with no points, but he did have an outstanding 57.1 percent Corsi For in that small sample. The team’s second-round pick from 2017 was far more visible in the AHL, where he posted three goals and 27 points in 40 games. Byram spent the years in his fourth season with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. The fourth overall selection from the 2019 Draft contributed 14 goals and 52 points in 50 games before operations shutdown. Both will be factors as well. They just might wait until 2021-22 for major roles.
After that, Colorado also has Kyle Burroughs and Dennis Gilbert waiting in the wings. Neither is much of an offensive force; Gilbert has just seven goals and 24 points in 115 professional games since leaving Notre Dame. Burroughs isn’t much better with only 18 goals and 89 points in 331 games since his days in the WHL. However, both are bigger defenders at least 6′-0″ tall and at over 200-pounds. There is nothing wrong with having a few extra grinders on the depth chart to support the scorers.
Are Further Moves Coming?
It is hard to imagine Colorado making any serious moves at this point. They do have just over $1.8 million in cap space, but that will probably go to one of several key pending free agents. The first six defenders are basically locked in for the coming year with Byram and Timmins right on the edge of breaking through.
The team should be perfectly fine with the players outlined above. They have an ideal mixture of scorers and grinders and don’t really need any of the players left on the market. The NHL-calibre options aren’t good fits or too expensive. The Avs also don’t need the non-NHL-calibre options because AHL-only skaters are fairly easy to acquire. The current roster should be fairly set for whenever the season begins.