As the dust settles on the NHL draft and the opening of NHL free agency, it is clear the Colorado Avalanche are going to look noticeably different this coming season.
The biggest question mark of the Avalanche roster of the past few seasons has been on the defensive side of the puck and the Avalanche organization made some moves to change this. The six guys that will play defense for the Avalanche night in and night out this season should look something like this.
Erik Johnson and Francois Beauchemin
For many years now the Avalanche have lacked a number one shut-down defenceman similar to a Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty. It is true these types of players do not just grow on trees but it has been the defensive corps of the Avalanche that has raised questions over the past few seasons. Erik Johnson first joined the Avalanche in 2011 following a trade from the St. Louis Blues.
His first several seasons in Colorado were rough to say the least. The Avalanche gave up a lot to get Johnson and early on it looked like the Blues had destroyed the Avalanche with this trade. However, the arrival of head coach Patrick Roy seemed to rejuvenate Johnson and he has been stellar the past two seasons.
Johnson was selected to play in last seasons NHL all-star game but had to have his knee scoped that weekend instead. While Avalanche faithful hoped Johnson would return, it would turn out Johnson would miss the remainder of the season to let his knee recover. Johnson played 47 games before the surgery and in this short time scored a career high 12 goals. Had Johnson stayed healthy and maintained his point production, this past season would have been the highlight of Johnson’s career.
While Johnson has performed admirably the Avalanche were left with a hole on the back-end after deciding to not offer a contract to his partner, veteran Jan Hejda. As a result when the free agency window opened the Avalanche wasted little time signing a veteran defenceman to fill the void, enter Francois Beauchemin.
The 35-year-old Beauchemin lead the Anaheim Ducks, the number one team in the western conference this past season, in ice time despite his age. The Avalanche offered Beauchemin a three-year deal to come to Colorado and play on the top pairing beside Johnson.
Beauchemin has been praised for several things he accomplished in Anaheim including winning a Stanley Cup in 2007. Beauchemin will bring even more veteran presence and leadership to a young team that only won four of its first 17 games last season which ultimately resulted in a season with no playoff appearance.
Also Beauchemin has been instrumental in tutoring the young defenceman the Ducks have such as Cam Fowler. Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and new comer Nikita Zadorov are sure to be the defense of the future for the Avalanche and it is very likely Beauchemin will elevate their games.
After Beauchemin has played out his three years in Denver these young guys should be able to look back at their young careers and say that Beauchemin is the reason they play the game the way they do. If this happens and these guys are still members of the Avalanche this signing will be a huge win for the organization.
Tyson Barrie and Nikita Zadorov
The second pair for the Avalanche appears it will also feature one player that was on the Avalanche roster last year next to a player that was brought in during the off-season. Barrie played his first full season as a member of the Avalanche last season competing in 80 of the 82 games in the regular season.
This was the first season since he was drafted in 2009 that Barrie did not spend any time in the minors. After being injured in the playoffs in the 2013-2014 season, Barrie was able to play in the season opener this past season and he did not look back. In the 80 games that Barrie played in he produced 53 points.
Barrie and Johnson both have the green light from Roy to jump up into the play when they see an opening. As a result despite being a defenceman, Barrie scores goals from all over the offensive zone.
To offset Barrie’s speed and ability to jump up into the play, the Avalanche acquired Zadorov in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Barrie is only 23 years old and is still three years older than Zadorov. While Barrie stands 5 feet 10 inches tall Zadorov towers over him and 6 feet 5 inches tall.
A first round pick in 2013, Zadorov was a player the Avalanche did their homework on leading up to that draft. Of course the Avalanche selected Nathan MacKinnon that season so nobody is wondering why they did not choose Zadorov but the Avalanche still felt they were familiar with him.
Given his young age general manager Joe Sakic has said on multiple occasions in the past two weeks that they plan to have Zadorov for a very long time. He could easily play a decade for the Avalanche and his career would still not be done. Zadorov was probably the most important piece acquired in the trade with Buffalo that in total included 5 players and a second round draft pick changing hands.
Zadorov is another guy that will benefit from having Beauchemin in the lineup. It was originally believed Zadorov would be paired with Johnson on the top pair but that was before Beauchemin was added to the roster. Being paired with Barrie on the second pair will allow for the young Zadorov to continue to develop without having to play against other teams top lines. Everybody knows it takes defenders longer to develop to NHL caliber than it takes forwards and Zadorov is sure to be no different. He experienced his first NHL action last year with Buffalo and appears to now be in the future plans of the Avalanche.
Brad Stuart and Either Guenin or Holden
The third pair of defenceman is where things are not as clear. The Avalanche have a couple of players that have struggled at the NHL level and as well as a couple of young prospects that are on the edge of taking the next step. The safe bet is that veteran defenceman Brad Stuart will be a staple on that third pair. Stuart has appeared in over 1000 games since first appearing in the NHL in the 1999-2000 season.
The Avalanche acquired Stuart from the San Jose Sharks during the off-season last year and almost immediately signed him to a three-year contract extension that will expire in 2017. Stuart is certainly past his prime and will certainly benefit from being on the third pair instead of the first or second pair night after night. Stuart only had three goals for the Avalanche this past season and really should have only had two.
With these five players in the lineup in these positions there remains one spot open that several players will be fighting to fill. The leading candidate to fill this spot is probably Nick Holden based on his contract situation alone. While the Avalanche locked up key players like Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, and Semyon Varlamov long-term, they also extended Holden to a contract that lasts until 2018. Holden had an excellent first season with the Avalanche in 2013-2014 where in 61 games he scored 13 goals. It was not a surprise the Avalanche extended his contract it was just the term of said contract that had some people scratching their heads.
Now with the additions on the defensive side of the puck Holden is going to have to earn both his contract and his playing time by beating out other guys to fill the one remaining spot in the top six. Should Holden accomplish this he will certainly benefit, similar to Stuart, by being on the third pair instead of the top two.
Holden is far from guaranteed this spot on the third pair. Another Avalanche regular last season, Nate Guenin, will also be fighting this off-season to prove he belongs in the line up. Competition for a roster spot can be beneficial to a club if it pushes it players to play better. On the flip side though, it can cause friction between two guys that spent the past two seasons in the lineup more often that they were not. Only time will tell how this situation sorts itself out.
Currently the Avalanche have seven NHL defenceman fighting to fill six spots and some players will have to fight harder than others. Also one injury to any of the players named above and the fight to make the roster disappears. It is also possible that a couple of prospects may throw their hats into the ring and push one of these guys aside. Chris Bigras and Mason Geertsen have been at the Avalanche development camp the past two days and both have impressed.
Bigras nearly made the team two years ago after Roy saw him play up close. Last season however, he took a step back and was not as close to cracking the big teams roster. Geertsen came on last season making waves as the potential number one defensive prospect for the Avalanche. The Avalanche have gone from a team that had questions on defense to having more players than they have spots. The Avalanche brass will have some tough decisions to make over the next three months in regards to who will go and who will stay.
One thing is for sure given what the Avalanche accomplished with bringing in Zadorov and the free agent signing of Beauchemin, the organization has a much more stable defensive corps. This group of defenders will hopefully push each other to get better and the young guys will learn a thing or two while the Avalanche build this group up. The questions about the defensive core of the Avalanche should be greatly diminished this coming season and it appears the Avalanche have done a great job securing its defensive groups for the future.