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Colorado Avalanche regular season Report Cards: Defense First

This season showed that Joe Sakic has put together one of the best defense groups in the NHL

2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series - Team Practices & Family Skate Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

When the NHL put a pause on the season back in March, the Colorado Avalanche sat just two points out of first place in the Western Conference and trailed only the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins in the overall standings. The team has come a long way from their record setting futility of a few seasons ago. With three straight playoff appearances and a legitimate chance at contending for the next decade, Joe Sakic has built a roster that that can go head to head with any other in the league.

We still don’t know when (if) the NHL is able to return this summer but one thing we do know is that the 2019-20 regular season is over. That means after 70 games, we are able to break down the regular season performance of the Avalanche players.

Cale Makar - A+ - 57GP: 12G/38A/50P

He’s going to win the Calder Trophy. After spending the 2018-19 season dominating NCAA hockey, Makar made the jump to the NHL during last year’s playoffs. He was incredible in his 10 game postseason run, leaving expectations sky high for his rookie season. Not only did Makar meet those expectations but for many, he exceeded them. Finishing the season second in team scoring, Makar is already proving to be one of the best offensive defenders in the NHL - but he’s so much more than that. An elite puck mover, Makar is a key part of the team’s breakout and powerplay.

The only time he ever looked like a rookie was during some tough shifts in his own end but even those were few and far between. Makar has the potential to not only be an elite offensive defender but one of the best all-around player in the NHL.

Ryan Graves - A - 69GP: 9G/17A/26P

Part of why Makar was able to be so successful this season was because he found the perfect partner in Ryan Graves. Makar was good away from Graves but he was incredible with him and it was that perfect fit that allowed Graves to flourish in his first full season in the NHL.

After being acquired by the Avalanche in what seemed to be nothing more than an AHL depth move, Graves worked his way into the lineup as a regular and made it impossible for the coaches to take him out. He was was sheltered with a lot of offensive zone starts and got lucky with a best on-ice save percentage but Graves was every big the dependable top-4 defender.

This season, Graves became what a lot of Avalanche fans were waiting for Nikita Zadorov to turn into. He wasn’t the team’s second best defenseman but given how much he outplayed expectations, he deserves the second best grade.

Ian Cole - A - 65GP: 4G/22A/26P

Cole started the season late after undergoing two hip surgeries last summer. For many, that would be enough to write off the year but Cole worked his way back and was quickly able to play his best hockey as a member of the Avalanche.

Starting nearly 65% of his shifts in the defensive zone, Cole was relied upon to play the shut down role whenever possible. Despite the unfavorable deployment, Cole still had the second best CF% among Avs defenders - trailing only Makar. He was also able to tie his career high with 26 points.

This season, Cole turned into the veteran presence that every good blue line needs and was able to show exactly why Joe Sakic pursued him as an unrestricted free agent a couple summers ago.

Samuel Girard - A- - 70GP: 4G/30A/34P

The only Avalanche player to play in all 70 games this season, Samuel Girard has become a model of consistency on the blue line. Having just turned 22 - and age when many defenders are only breaking into the NHL - Girard already has 225 games under his belt.

Thanks to his size and skating ability, many write Girard off as a puck moving defender but he has proven over his short career that he can line up against the opponents top line and excel in all situations. He led all Avalanche defenders in TOI per game and had the best high-danger scoring chance against rate on the team.

At the time, he was the key part of the Matt Duchene trade and the Avs might have still won the trade if it were just a one for one deal involving Girard.

Erik Johnson - C - 59GP: 3G/13A/16P

Another veteran that spent last summer rehabbing from surgery, Erik Johnson had a lot to prove this season after a very poor showing in last year’s playoffs. Not only did he return to form but he showed exactly why his presence is incredibly important to this team’s blue line. Leading the Avalanche in both shifts and shorthanded TOI per game, the coaching staff very clearly knew Johnson was the guy they could rely upon.

Johnson’s 16 points were his lowest since joining the Avs but with guys like Girard and Makar playing the offensive minutes, showing up on the score sheet isn’t what the team needs from EJ anymore.

He is the perfect 5v5 partner for Sam Girard and is able to play a role that gives the coaching staff reliable flexibility. While he may be overpaid, cap space isn’t an issue for the Avs so there is no need to hold the contract against him.

Nikita Zadorov - C- - 64GP: 4G/9A/13P

After a few years of belief that he could be a top-4 defender in the NHL, Nikita Zadorov settled in nicely on Colorado’s bottom pair this season. Averaging the fewest shifts per game, Big Z found his way in and out of Coach Bednar’s dog house once again this season.

When he was in the lineup Zadorov had the worst 5v5 numbers of any Avalanche defender. He also found his way to the penalty far too often - finishing the season with a team worst -18 penalty differential this season. He is a good bottom pairing guy on a good team, unfortunately, he’s like going to be looking for a raise on the $3.2m he made this past season and could easily be replaced by a cheap youngster. It’s ok to have one overpaid defender in the lineup, and unfortunately for Zadorov, EJ is that - while contributing more to the team.

He still hits hard and will always be a favorite of many fans because of his style of play. That said, given how the last two seasons have gone, Zadorov could find himself as the odd man out when the Avalanche need to create a spot in the lineup for top prospects Connor Timmins and Bo Byram.