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What are the ideal Colorado Avalanche defensive pairings?

A look at which duos give the Colorado Avalanche the best chance at possession

Colorado Avalanche v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

Since the December 7th game in Tampa Bay the Colorado Avalanche have trotted out a lineup containing seven defensemen resulting in varying degrees of success. A big part of the reason for doing so is that's the date Patrik Nemeth returned from his near month-long injury absence and in addition to the return of Anton Lindholm in the previous game from a broken jaw. Head coach Jared Bednar likes both of those guys and has decided to play all the available defensemen at his disposal over dressing a 12th forward who would see limited ice time anyway. The Avalanche have a record of 3-3 in that span with a -1 goal differential, so perhaps not a terrible strategy but one that can't last forever.

The main issue with rolling out seven defensemen is that inevitably it reduces the ice time of those who need it and Sam Girard seems to have been hit the hardest with this setup. Bednar indicated wanting to ease him back but averaging just over 13 minutes in that span of six games after averaging just under 21 minutes in the previous 12 games doesn't seem productive to his development. When Erik Johnson was tossed midway through, and eventually suspended as a result, the most recent game against Tampa Bay in Denver, it's no surprise Girard saw his ice time climb back to 16:30. Girard and Nikita Zadorov have essentially shared the pairing with Johnson in this setup and Johnson still has averaged nearly 25 minutes a game during the seven defensemen experiment. Thus, while moderately successful the Avalanche are not spreading the minutes around in this setup.

There are many different theories and angles one can take to look at what makes an ideal pairing but for this exercise, it is just a snapshot of maximizing the best Corsi For percentage among pairs as the Avalanche continue to figure out how to control possession more.

What are those ideal pairings?

Sam Girard - Erik Johnson

It's understandable the coaching staff doesn't want to put Girard in this top pair position too soon but the duo has seen 55% Corsi For together and Girard is Johnson's second most frequent partner clocking in at 145 5v5 even strength minutes of Time On Ice together. Johnson's has shared the most ice at 159 minutes with Zadorov with a 45% CF. Should be noted that Girard does see more offensive zone faceoffs while Zadorov starts in the defensive zone more but as mentioned, the two basically have shared the pairing with Johnson this season.

Anton Lindholm - Tyson Barrie

Who to pair Tyson Barrie with has been a question for years and this season hasn't yielded many answers. Barrie has spent the most TOI at 153 minutes with Nemeth and 76 with Girard, both to the the success of 42% CF, so that's clearly not a recipe for success. In 70 minutes of TOI of the Barrie-Johnson pairing they've seen a robust 56%, so consolidating the big horses together is an option that can yield results. Otherwise, Barrie has seen some limited small sample success of 58% with Anton Lindholm is another option to consider.

Nikita Zadorov - Mark Barberio

This pairing has been sneaky good in nearly 93 minutes of TOI to the tune of 55% CF and they are both each other's highest percentage in significant pairing minutes. Zadorov is the only one who has pulled Nemeth up in a small sample and Mark Barberio has had success with Girard in a small sample as well, giving the staff a couple other options to think about giving more time together.

These groupings leaves out Patrik Nemeth, which might be the biggest issue for Bednar. Nemeth is a 43% CF player so he's not going to look great in these measures. Nemeth's contributions are felt more on the penalty kill than in possessing the puck but if Bednar wants to keep him in the lineup then Nemeth has to get away from Barrie and probably settle more into a third pairing role with maybe some occasional scratches.

If handing a lot of minutes is too much for Girard at times then it's an easy swap between Johnson and Barberio for him without sacrificing pairs that have shown success. Also, combining Barrie and Johnson when need be is another way to give the top guys more minutes over the course of a game without having to jumble all the pairs.

In the end, this is just one way to look at pairing the Avalanche defensemen together and there will be many changes through the year as injuries strike and games evolve. However, finding some consistency for young players like Girard, Zadorov and Lindholm will help their continued development. The Johnson suspension will force the coaching staff to try out a few different pairs and give a chance to other players to step up in an increased role. Hopefully, that will lead to the confidence to end the seven defensemen experiment sooner than later and reimagine the defensive pairings moving forward.

*All data from Natural Stat Trick