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The Lurker's Guide to the Avs' Defense

With pre-season over, it's time to start looking forward to the regular season and what it holds for the Colorado Avalanche.  But if you've been out of the loop this summer, don't worry - we'll get you all caught up before opening night this Saturday.  Yesterday, we looked at the forwards.  Today is all about the D.  

The biggest thing to remember when looking at the Avalanche's defense is to completely forget about last season.  This defense looks nothing like the one from last year - judging them by how they preformed for the past 12 months isn't going to get you anywhere at all.  In fact, there are only three members of the '10-'11 opening night D-squad still with the team:  one was out for nearly the entire year with an injury, one is fighting for a spot, and one is injured but probably going straight to the Avs' AHL affiliate in Cleveland when he gets better.  Between new faces and returns from injuries, this year's squad looks completely new.  

Why the makeover?  '10-'11's defense ended up as a failed experiment.  The Avs decided to go with fast players instead of big ones.  Yes, there were some guys that could hit, but they weren't exactly huge and that was about all they could do.  And the guys who were good at helping out the forwards?  Well, they were lacking in their own zone and got completely owned more times than not while trying to play defense.  Even though they looked good in the pts column, when it comes right down to it, the defense was just not very defensive.  It only got worse once the injuries started rolling in (through trades and injuries, the Avs dressed 17 different defensemen last year).  They were eaten alive in the competitive Western Conference.  

The Avs realized their mistake about midway through last season and have been progressively beefing up the blueline since.  The team has gone from one of the smallest defensive corps to one of the biggest by adding 2 inches and 25-30lbs to their AVERAGE size.  They may have sacrificed a little speed in doing so, but even the big guys move pretty well and can help out in fast break situations.  And our blueline offense is still fairly strong - there are now a number of players with heavy shots from the point that should give goalies grief all season long.  

And if that wasn't enough, there's a whole slew of rookies just waiting for callups.  They'll be ready to go in anywhere from a few months to a few years.  Add in the fact that only 5 of 12 of the defensemen competing for a spot this season have a job next year, and things should get interesting very quickly.  

More to come after the jump...

The Top Pair:

Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda.  8 months ago, neither of them was with the team.  Now they're the bosses of the Avs' blueline, expected to hold down the fort for 20-25 minutes a night.  

EJ found himself in Colorado after a crazy midnight blockbuster trade last February.  He was drafted 1st overall in 2006, but had struggled with confidence since.  After an unfortunate incident with a golf cart, he was sidelined for his entire sophomore season and never became the number 1 defensemen the Blues had expected him to be.  With Pietrangelo nipping at his heals, they send the 6'-4" 232lb defenseman, along with Jay McClement and a pick that would later become Duncan Siemens to Colorado in exchange for winger Chris Stewart, rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a second round pick that later became Ty Rattie.  

Right after the trade, Johnson made it clear he wanted St. Louis to regret it.  With his boom of a shot, good defensive positioning, and new-found confidence in Colorado, look for him to follow through on that promise this year.  If he doesn't, the Avs GM may not have a job next season.  A lot is riding on the shoulders of the 23-year-old d-man.  If he doesn't step up and become a true leader from the blueline in more ways than one, the Avs are in for a painful season.  

Hopefully his partner will help him carry some of that load.  Jan Hejda joined the team this summer as a free agent.  At 33, he's one of only 3 players on the team above the age of 30.  He's been in the NHL for 5 years and will bring a solid veteran presence to the blueline that will help other the young guys out.  Even though very few of the Avalanche faithful have actually seen him play (curse you Altitude and your refusal to broadcast the preseason games on TV), he brings a solid, stay-at-home presence to the top line which allows EJ to jump into the play and use his rocket of a shot.  But Hejda's known to contribute offensively as well - he handles the puck well and has almost 65 assists in his career.  It also looks like the two top d-men have already developed some chemistry and work very well together. Either way, an EJ/Hedja pairing is already a huge step up over the Quincey/Hannan pairing the Avs iced last year.  

The Other Roster Locks:  

Speaking of Kyle Quincey, he's still around and expected to start off the year on the second pairing.  He joined the Avs 2 years ago and had a pretty solid first season, then a season-ending injury 21 games into his less-that-spectacular second.  From the sounds of it, he's looking pretty good so far this year, racking up the hits and taking a few shots while he's at it.   Look for him to be fulfilling a more offensive role this year while still being a BAMF in the Avs' end.  

