March 1 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Derek Dorsett (15) is checked by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) during the first period of the game at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
A couple of weeks ago, I kicked off a short series looking at how the core players on the Avalanche match up against the eight teams to make the playoffs in the Western Conference this year. This isn't exactly a thorough scientific study (more like little league anonymous blogger stuffs), but still fun and undeniably word-filling. In part 1, I concluded that the Avalanche aren't on par with the other playoff teams in terms of starting goaltending, but did find evidence that Semyon Varlamov could be on a playoff-caliber career trajectory.
Today, I'm moving on up about 10 feet or so to look at how the Avs defensemen stack up against the playoff teams. To do this, I grabbed the regular season stats for the six defensemen who made the most appearances for their respective teams in the first round of the playoffs. That's not a 100% perfect solution, but I think it's close enough to work for what I'm trying to do here. These stats can be found after the jump.
For reasons I don't care to expand upon here, I was unable to find any playoff data for the Avalanche for this past season (or the season before that, for that matter). So, I just went with the six players with the most GP during the regular season (and, of course, who were still with the team at the end of the year). Note that it did not prorate partial-season stats.
And here are the totals separated out.
Lots to absorb here, so let's jump right into some observations. First, the Avalanche had the biggest bunch of blueliners and it wasn't really all that close. There were seven players among the nine teams listed at over 230 pounds, and four played for the Avalanche. On paper, we thought that the Avs D would be tough to play against because of all that size queen goodness, although I'm not sure that was the reality. I never really got the sense that the Avalanche were as physically punishing as we thought they were going to be. If the Avs were wearing opponents down, it didn't show in the stats: the Avs allowed 66 1st period goals, 75 2nd period goals and 73 3rd period goals. But the Avs' big group of baddies did hit expectations in one other area: they set the pace with the most penalty minutes. Hurray?
Offensively, the hulking Avs lumbered pretty far behind the pace that the playoff teams set. The Avalanche were dead last in offensive stats like goals, points, +/- and PP goals. They did have more assists than the Kings, but had only 18 goals to LA's 34. Chicago was just slightly ahead in goals and PP goals...but the Blackhawks ranked 6th overall in scoring and the Avs were 25th. In other words, Chicago forwards were still putting the pucks in the net. Only Chicago put fewer shots on net and most teams were well ahead of the Avs' D there. And Colorado was the only squad with a negative +/-.
Seven of the eight teams had at least two defensemen with 30+ points and three teams had three. Los Angeles had one. The Avs, of course, had none. 19 of the defensemen here - 40% - had at least as many points as Avs' top D-scorer Erik Johnson. Johnson has twice scored more than 30 points and Stefan Elliott has the potential to do the same, but those are the only two offensive threats in the bunch; none of the other four blueliners have ever topped 21 points in a season. To me, the takeaway here is that teams can thrive with four guys who don't score (which the Avs have) but only if they have two guys who can (which the Avs didn't have this year).
Finally, if you look at the ice time, each team had two or three guys that they clearly leaned on more than others - Suter and Weber, Keith and Seabrook, Doughty and Mitchell, etc. The Avalanche were much more even-keeled with their d-man minutes, and I posit that it's because they don't have those top-tier guys. Johnson was used in this manner during his first season on the Avs where averaged over 24 minutes per game. Last year, this dropped to under 21 minutes. I think the Avs were hoping that Johnson was going to be a bonafide #1 guy, but he hasn't quite panned out in that regard. He's a good player, but maybe not the cornerstone the Avalanche were hoping for.
Greg Sherman has completely re-worked the Avalanche defense in recent years; Ryan Wilson is the only one of the six who was on the opening night roster two years ago. But if we're talking about building a playoff roster, it looks like he may still have a bit of work ahead of him. The Avalanche currently lack the pair of competent scorers that other playoff teams have; Johnson and Elliott could be those guys...but they might not be. Nor do the Avs have a pair of top defensemen to rely on. Jan Hejda and Ryan O'Byrne were the Avs' top defensive guys last year; they are decent players, but don't come close to the playoff guys on this list. I would say the Avalanche are still a quality player defenseman or two away from having a playoff caliber-squad. The addition of two top D would allow Johnson, Elliott, Hejda and O'Byrne to flourish in more favorable situations lower in the depth chart.
Sadly, top defensemen don't exactly grow on trees. Currently, there are just 6 upcoming UFA d-men who scored 30 points last year - Ryan Suter, Dennis Wideman, Nick Lindstrom, Matt Carle, Filip Kuba and Jason Garrison. Some of those players will not be available once July 1st rolls around, and none will come cheaply. And the Avalanche haven't exactly gone the "top shelf" route recently in free agency. Sherman does like to trade though, so it's possible that he makes another big Johnson-like move to bring in a top blueliner. Or, the Avalanche could see how guys like Elliott, Tyson Barrie, Duncan Siemens and Cameron Gaunce develop (+17 last year, +12 ahead of everyone else on LEM).
I suspect we might be looking at that door #3: see how the youngsters pan out. Stefan Elliott or Tyson Barrie just might develop into 30-40 point players and Johnson could certainly get back to that point as well. And Siemens certainly could be that mean top-pairing guy down the road, but that's no sure thing (or immediate thing). As of right now, the pieces aren't quite there. Despite all of the remodeling that Sherman has done here, this one's still a work in progress.