Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Colorado Avalanche’s dangerous top forward line, the less glamorous role of reliable workhorse has been lost in the shuffle. It’s great to have a top scoring trio like the Rocky Mountain Line but there is more to winning hockey games than just scoring flashy goals. Sometimes, a team ends up with their back against the wall and someone has to handle the penalty kill to save a win.
The Avalanche have three unsung forward heroes in that category and their contributions may surprise some.
The Avalanche’s Penalty Kill Numbers
The Avalanche don’t boast a stunning penalty kill record this season, unlike last year’s fourth place ranking. This season, they have only been successful killing off 79.75% of their short-handed situations, good enough for the middle of the NHL pack.
However, the Avalanche rank second in the number of times they have been short-handed and sit in a seventh-place tie for the amount of penalty time served per game (tied with the Philadelphia Flyers). Colorado also has the rare distinction of ranking third for the number of major penalties assessed. That’s a lot of work for players who relish battling through tough situations.
Carl Soderberg Leads the Penalty Kill
Carl Soderberg is the linchpin that makes the Avalanche’s penalty kill effective. He hails from Sweden and is the oldest member of the team at the ripe age of 33. He joined the Avalanche for the 2015-16 season and has become a mainstay.
He leads the league in cumulative short-handed ice time and ranks third among NHL centers for penalty kill time, averaging 3:31 minutes per game. Considering he averages 16:29 minutes a match, Soderberg has developed into one of the more proficient penalty-killers.
He has also handled the second highest number of face-offs on the team, trailing only Nathan MacKinnon. Soderberg has developed into an all-around player, handling time on the power play as well as the penalty kill, becoming a special teams force. His short-handed skills alone have set him apart from the pack.
For a skater with limited vision (twelve years ago he was hit by a puck that damaged his left eye), he shows a keen awareness for player movement, positioning himself well to deflect pucks and clog up the ice. He has developed a scrappy game and fights well for positioning without getting chippy enough to be penalized. For a man who started in the NHL as a scoring threat, he has quietly adapted his game to the needs of the team.
The Fearsome Twosome
Two other forwards have contributed substantially to the Avalanche penalty kill: Gabriel Bourque and Matt Nieto.
Bourque typifies the try-hard, feel-good story. He joined the Avalanche on a professional tryout contract for the 2016-17 preseason after not being tendered a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. He then signed a contract with the organization and spent the majority of his first year playing for their AHL club. However, he subsequently signed an extension and played 58 games for the Avalanche last season.
Bourque is scrappy and uses his 5-foot-10-inch frame to squeeze between players and stay low on the ice, fighting for the puck and mucking things up. One of the more amazing – and underappreciated – aspects of Bourque’s game is that he leads all NHL wingers in short-handed ice time. Averaging 3:40 minutes per night of penalty kill time, he’s become the quintessential special teams player. And, considering he consistently ranks near the bottom of the Avalanche for ice time, averaging 11:42 minutes per game, his penalty kill contributions are remarkable.
He is not alone. Fellow winger Matt Nieto ranks second in short-handed minutes among NHL forwards. Bourque and Nieto provide an interesting one-two punch.
Nieto logs an average of 3:20 minutes on the penalty kill per game. For a waiver claim, he has proved to be a valuable addition to the team, playing winger anywhere from the second to the fourth line as needed. The versatile Nieto plays over 14 minutes a night. At 5-foot-11-inches tall, he doesn’t come across as an imposing defensive forward.
He uses his speed and skill to disrupt passes and counter moves without screening his goaltender. He plays a generally clean defensive game on the penalty kill, disrupting opponents rather than physically knocking them off the puck.
Other Notable Contributors
The Avalanche also get significant contributions from two other wingers in short-handed situations. J. T. Compher ranks seventh among all forwards for time spent on the penalty kill. He averages 2:37 minutes – nearly a fourth of his ice time per night. Currently recovering from an upper-body injury, Compher’s presence has been sorely missed.
The other winger making the top ten for short-handed ice time is Matt Calvert. Acquired in the offseason, Calvert has become a reliable fixture on the penalty kill as he handles an average of 2:24 minutes a game playing in short-handed situations. Calvert has shown a willingness to sacrifice his body, block shots, and has even pushed the play down the ice, for a shot on net.
While the Avalanche boasts excellent scoring power, they also have some solid defensive play from their forwards. They have four wingers in the top 10 for short-handed ice time as well as the third busiest center on the penalty kill. They have a number of unsung heroes helping to push the Avalanche up in the standings.
Only two years ago, the Avalanche had the worst penalty kill in the league. Now they have a respectable corps carrying a heavy workload looking to improve. They may not be flashy but the Avalanche have character players helping the team gut through their penalty kill. Quality depth really makes a difference.