After a disappointing end to the Colorado Avalanche season — a 5-0 loss in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs first round — it is now time for us to reflect. This season was filled with surprises better than any fan could have hoped for coming off last year’s historically bad campaign. Nathan MacKinnon could be a Hart Trophy candidate, Mikko Rantanen was a top-20 scorer in the league, goaltending led to a 10-game win streak during the middle of the season, rookies stepped up and provided depth. The season was an overall success and a look into the bright future ahead in Colorado.
The area of the team that receives the most criticism, and has for years now, is the defense. Though it is still the weakest part of the team, there were some bright spots. Specifically, 23 year old Nikita Zadorov and 19 year old Samuel Girard both played exceptionally well and showed signs of becoming great NHL defensemen down the road.
In his fifth NHL season Nikita Zadorov played an important role shutting down the opposition. Behind Erik Johnson, Zadorov is arguably the Avalanche’s best shutdown defenseman and still has plenty of room to improve. Zadorov is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound giant that plays a physical style of defense, which sees plenty of use in key situations throughout a game. Zadorov is constantly tasked with locking up number one lines and also sees plenty of time on the penalty kill.
Zadorov plays a similar style of play to Boston Bruins defenseman, Zdeno Chara. Coming in at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, Chara is the tallest player to ever play in the NHL. The two players are very similar, they play a heavy physical style of defense that relies on positioning and muscling opponents off the puck rather than using slick skating and fancy moves to disrupt the opposing forwards.
In Zadorov’s fifth season he played 77 games and had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) while averaging 19:28 time on ice per game and also owning a league-leading 278 hits over the season.
During Chara’s fifth season he played 75 games and had 23 points (10 goals,13 assists) and led his team with an average 22:16 time on ice per game, Chara has also never topped 222 hits in a season. Zadorov is still young and will improve over the next few years, if he can keep producing and play anything like Chara has over his career the Avalanche will have one of the league’s better shut-down defensemen on their roster for years to come.
While it is important to get scoring from as many people as possible, the Avalanche will get plenty of that from their top line and young core. For Zadorov continuing to work on his defensive craft will be key to a successful career. If he can eliminate some of the minor mistakes (penalties, stepping up at the wrong time) he will only improve and could have a similar career to that of one of the NHL’s all-time best physical shutdown defenseman, Chara.
Along with Zadorov, another very bright player for the Avalanche this season was 19-year-old defenseman Samuel Girard, acquired in the Matt Duchene deal. Girard and Zadorov are polar opposites, but both skilled and exciting in their own ways. Just 5-foot-10, 162 pounds, Girard is incredibly crafty and can fly up and down the ice.
Girard plays a similar style to the Ottawa Senators All-Star defenseman, Erik Karlsson. Both players are on the smaller side, but use their incredible skating abilities and offensive creativity to produce and defend against top forwards around the league.
In his first NHL season Girard played 73 games and accounted for 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) and averaged 17:39 time on ice per game. At the age of 19, Karlsson played 60 games in his first NHL season and had 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) and averaged 20:07 time on ice per game.
Whereas Zadorov spent most of his time on the penalty kill and disrupting forwards, Girard was regularly featured as the quarterback of the Avalanche power play. His ability to move the puck around the offensive zone nicely or pick a corner and fire it on net helped him gather 13 points on the power play this season.
In his second season Girard will look to increase his ice time and strengthen his play defensively. He will have no problem scoring and continue to be a threat offensively but if he wants to be anything like Karlsson he will need to work on his positioning and play in the defensive zone. At just 19 years old Girard offers a ton of potential.
The Avalanche defensive unit gets their fair share of criticism. Even with Zadorov and Girard developing into quality NHL blue liners, the team still might need to add a third-line defenseman to bolster the back end this offseason. Whether they find a fit in free agency or not is unknown, but with another season under their belts Zadorov and Girard will continue to grow and be valuable pieces to the Avs’ future success.