Last week, Beachie again broke down the somewhat confusing lack of faith the organization seems to have in Jonas Holos. We actually ended up running that story a little earlier than planned, because we had a feeling Holos would be
deported demoted to Cleveland soon to make room for Kyle Cumiskey. We were right; Holos was demoted following the game on Friday. While we can't know exactly why Joe Sacco seems so down on Holos, there is another, seemingly mundane factor that may have come into play: Holos is a right-handed shooter.
It is a right-handed world, as only an estimated 8-15% of the world population are left-handed. In sports, a player's throwing hand can have a major impact on a player's position. Lefty quarterbacks are rare in the NFL (Tim Tebow being one of the few exceptions). In baseball, left-throwing catchers and middle infielders have essentially been a non-entity since the turn of the 20th century.
In hockey, things are a little different. In the NHL, about 65% of the players shoot from the left side (as of a few seasons ago). Why? Because there's not necessarily a direct correlation between the side you hold your fork with and the side you hold your lumber. Many players prefer to hold the stick with their dominant hand on the top of the stick - meaning a righty would shoot left. Others are more comfortable having their dominant hand as the lower hand on the stick - a right-handed shot for a righty. In doing this research, I read a lot of theories - dominant hand on top gives you better stickhandling, dominant stick down low gives you more power, many Canadians shoot left because they learn hockey before learning how to hold a baseball bat - but the end result is that the majority of players in the league shoot left.
On defense, shooting side is very important. In general, defenseman patrol the side that matches their shooting side - lefties patrol the left side and righties patrol the right side. It doesn't always work out that way (especially with so many lefties playing hockey), but many defensemen spend the majority of their hockey lives on one side. Since there are so many lefties, a left-shooting player may move to his "off" side at times - and some players like Sergei Gonchar even prefer that - but right-handed players moving to the left side is not as common. (For kicks, I ran a quick check and the lefty-righty split for NHL defenseman is exactly the same as listed above - 65% of the defensemen in the NHL this year shoot from the left side).
Which brings me back to Jonas Holos. Holos is a right-handed shot, one of five right-shooting defensemen who have played with the Avs this year (the others being Colby Cohen, Adam Foote, Ryan O'Byrne and Kevin Shattenkirk). And the left-right pairing on defense is clearly a big deal to coach Joe Sacco. We're at the 45-game mark, so 135 sets of defensive pairings have been used so far this year (45*3 pairings per game). 107 of them (79%) have been the "proper" lefty-righty pairing. 25 - 19% - have been a left-left pairing. We have only seen a right-right pairing 3 times this year. And most of the non-conventional pairings occurred in the early part of the season. Since game 16, Sacco has used no R-R combos and just 3 L-L combos. (I was discussing this the other day with Dirk Hoag from On the Forecheck, and he pointed out that our defensive pairings have largely been LOL lately. Money!).
I have to be honest and admit that while I knew defensemen tended to play more on the side they shoot from, I didn't realize that this principle was adhered to so strictly in the league and specifically with the Avs. It makes sense - players get used to moving and working a certain way, and flipping their side changes their perspective. While changing to your off side can open up some chances offensively (making them in better position for one-timers from the point, for example), you also end up in a position where you're trying to keep the puck in at the blueline with your backhand. Whatever the reasons why - be it comfort, X's and O's or just coaches' habits - the end result is that right-handed defensemen on the Avs almost always play on the right side...or not at all.
In the end, Holos isn't pushing Matt Hunwick or Ryan Wilson or Kyle Cumiskey for playing time. He's got to get ahead of Adam Foote, Ryan O'Byrne and Kevin Shattenkirk on the depth chart to get any significant playing time. Indeed, Holos was a healthy scratch for the first 4 games of the season and made his debut in game 5, replacing the injured Adam Foote as the only right-handed shooting defensemen in the lineup. He stayed in the lineup for the next 12 games, but the mounting injuries on the blueline ultimately (and ironically) worked against Holos. The Avalanche were forced to call up a couple of righties (Shattenkirk and Cohen) and then they acquired O'Byrne from the Montreal - the ultimate death blow. Holos only played two games as one of the top 6 D after the O'Byrne trade. By then, Foote had returned and Shattenkirk was off to a blazing start, and Holos suddenly dropped from the #2 right-handed defenseman to #4. He was a healthy scratch for a while and ultimately was sent back to the minors. He's been recalled two times since, but still couldn't crack the lineup. In his most recent 14-game stint, he dressed 3 times as a 7th defenseman and was one of the top 6 just once - replacing righty Kevin Shattenkirk. The other 11 games were nacho nights.
Holos is back in the AHL, and the gut reaction is to wonder if yet another European import is getting the shaft by the Avs. While that might be true, Holos is also a victim of bad luck that two of three regulars the Avalanche added to the blueline during the season play on the right side. And it may not get any easier for Holos down the road. Although Colby Cohen is gone (could his departure have been hastened by his right-handedness?) and Adam Foote may not be back next year, the Avs two best D prospects coming down the pipeline are Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott. Yep, both are righties. Is it too late for Holos to learn to shoot from the left?