For the first time in at least a decade, there aren’t a whole lot of question marks surrounding the Avalanche defense. Assuming everyone stays healthy, this will be a relatively boring training camp for the blueline. The top seven is more or less set. But there is plenty of reason to be excited about a defense that boasts a lot of talent and has a little bit of everything heading into the season. Let’s take a peek at the players expected to play in games for the Avs this season, some key questions surrounding the defense, and the anticipated starting lineup on opening night.
Erik Johnson: The horse on the blueline. Johnson averaged a career-high 25:26 in the games he played last year, and on some nights was playing half the game. He is the unquestioned number-one defenseman on the team and goes head to head against the other teams best every night. His offensive production has slipped a little bit the last three seasons, but with more talent on the blueline, he will not be relied on to produce 40 points a year for the Avs to be successful.
Tyson Barrie: If you’re looking for production on the blueline, look no further than Tyson Barrie. Coming off a career year in which he posted 57 points in just 68 games, Barrie is a lock to start the year running the top power-play unit, and will be used heavily in offensive situations. Although his defense leaves a little to be desired, he has improved over the years and given his elite offensive production, you have to learn to live with the defensive miscues. In his last five seasons, he has averaged .64 points per game.
Nikita Zadorov: The 23-year-old Russian made big strides last year, leading the NHL in hits and scoring some big goals on his way to a career year thus far. There are still consistency issues in his game, but there is no doubt he is an important piece of the blueline both now and moving forward. He played the final month and a half of last year with a major shoulder injury that required surgery, so that will be something to keep an eye on in camp.
Samuel Girard: The key piece to the Matt Duchene trade was a revelation on the blueline after he arrived, wowing both fans and his own teammates with his skill and skating ability. A 23-point campaign as just a 19-year-old is nothing to sneeze at, and he appears to have bulked up heading into his sophomore year. By the end of the year, he was a huge part of the Avs success. The Nashville Predators made it a point to physically punish him in the playoffs, which says a lot about how important he was to the Avs.
Ian Cole: Signed to a three-year contract on July 1st, Cole is expected to play atop-fourr role, take on heavy defensive minutes, and help mentor some of the younger players on the blueline. Unlike past veteran defensemen the Avs have signed, Cole is still relatively young at 29 and can still play at a strong level. He’s also capable of chipping in offensively, as he’s posted 20 points in each of the last two seasons.
Patrik Nemeth: Nemeth was a very solid pickup on the waiver wire before the season started, but ended up playing a lot more minutes than he probably should have as the year went on. In fairness to him, he handled them as well as he could, and was certainly a big part of the Avs success on the penalty kill. The Cole signing sure looks like it will cut into his minutes this year, and seeing as how the Avs only gave him a one year deal, he may be playing his last season in an Avalanche uniform.
Mark Barberio: The Montreal native chose to forego unrestricted free agency, and instead sign a two year extension with the Avs. He’s proven to be a valuable waiver wire pickup, providing steady play with the ability to move the puck. He’s a very popular player in the locker room, and would seem destined to start the year as either the sixth or seventh defenseman on the roster. Avs fans should have no concerns if Barberio has to step into the lineup.
Anton Lindholm: The Swede started last season as a regular on the defense, but by the end of the year was completely forgotten, as he was a healthy scratch for 20 of the final 21 games, and didn’t dress in the postseason. He’s a physical player given his size, and has solid hockey IQ, but struggles with the puck on his stick. It would seem he’s in tough for ice time unless several injuries occur.
Conor Timmins: The prized 20-year-old prospect is a question mark heading into training camp, as he’s still recovering from a concussion he received in the OHL last year. It’s entirely possible he plays games for the Avs this season, but it would seem unlikely he starts the year in Denver.
Nicolas Meloche: The 21-year-old defender may have a leg up on Timmins given he has a year of professional experience and will push to play games in Colorado this year. He plays a very physical game but is capable of providing offense, as he scored 16 goals in his final year in Juniors. If one of the Avs more physical defensemen go down, Meloche may be the perfect skater to call up and give a taste of NHL action.
David Warsofsky: The AHL veteran looked in over his head in the postseason, and appears destined to be a very important part of the leadership team on the AHL’s Colorado Eagles. He can step into the NHL in a pinch, but shouldn’t play for an extended period of time.
Mark Alt: The late-season waiver wire pickup didn’t look out of place in the games he did play, but didn’t get a sniff in the postseason. He will be a big part of the blueline in the AHL but could also see some NHL action if needed.
Three big questions facing the Avalanche defense
Can Erik Johnson stay healthy? The now 30-year-old has always had health issues, but in three of the last four years has suffered some major injuries that have taken big chunks out of his season. He has only managed to be healthy for 228 of the Avs last 334 games, and if he is missing, it changes the defense quite a bit. The Avs need him to be healthy if they hope to continue the progress they made last season.
Can Samuel Girard and Nikita Zadorov continue to take strides to improve the defense? The Avs top two on the blueline is set in EJ and Barrie, but Zadorov and Girard can close the gap in ability if they continue their development from last year. NHL teams now have a year of tape on Girard, and will no doubt look to attack him differently, and Zadorov needs to focus on developing more consistency so that the dips in his game are few and far between.
Will Cale Makar step in at the end of the year? Perhaps the best trade deadline move the team could make would be signing their prized defensive prospect to join the team at the end of the year. The 19-year-old chose to stay at UMass for another year of development, but it seems highly likely he will sign once his year is done. A player of his talent level could be a huge difference maker at the end of the year, and it wouldn’t cost the Avs anything to add him. Would Jared Bednar throw him in the lineup in the middle of a playoff run? That’s an entirely different question, and hopefully one the Avs will have to answer.
Anticipated Opening Night Lineup
Ian Cole – Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov – Tyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth – Samuel Girard
Assuming everyone is healthy, it would seem likely this is the Avs defensive setup on opening night. Zadorov and Barrie were put together when Johnson went down at the end of the year, and their chemistry continued to grow heading into the playoffs. Cole may slide right in next to EJ to face the other teams best forwards every night. Nemeth’s role will likely decrease at even strength, but he should still play a big role on the penalty kill. Girard is the wild card, and will likely see his minutes go up as the year goes on. Early on, I would anticipate him being used heavily in offensive situations to take advantage of his skill.