As the shortened NHL season gets underway on Wednesday with realigned divisions, the world of hockey will have their eyes on the highly anticipated Colorado Avalanche offensive attack led by the 25-year-old centerman Nathan MacKinnon. Along with McKinnon, the Avs have a devastating front six on their offensive attack that includes wingers Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog, newly acquired Brandon Saad, as well as centerman Nazem Kadri.
In order to take command this season, however, the Avs will need to generate chances and get major stops from their backend players on the defense. With a few acquisitions and a loss to their defense this offseason, the Avs have a new look with their blue line pairings to open the 2021 season.
State Of the Blue Line
Apart from their struggles on the penalty kill last season and the fact that teams shot heavy on them, they managed to allow the sixth-least goals in the regular season. Their defense is filled with several dependable blueliners, each with something unique to bring to the top three pairings. Despite their confidence in the roster, there have been a couple of hiccups at training camp with several late shows and even a no show defense. Here is what the Avalanche defense will look like to open up the season.
In the span of just a few days, Makar made a transition from being at the center of the college hockey universe by leading the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the NCAA finals, to helping the Avs in their pursuit for the Stanley Cup.
He debuted with the Avalanche on April 15, 2019, while the team was in the heart of a playoff run, and had an immediate impact. He scored the game-winning goal of Game 3 in the Avs’ first-round upset over the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, becoming the first defenseman to score a playoff goal in his NHL debut.
Makar had a sensational rookie season and has become one of the most talked-about names among Avalanche fans behind MacKinnon and Landeskog. He put up 50 points in 57 regular games along with 15 points in all 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games this past season. The 21-year old also had a plus-12 rating en-route to making him an easy choice for the Calder Trophy. If any team has a defensive staple to look forward to years down the line, it’s the Avs and Makar. In only his second full season in the league, he will be heading the defense of a team with championship aspirations.
Set to headline the Avalanche defense on the left side of Makar is newly acquired defenseman Toews, who spent his first two years of his career with the New York Islanders. Last season he put up 28 points in 68 games for a successful Islanders team and according to The Hockey Writers was their best left-handed defenseman.
The Avs have decided to go for an aggressive scoring look from their top two defenders. Though known for his scoring abilities Toews has also shown capabilities at defending the net as he recorded 75 blocked shots last season. Could he be a special teams piece the Avalanche were missing?
Girard is another point-scoring defender in the Avs mix, but he is certainly capable of bringing more to the table than last season’s 34 points in 70 games. In a season that required the Avalanche to shuffle the cards as they were plagued by injuries, Girard was the team’s most frequent man on the ice. He led the team with 1,492 minutes on ice, the most among non-goaltenders.
While he had a down season on the defensive front with a value of just plus-1, for the $5 million a year they are paying him he is worth it. Especially because he brings great character to the team.
In the past five years, he has received some recognition as a candidate for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. This award is given annually to the player who shows exemplary sportsmanship and conduct combined with a high standard of playing. His teammate MacKinnon got the award last season. It certainly cannot hurt to have a model player or two.
While teammates Landeskog, Saad, and Philip Grubrauer all missed the first three days of training camp, Johnson is yet to show up at camp. He is still “deemed unfit to play” by head coach Jared Bednar for undisclosed reasons. The 32-year-old not only brings playing experience but team experience to the defense. He has been with the Avs since 2011. Playing under three different coaches Johnson has seen it all through the thick and thin of the Avs in the last decade.
Unlike the other top defensemen, Johnson’s role is that of a more defensive focused blueliner, which makes him that much more valuable. He has also brought in stable leadership as he and MacKinnon have been the team’s alternate captains for the past three seasons, a title they are expected to still hold this season. The Avs certainly hope that they will find out Johnson’s status sooner rather than later so he immediately gets back on the ice.
Graves enters his third season in the NHL. He should definitely be a key difference-maker in the team’s defensive aggression as a part of the third defensive pairing. Graves racked up 112 hits last season ranking him in the top 40 among defensemen in the league. Most importantly, his presence on the ice was of great advantage for the Avs as he finished atop the league with a plus-12 rating.
It might seem surprising to some that Graves is not in a top defensive pairing with numbers like that. But with Bednar’s aggressive attack, it is understandable. Though Graves will have a big role to play, especially given that Nikita Zadorov, the team’s main hitting defender last season. is no longer with the team, as he was involved in the offseason Saad trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. This should make Graves the most dependable body checking defender going into this season.
If the Avs need a defensive veteran to step up in place of Johnson, Cole is probably the guy. He has been a backend defender throughout his career but this could be his chance to step up big with his veteran presence as he is the most experienced of the defenseman on a legitimate contender. Cole has Stanley Cup experience under his belt as he was a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
Perhaps we could see Cole move up to being on the second or even top line if he continues to put up steady contributions as he delivered 122 blocks and 3.5 defensive point shares, second to only Graves. With so many offensive defenders it does not hurt that the team has a defender like Cole to hold down the back of the blue line.
Replacement Pairing Projections
The Avs defensive pairings look pretty set to start the season except for the uncertainty about Johnson. If he is not there to start the season the Avs will likely go with one of their fourth-pair defenders like Dennis Gilbert or Kyle Burroughs.
Gilbert came over as the other part of the trade with the Blackhawks for Saad, while Burroughs was acquired via trade from the Islanders on Oct. 11. Gilbert appeared in 22 games with the Blackhawks where he posted 80 hits. Burroughs is yet to see NHL action but has been a standout so far in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, which might have been enough to earn him a regular spot on the roster.
Another option the Avs might consider pursuing is that of Conor Timmins. Bednar has been impressed with what he has seen from Timmins at training camp and has not ruled out the possibility of using him on the penalty kill, the major factor the Avs are figuring out at training camp.
With the Avs playing a shortened 56-game season and lacking a key defenseman, roster depth and a next-man-up mentality will be important at every level, defense being no exception. With a series of new acquisitions and a mix of young and experienced guys on the defensive unit, Bednar has several options to work with as the Avs look to dominate the league on all levels of play.
Ben Rossi covers the Colorado Avalanche for THW. He can also be found writing and co-hosting the Exit Velo Podcast for the website BackSportsPage. For BackSportsPage he covers hockey, the Oakland Athletics, Major League Baseball news, and other sports stories that stretch beyond the playing field. Graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Denver where he covered the Denver Pioneers college hockey program as an undergraduate staff writer for the DU Clarion.