This time last year, the Colorado Avalanche were being laughed at by most onlookers because of how hilariously thin their blueline was. The team only had three NHL defenders on the roster and one of them was still holding out for a new contract.
What a difference 12 months can make.
With the addition of Samuel Girard, Patrik Nemeth and Ian Cole, and the development of youngsters like Conor Timmins, Nicolas Meloche and Sergei Boikov, the defense looks a lot more healthy heading into the 2018-19 season.
As the team looks to take the next step in their development, solid play from the back end is essential. The trouble is that their leader has had a hard time staying healthy in recent seasons. If Erik Johnson is in the lineup, this group has the potential to very solid.
Going into camp it seems that five spots in the opening night lineup were spoken for. After that, there is a logjam of fringe NHLers that will be battling it out for the final two spots on the roster.
Avalanche Defense Depth Chart
|Nikita Zadorov||Erik Johnson|
|Ian Cole||Tyson Barrie|
|Sam Girard||Mark Alt|
|Patrik Nemeth||Nicolas Meloche|
|Mark Barberio||Conor Timmins|
The Avalanche finished with the fifth worst even strength shots-against per game in the NHL last season. Only the Rangers, Islanders, Panther and Maple Leafs gave up more chances towards their net than the Avs. The team gave up 32.26 5v5 SA/60 last year, a number that is far too high for a team that wants to make it back into the playoffs.
With a healthy Johnson and the addition of a solid veteran defender in Ian Cole, that should change this season.
Tyson Barrie - Probably the most polarizing player on the team. Tyson Barrie is a guy that is mistake-prone, but more than makes up for it with his incredible puck moving skill and point production. Despite what many fans think, Barrie is not a liability defensively - he’s on the low end of average at worst. Add to that his elite ability to lead the breakout and quarterback the powerplay and you’ve got one of the most essential players in the Avs lineup. The team would not be able to play the system they do without Barrie. Coach Bednar likes his team to play with speed and dynamic breakouts - a style of hockey that Barrie is among the best in the league at.
Erik Johnson - The unquestioned leader of the Avalanche blueline, Johnson is quickly becoming one of the most underrated defenders in the NHL. He will lead the team in ice time and play in every situation. Every coach needs someone they can rely on, and for Bednar that’s Johnson. He’ll get the toughest match ups every night, while at the same time, being tasked with aiding the development of Sam Girard. If he can stay healthy, Johnson is going to be a huge part of any success the team has this season.
Nikita Zadorov - This is a huge year for the 23-year old Russian. After signing a bridge deal last September, Zadorov is going to use this season to prove he’s worth a long-term investment from the team. His reputation is based on being big and hitting hard, but Zadorov is an underrated passer and given the right opportunity, we could see a significant bump in production this season.
Ian Cole - An incoming veteran that should bring a lot of stability to the defense group. A former Stanley Cup champion, Cole is a guy that fell out of favor in Pittsburgh before being shipped off to Columbus last season. He’s not going to put up big numbers, but he is an underrated puck mover and will bring a presence to the penalty kill. His ability to play both sides of the ice brings a lot of flexibility tot he lineup.
Sam Girard - After a summer of working on his strength, the hope is that Girard doesn’t lose any of his quickness at the expense of added mass. He’s started camp in the top-4 playing with Johnson - an ideal partner for a kid that is still only 20-years old and has potential through the roof. This is the season the rest of the league finds out what Avalanche fans already know - Sam Girard is one of the best young defenders in the NHL.
Patrik Nemeth - A lot of people think he’s better than he is. There are fans out there that think Nemeth is a legitimate shut down defender that is essential to this lineup. The problem is that the numbers simply don’t back that up. When Nemeth was on the ice at even strength, the Avalanche gave up scoring chances at a rate higher than any other defender on the team. He’s big and hits hard, so it skews the eye test. There is a reason the Stars - a team with a below average blueline - put him on waivers last year. If he’s anything more than your 7th defender, your team isn’t in great shape.
Mark Barberio - Barberio is the opposite of Nemeth. He’s a guy that a large portion of the fan base dislikes because of his style of play - but the numbers show that he is a very solid defender. Barberio’s 25.69 SCA/60 was better than every Avalanche defender other than Sam Girard. He is a solid third pairing guy, he can play on both sides of the ice and he is a guy that should definitely be in the lineup on opening night.
Anton Lindholm - There is a very good chance Lindholm will play this season in Sweden. He made the team out of camp last season because of a simple lack of options. He was the team’s worst possession defender last year and found himself tumbling down the depth chart as the season progressed. If the Avs decides to send him to the AHL, don’t be surprised if he pulls an Andrei Mironov.
Mark Alt - A late-season pickup last year, Alt is likely to be the guy that will be bouncing up and down between the AHL and NHL all season as injuries dictate. He’ll likely be 8th or 9th on the depth chart, though, if coach Bednar decides he likes to keep guys playing on their natural side, Alt might be a surprise addition to the lineup early in the season.
Nicolas Meloche - With Cale Makar and Conor Timmins around, Meloche has become the forgotten prospect in the system - despite being the most NHL-ready. Drafted 40th overall in 2015, Meloche had a tough start to last season, but once he was given top-4 ice time in San Antonio, he excelled. He’s a big, right-handed shot that has a blast from the point and will one day be a real threat on an NHL powerplay. He’s likely to start the season with the Eagles, but if he blows people away at training camp, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which he breaks camp as the 3RD.
Conor Timmins - After a breakout World Junior Championship last winter, Timmins had a very tough spring and summer. He suffered a pretty serious high-ankle sprain in January, from which he never fully recovered. He played in the OHL playoffs, but wasn’t close to 100%. Timmins then suffered a concussion that forced him to sit out his team’s elimination game. After a summer of resting the ankle, Timmins suffered a setback to his concussion recovery in late August and has been yet to get medical clearance to participate in practice. It doesn’t look like he’ll see the ice any time soon, so expect a slow season of working back into game shape before an NHL debut in 2019-20.
Segei Boikov - After a lost year due to injury, Boikov is the one that could surprise everyone this season. The organization is incredibly high on the 22-year old. Thanks to a logjam on the depth chart and his waiver-exempt status, we shouldn’t expect him to break camp with the team, but if Boikov is the first call-up, no one should be surprised.
David Warsofsky - He was a half decent fill in when things got desperate last year. Warsofsky is going to be one of the leaders with the Eagles this season and hopefully things don’t get so bad that we see him in the NHL.
Ryan Graves - Acquired last season for Chris Bigras, Ryan Graves is a big body that looked pretty good during his 21 games with the Rampage. He’s still only 23, so there is a chance we can see some development, but right now, Graves looks like nothing more than organizational depth.
Mason Geertson - Another 23-year old, Geertsen spent the season as the resident tough guy in San Antonio. He is the prototypical AHL defenseman and will likely become a fan favorite in Loveland very quickly.
Josh Anderson - After signing his entry-level contract back in March, Anderson is likely to make the jump from junior hockey this season. He’s got a long way to go before he ever becomes an NHL regular, so this season is going to be huge for the former 3rd round pick. Hopefully the Avs has a set plan for this growth - something we don’t often see from this organization. The last thing we want to see is a 20-year old bouncing between the AHL and ECHL all season, unable to establish a comfort level.
Probable Opening Night Lineup
Nikita Zadorov - Tyson Barrie
Sam Girard - Erik Johnson
Mark Barberio - Ian Cole