The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Mile High Hockey community. Eleven writers and 480 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2019 in the Colorado Avalanche organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked.
Two full NHL seasons into his career with the Colorado Avalanche and Samuel Girard has solidified himself in the top-four of the defense corps. After taking another step forward, the lefty defenseman who came over in the Matt Duchene trade has seen himself take on tougher competition and still be the puck-moving presence on the back end that the Avalanche need.
The votes are pretty consensus on Girard. He’s the number four guy behind the trio we will reveal in the coming three days. I’m sure you can guess who they care by now. Thanks to his experience in the NHL and vital role on the back end, he beat out the hot new phenoms Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook while keeping ahead of fellow 2017-draftee Tyson Jost, who is still looking to solidify his place on a scoring line in the NHL. Both he and Girard are only 21-years-old still and will be until the spring so there is still a lot of growth to be had from these prospects.
Some of the voters were a little lower on Girard, going instead for the new hotness from the latest draft, but after averaging out the results, Girard came out on top and solidly in fourth. The readers also agree with our placement so that’s good, too.
Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, Girard took a massive step in the quality of competition he faced on a night-to-night basis. In his first year with the club, he spent most of his time with Patrik Nemeth and did not put up good numbers next to the now-absent depth defenseman. Last season however, Girard spent most of his season with the number one guy, Erik Johnson, on the top pair. They played against the other teams’ top sixes and Girard especially spent a lot of time with the Nathan MacKinnon line.
In the playoffs, with Johnson and Cole struggling to stay healthy, Girard was shifted to a role with college superstar Cale Makar, creating an offensively explosive third pair. Credit goes to Barrie for having such a great playoffs, leading the team in ice time next to Nikita Zadorov. The two had positive shot differentials in every category and allowed the injured second pair to take on less of a role. It also allowed us to have a glimpse of the future with that third pair.
Sam Girard and Cale Makar each made an all-world play on Colorado's first goal last night. They did it with Burns, Vlasic, Couture, Meier and Nyquist on the ice for the Sharks. It's unbelievable how good those two were last night. They're are both 20 years old pic.twitter.com/O0Q2HTX9K4— Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie) May 3, 2019
With Tyson Barrie now in Toronto after the trade for Nazem Kadri at forward, Girardi and Makar seem poised to take their third pair talents up a level once again. There’s a chance they get split up, depending on how Makar handles the minutes and if Johnson and Ian Cole are what they were before their injuries. With the two veteran defensemen out for the first three months, it’ll be really interesting to see whether the two youngsters can carry the team offensively from the back end. Girard especially since he’s already done it as the number two.
Going back to the regular season, for a 20-year-old to put up even shot rates — with positive defensive numbers — on the top pair, that’s impressive. Yes, I know he was near the bottom relative to the Avs’ top-six, but that doesn’t mean he failed. Last year was a chance to see whether Girard could swim in a top role, and he showed that he could handle the minutes and not get shelled for a full season. If he can build on that — and he likely will with his talent — he will only move up the rankings over time.
Sam Girard stops a breakaway chance, breaks up a pass, blocks a shot, and clears the puck all without a stick pic.twitter.com/AEGGINhzfQ— The Render (@TheRenderMedia) January 26, 2018
Girard’s mobility is undeniable. Even as he fills into his minute body, the 5’10” speedster is still able to weave around the ice and evade forecheckers while working to get the puck up the ice. The fact that he played a full 82 games this year in a non-sheltered role speaks to his durability as well and disproves the old trope that every small guy will get blasted into the boards, never to be seen again. It’s simply not true and you can see why with Girard’s skating.
Oh, and if he can’t find a lane out of the zone, he’ll make a three-line pass look like it’s nothing.
One product of Girard’s great skill of being seemingly everywhere on the ice is that he understands where he needs to be on the ice to help maximize an offensive chance. If you look at Girard’s shot map at 5v5, you can see that he’s consistently able to shoot from the middle of the point. Now, some have argued the merits of shots from the point, but with the way the Avalanche played last season, chucking pucks through a crowd and looking for a tip from the three forwards clogging the front of the net seemed like a tactic that worked.
I would be a little worried if Girard was just shooting from his spot on the left point, but he’s consistently able to move to the middle of the ice and get shots off after walking the line or rotating back from the half wall. Frankly, he shoots from everywhere compared to most defensemen. If you want to see how Girard stacks up to another “mobile” defenseman? Check out Travis Dermott’s shot map. It’s not the same.
You can see in the two videos in this section (above and below) that Girard attacks the open space in front of him and uses it to force the defense to react to him rather than get settled into a formation. When most defensemen are on the rush, they can sometimes convince themselves that they don’t belong and try to get back to the point or the neutral zone as fast as they can. Girard knows that he has the skill and smarts to be able to hang in the offensive zone and he acts like an honest to good fourth forward when the opportunity arises.
Over the offseason, the Avalanche locked up Girard to a sizeable contract extension, one year before he becomes an RFA for the first time in his career. the contract ended up being $5 million per year for the next seven seasons starting in 2020-21. The contract will take Girard from this age-22 season until the end of his age-28 year. Basically this is Girard’s rise and peak as a player during a time where the Avalanche expect to be contending for Stanley Cups.
There was some hesitation from the fanbase because of the term and the relative surprise because the contract came a season ahead of his current ELC expiring. Despite that, and complaints about his corsi rel, there isn’t much to hate about when it comes to this contract. He plays a modern game, can do it against top competition, and it’s at an AAV that is very easy to swallow even if Girard doesn’t move past a #3 defenseman.
For reference, the only other defenseman making $5 million in 2020-21 is Morgan Rielly. He signed the deal at 22-years-old and has turned into a number one defenseman for the Leafs who got Norris consideration last season. Girard has signed to a smaller percentage of the cap — if Rielly signed his deal under an $81.5 million cap, he would be making $5.7 million — and has arguably been on par with Rielly’s production on a bad Toronto team. Right now, Rielly is a steal for the production he’s giving. Even if Girard pans out as a second pair defenseman, a number three, the Avalanche should be very happy with that.
The Avalanche seem very confident in this signing, otherwise they wouldn’t have made this bet a year before they had to. There’s a chance Girard implodes and becomes unplayable and gets sent to the AHL by Christmas, but the odds of that are very low and the odds that he begins to exceed his comparables at the same time in their careers.