Ryan O'Byrne joined the club midway through the season last year via a trade with the Canadiens.  The 6'-5" 233lb defenseman is the largest player on the Avs and plays like it.  He had 168 hits last season and averages closer to 190 per year.  Even though he started taking some dumb penalties at the end of last season, he'll be a mainstay on the 2nd or 3rd paring this year in a more purely defensive role.  

Joining him in that defensive role will be newcomer Shane O'Brien, a recent free-agent signing from Nashville.  Known for a hard-hitting style of play with a bit of attitude, SOB protects goalies and gets under the other team's skin.  Expect to find him on the 2nd or 3rd pairing and in the penalty box this season.  

The Final Spot:

Here's where things get interesting.  There is one spot open on the 3rd pair with 3 guys battling for it.  One one hand, you have Matt Hunwick.  The veteran is entering his 5th season and joined the Avs in a trade with Boston midseason last year.  Even though he's not exactly a fan favorite, he'll be looking to bounce back from a sub-par season and provide some offense to the blueline.  

Rookie Stefan Elliott will also be looking to add that offensive kick.  The 20-year-old was taken in the 2009 draft that brought Duchene and O'Reilly to Colorado.  While those two were making their marks in the NHL, Elliott was creating a few waves of his own.  Last season, he was voted the top defensemen in the WHL and left as the highest scoring blueliner in the league with 241 career points.  Even though he's not incredibly polished, many fans believe he is NHL ready.  However, many others worry that his development will be stunted if he gets stuck with minimal 3rd pairing minutes, even if they are against NHL opponents.  Either way, if Elliott is sent down, he'll cause absolute havoc in the AHL and get a quick call-up after the first injury.  

On the flip side, you have Ryan Wilson, a defensive defenseman with a taste for huge hits.  He's one of the returnees from last year's opening night who may or may not be there this time around.  Even though he hits like a Mack Truck, his offensive game is definitely not nearly as refined as the other candidates.  However, he's pretty good at defense and is one of the very, very few players who played for the Avs last season that still has a positive career plus/minus, quite a feat considering the Avs -61 goal differential last year.  

Each of the three players brings a different aspect to the game.  It's hard to say who is better and which is worse - they are just different.  Even though the sixth defenseman won't play many minutes, who the Avs choose will end up revealing the priorities of the organization.  

The Call-Up Crew:

In addition to the 1 or 2 defensemen than miss out on the last roster spot(s), there's also an assortment of  defensive talent that will be housed on the Avs' AHL affiliate this year.  First and foremost is Tyson Barrie.  He might be a bit small at 5'-10" 180lbs, but don't underestimate him.  He as a killer wrister and a fairly solid defensive game.  In many ways, he's a lot like former Avs defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and will be quite the player once he breaks into the NHL.  He'll be given a bit of time to tweak his game at the AHL level, but will definitely see some time with the big club this year.  

Cameron Gaunce is another young player who might find his way onto the roster this season.  During a call-up last year, he impressed many of the fans with his hard-hitting game, solid defense, good puck handling and offensive skills, and (perhaps most importantly) his willingness to stand up for his teammates.  He was sidelined with a hand injury at the end of the season, but has almost certainly earned the right to come back to the Avs.  Look for him to be a mainstay on the roster in a few years.  

The Avs have another defensive-defenseman prospect in the system in Jonas Holos.  The Norwegian played 39 games with the Avs last year and was largely invisible - quite the compliment for someone who plays his style of game.  He quietly took care of his own zone while blocking almost a shot an night.  At the IIHF torney, he also showed he has a strong shot from the point, although that is yet to materialize in the NHL.  Maybe a bit more time in the AHL will coax that out of him.  

Kyle Cumiskey, the last player from '10-'11's opening night, is in many ways the odd-man out this year.  Even though he is super fast, he doesn't bring much else to the table and is often injured.  In fact, he's out indefinitely on the IR right now with a groin injury.  But when he heals, it's not looking like there will be a spot for him with the big club - not even as a healthy scratch.  He would have to clear waivers if he is sent down, but the Avs may risk it or try to trade him.  He's the posterboy for their former way of thinking - fast, but not big or great at defense.  The Avs have moved away from that type of mentality, so it's not hard to believe that they'll soon move away from Cumiskey as well.