It’s not very often that you see an NHL team trade away their best defender but that’s exactly what the Colorado Avalanche did this summer. On July 1st when most teams were focused on signing free agents, Joe Sakic was busy finishing off a blockbuster trade that saw Tyson Barrie traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s rare when a team trades away a player the calibre of Barrie. What’s even more rare is when they have a prospect as good as Cale Makar to fill the hole. Makar is going to be asked to step into some big shoes and while there are going to be growing pains, he gave enough evidence in last year’s playoffs that he’s ready for the job.
The trade also means that the defense group is lopsided when it comes to right vs left shots. As a result, we are likely to see someone like Nikita Zadorov playing his off side for a large portion of the season. It’s not ideal but he has done it before with decent results.
As a result of playoff injuries, Ian Cole isn’t expected to be back in the Avs lineup for a month or two so the team is going to have to work with a patchwork defense core for the first third of the season. Add to that the departure of Patrik Nemeth and we’ll likely see a combination of Ryan Graves, Mark Barberio and Kevin Connauton eating the minutes in Cole’s absence.
What the defense could look like
While Cole is injured:
Girard - Johnson
Zadorov - Makar
Graves - Barberio
With full health
Girard - Johnson
Cole - Makar
Graves - Zadorov
Pair 1: Samuel Girard - Erik Johnson
We know this combination works. EJ has been the perfect mentor and safety valve for the young defender during his first two seasons in the NHL. Though some fans were blaming it on age, it became obvious that Johnson’s struggles in the playoffs were caused by an injury. He had surgery shortly after the season. While initial reports were that he’d miss the start of the season, that was a conservative estimate and it’s starting to sound as though he’ll be ready for opening night. Johnson is the veteran minutes eater that every good team needs in the lineup.
While he’s still only 21-years old, Girard will be entering his third full season in the NHL and it wouldn’t be surprising if this turns out to be the year he breaks out in a big way.
Pair 2: Ian Cole - Cale Makar
Much like the first pair, it’s likely that coach Bednar will rely on Ian Cole to be the veteran to guide the more talented youngster. He doesn’t do anything spectacularly, but when he’s healthy, Cole provides the type of play a team needs to rely on. He’ll hang back and provide relief as Makar learns what will and won’t work in the NHL.
Last year’s playoffs turned into the Cale Makar show. He jumped straight from the NCAA and proved why he is one of the best prospects in hockey. As a full time rookie, Makar will look electrifying at times, but won’t be without the errors you see from any young player. Filling the role vacated by Tyson Barrie, Makar will be asked to be a dynamic puck mover and PP contributor.
Pair 3: Ryan Graves - Nikita Zadorov
Coming to the organization in a trade for Chris Bigras two seasons ago, Graves proved last year that he can be a competent third paring defender in the NHL. All indications are that he will be given the first opportunity to take the role on the left side of the bottom pair. He’s a better skater and puck handler than Nemeth was and playing alongside Zadorov could give him the confidence to utilize his skill set.
The team gave Nikita Zadorov a one-year “prove yourself” contract this summer so it feels as though this is the year he’s going to need to take a big step in his development. He shows flashes of greatness, but is still far too inconsistent to be relied upon to play in the top-4 on a regular basis. Playing for his long-term contract, hopefully this is the season Zadorov proves he is an indispensable part of the team’s future.
The rest: Calle Rosen, Mark Barberio, Kevin Connauton
Due to his familiarity with the system and the fact that he can play on both sides of the ice, Barberio is likely to be around as the first fill-in for injury and could be in the lineup on a regular basis while Cole recovers from his hip surgery. That said, Sakic brought in Rosen and Connauton for a reason.
Connauton has spent his career as a 6th/7th defender and will be a decent depth veteran to be used in case of injury.
Rosen is the wild card. Last season he was set to be the first call up from the AHL for the Maple Leafs. Unfortunately, he broke his foot blocking a shot the night before he was expected to be recalled. Bad luck kept him out of the NHL last season, so there’s the potential for him to force his way into the lineup with a great training camp. That said, he’s the only one of the group that is waiver exempt this season so it will be easy for the team to send him down before Barberio or Connauton.
There are also Nicolas Meloche and Conor Timmins on the right side. It's easy to look at his skill set and wish Timmins into the NHL lineup. The fact of the matter is that when the preseason starts, it will have been 16 months since Timmins saw game action. That's a lot of rust, especially when you're talking about someone who is just starting their professional career. Timmins is likely to spend the entire year with the Eagles in the AHL with an eye towards the Avalanche lineup to start the 2020 season.
As for Meloche, like Rosen he is waiver exempt so he will have to drastically outplay a couple of the depth guys to start the season in the NHL. That said, he could very well be the first call up if the team gets into injury problems or if Erik Johnson needs some extra time to heal.