The Colorado Avalanche face some interesting defensive questions this preseason. Banged up for large portions of last season, the Avalanche often looked like they were running the blue line by committee. Between injuries and the summer acquisition of veteran blueliner Ian Cole, three key questions face the Avalanche as they prepare for the regular season.
1. Will Zadorov & Nemeth Play Opening Night?
Zadorov and Nemeth both played through injuries in the Avalanche’s postseason last year. Both had shoulder surgery in the offseason. And both competed in training camp wearing the pumpkin ‘no contact’ jerseys. Even with the special jersey, Zadorov couldn’t seem to help himself, playing close to full speed. Perhaps the Avalanche should have put him in bubble wrap instead.
The pumpkin jerseys finally came off on Friday. But one wonders whether both blueliners will be able to return to pre-injury form.
The defensive injuries don’t stop there. Three promising prospects missed all of training camp with injuries as well. Sergei Boikov (who missed all of last season with a preseason shoulder injury), Conor Timmins (wrestling with concussion symptoms) and Nicolas Meloche (with an unspecified injury). Timmins had garnered the most attention but he just started skating this past week and the Avalanche are being cautious about his return. Boikov is expected to return to the practice squad within the week and Meloche just returned to practice on Friday.
While it looks like most of the players will be able to participate to some degree in the preseason, questions still remain. How healthy are they really? What happens once the recovering players enter a real game with all the bumping and checking? Will the newly mended players be able to sustain the grind of an 82 game NHL season? The injuries raise concerns and are certainly one of the key stories to follow.
2. Where Will Girard Play in the Avalanche Lineup?
The Avalanche’s defensive pairings look to be one of the big areas of change for this season. Talented 20-year-old defenseman Girard added 16 pounds to his frame in the offseason but hasn’t lost a step. He continues to showcase an impressive skill set as well as good ice awareness and is responsible with the puck.
Does Girard make mistakes? Yes. But he’s head and shoulders above most 20-year-old blueliners and shows the potential to be something special. Girard spent most of training camp skating with Erik Johnson and Coach Bednar stated he hoped to start the pair together in the regular season.
Girard isn’t the only defenseman moving around the blue line pairings, though. Assuming Zadorov is ready to play, he will likely be paired with Tyson Barrie. The Avalanche would be putting a lot of faith in Zadorov to cover for any defensive lapses from his partner as well as knowing when to support the offensive push. His play towards the end of last season earned the trust. Hopefully, rehabbing the injury won’t impact all the gains Zadorov made last year. The only way to know will involve seeing him in game action, which makes this preseason so interesting for the defenders.
The acquisition of Ian Cole throws another spanner in the works for projecting pairings. Cole spent most of camp playing opposite Nemeth. The two could make for a solid shutdown pairing, something the Avalanche really need and a position that would anchor Nemeth in the starting lineup.
But where does that leave Mark Barberio? He missed a good portion of last season but was inked to a new contract in May. He may become the seventh man on the roster.
3. Will Any Rookies Earn an Avalanche Roster Spot?
The Avalanche’s defense has moved from a shallow group resembling Swiss cheese to a competitive crew with some quality depth in the span of just a couple of years.
Boikov, Meloche and Timmins were all considered possibilities for the roster before injury although they might be better served spending time in the AHL with the Eagles. With Timmins still in concussion protocol, the only real possibilities for earning a spot out of camp fall to Boikov and Meloche.
Boikov showed well during the rookie showcase, showing both speed and grit. Meloche also make a solid impression as a shutdown defenseman, although not as flashy as Boikov, and has the advantage of being a right-handed shooter, something the Avalanche could use more of.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) September 21, 2018
Mason Geertsen used his size well but consistently drew penalties, something that can’t continue. Josh Anderson also played a shutdown role but lacked the puck skills to be good at feeding the offense. The only other outlier on defense with a shot was Ryan Graves, who showed flashes of solid play and an ability to move the puck to feed the offense. He’s a longshot but he’s on the bubble.
The challenge with finding a spot for the rookies, though, revolves around the other defensemen in the pipeline – all of whom have some NHL experience. The Avalanche have a host of bottom tier blueliners from last year to choose from – Anton Lindholm, David Warsofsky and Mark Alt.
Warsofsky is getting a second opinion on some preseason test results and has yet to skate with the team. Alt filled a need but Cole may have been the upgrade that makes Alt expendable. Lindholm ended up a healthy scratch at the end of last year and he hasn’t done much to set himself apart from the pack during training camp and in his preseason appearance. All of which opens the door for some rookie to step into the spotlight and grab a spot on the roster.
Regardless of who starts on the Avalanche blue line opening night, they will have talented depth to call up from the AHL when injuries happen. A plethora of quality defenseman is a luxury Colorado hasn’t had in years.
The final Avalanche defensive pairings come down to two things – who is actually healthy enough to sustain all the contact in a regular season game and how many blueliners the team wants to keep on the roster. As of now, it’s a tight race. The Avalanche finally have depth at defense and the competition for the final slots is heating up. One more reason to keep an eye on the preseason matchups.
Previously – 3 Key Avalanche Roster Questions – Forwards