If you take out the absurd amount of injuries suffered by the Colorado Avalanche during the playoff-bubble, the one aspect of play that stood out to most fans was the inability to shut down Dallas’ offense in key moments. Coming into the series, Dallas was known for their ability to keep pucks out of the net. The Stars finished the season with the fourth ranked defense and an offense in the bottom quarter of the NHL. After the series, players like Joel Kiviranta were celebrating playoff hat-tricks and the Avalanche were on a plane from Edmonton back to Colorado to regroup for next season after giving up four goals per game in the series.
While it’s easy to blame the injuries on Philipp Grubauer, Pavel Francouz, Erik Johnson and multiple forwards for the defeat; there was also personnel that the Avs relied on all season who, frankly, did not show up in that series. It looks like Joe Sakic saw the same thing and went to work on re-making the defensive core for the 2020-21 season.
Nikita Zadorov was sent to Chicago in the Brandon Saad trade. Mark Barberio is now over in Switzerland - he was recently named captain of Laussane HC. Connor Timmins is expected to be a key part of the team next season and Bowen Byram will be given an opportunity to win a spot in the NHL. However, the biggest move made to change the blue line of the Avalanche was a trade for New York Islander restricted free sgent defender Devon Toews.
If you were anything like me, you saw the trade and went “Who?”, as outside of watching the electric Matthew Barzal and old friend Seymon Varlamov; watching a Lou Lamoriello/Barry Trotz made team is about as exciting as watching paint dry during a round of golf on TV. So, I decided to dig in and do some reading about our newest defender and I’m excited; we may have found the missing piece to our blue line.
Gorgeous stuff there.
Physically, Toews isn’t a towering beefcake like big Z; standing “just” 6’1” and weighing in at 191lbs. What he lacks in pure “beef” factor, he makes up for elsewhere on the ice. In typical Avalanche fashion, Toews is a solid skater with better offensive awareness than his numbers would suggest. The analytical community loves Toews’ ability to possess the puck, creating great Exit and Entry numbers for the Islanders last season. Toews provides these strengths by often making the simple, correct play in the defensive zone as well as on the breakout, even when playing next to subpar defenders and away from the Barzal line. This ability should play well in Colorado’s system, giving the team yet another way to move the puck from the defensive to offensive zones. While the Trotz system does stifle some scoring, the Islanders coach does know how to coach and manage a defense and Toews has developed nicely in his two years on the Island by developing his defensive game as well as maintaining his strong possession skills.
However, not all is perfect with Devon Toews. Like most of the Colorado blue-line, Toews isn’t a physical hammer of a defender. Don’t expect to see him mixing it up and laying lumber on forwards that dare approach his zone. Toews is more similar to Sam Girard, with his defense relying on positioning, strong skating and smart stickwork in his own zone, rather than crunching hits and intimidation. I don’t see this as a big problem, as the NHL has been moving away from the clutching, grabbing over-physical play and allowing skill to flourish (at least until the playoffs). What Toews does might not be the “traditional” view of defending but it works - really well.
The playoffs also showed a worrying aspect of Toews’ game in the series with Tampa Bay. Against the Bolts, Toews has an extremely tough time with both the Anthony Cirelli and Blake Coleman lines who utilize a more “dump and chase” style that Colorado has had issues with in past playoff sets (San Jose last year, Dallas this year). This is something that I believe will be a focus for Jared Bednar and the coaching staff for this season and I’ll be keenly aware of how this aspect of both the Avs and Toews game evolves through the season.
While he isn’t a perfect NHL defender, Devon Toews should be a great fit in the highly-mobile, possession based defending corps that GM Joe Sakic is developing. I could see Toews fitting in next to Makar on the 1st pair, or Cole/Timmins/Byram on the 3rd pair heading into opening night. I also think we’ll see Toews take over for Sammy G on the second power play unit. While two second round picks isn’t cheap, Toews gives the Avs another defender to plan and build around as we enter our window for a Stanley Cup trophy. At the end of the day, the Avalanche got Toews for two picks that you hope one day could turn into a player like Toews.
Oh, and he’s only 26.
Toews is currently a restricted free-agent and is due a raise from last year’s $700k salary. With Ryan Graves signing for 3 years at $3.167 million and having a similar profile to Toews statistically (Graves is a year younger), many have stated three for $2.5m-$3m AAV could be reasonable. I believe we’ll see more out of Toews next season with new coaching and if so.
As soon as the trade happened, hockey fans were reminded that Joe Sakic is playing 3D Chess while most of the league’s GMs are playing Candy Land. As Avalanche fans, you gotta love it. Now if only there wasn’t an expansion draft coming up so we could keep all of our talented young defenders with no worries…