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The Avalanche blue line is a bit crowded

What will the Avalanche do with the defensive pairings come playoff time? Is it getting crowded in here?

Colorado Avalanche v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

Adding three or four solid defenders back to your roster heading into the playoffs is helpful, right? Well, If you are the Colorado Avalanche, it means making some tough decisions come playoff time. It’s safe to assume that Cale Makar and Devon Toews will be the top pairing or at least among the top-four defensemen to hit the ice in the first round. That leaves four defensive slots open for seven available defenders. Jared Bednar and Colorado will have to choose from the following:

  • Jack Johnson ($750k AAV)
  • Kurtis MacDermid ($875k AAV)
  • Bowen Byram ($894k AAV)
  • Ryan Murray ($2.0-million AAV)
  • Josh Manson ($2.05-million AAV)
  • Sam Girard ($5-million AAV)
  • Erik Johnson ($6-million AAV)

I put them in order of smallest to most significant cap hit so that we can think of them in terms of value to start this thought process. Without considering anything else, If we went simply by the numbers, the pairings would look like this:

Cale Makar - Erik Johnson
Samuel Girard - Devon Toews
Josh Manson - Ryan Murray

The postseason is about winning the cup, not maximizing the value of contracts, so let us take a deeper dive. Let’s look at the folks that didn’t cut it based on AAV.

Jack Johnson

Johnson is a crowd favorite and was the first Avalanche to score a goal this season. Coincidentally that is his only goal of the year. He has averaged about sixteen minutes of ice time. He has more than outperformed his pay grade, especially in the late parts of this season. It will be tough to keep JJ out of the lineup with his recent success and Stanley Cup experience. Still, at the very least, I expect him to serve as an experienced depth defender ready if anyone gets injured.

Kurtis MacDermid

It’s no secret what Kurtis MacDermid brings to the table, which doesn’t garner him a lot of minutes. He is the placeholder that stays ready to protect his teammates and head to the box for five after doing so. I could see MacDermid sneaking into a playoff series only if games get physical in a way that becomes a detriment to the top six forwards and their ability to find open ice.

Bowen Byram

Bo has had a tough go to start his NHL career, struggling with the effects of concussions. He will eventually be a top-four defender if he can shake his injury woes. It’s been fantastic to see him hit the ice again. The thing about Byram is that he, at this point, doesn’t offer a ton offensively and is still getting his bearings on the defensive side of things. Being a defender in the NHL is hard enough, but when you miss time like Byram has, you start to lose some of the structural familiarity a player establishes throughout the year. I think he will have to play himself into the playoff pairings with what few regular-season games there are left.

Despite the numbers, all three of these players have a good chance of getting some playoff ice time. I’d say that Jack Johnson and Bowen Byram are the most likely to get some postseason time.

Now let’s look at the other four available defenders.

Erik Johnson

We all agree that Johnson is a leader on this year’s Avalanche squad. He doesn’t get around like he used to but is still a big-bodied stout defender with tons of experience. He is one of the Avalanche players still around from the forty-eight point season and has worked tirelessly to get back on the ice and into playoff action after being injured for the last two appearances.

Sam Girard

Good ol’ Tornade. Sam is one of the more complex players to assess come playoff time. It’s not that he isn’t productive or efficient. It’s that his size and strength don’t always meet playoff requirements. He can and does create some scoring opportunities for his teammates but constantly struggles to get point shots through traffic. He has become the new Tyson Barrie in getting a ton of flack from fans when he is off his game and praise when his playstyle benefits the Avalanche. Unless his weaknesses glaringly outweigh his upside, I don’t expect him to be a playoff scratch.

Ryan Murray

Murray has been injured since March 21st with an upper-body injury. However, he did hit the ice with Nazem Kadri earlier today and looks poised for a return. Murray is one of the players I see as a healthy scratch come playoff time strickly because his defensive upside doesn’t outweigh his lack of offensive production. He stays out of the box but doesn’t offer enough on the PK for me.

Josh Manson

I think that acquiring Manson will prove to be a vital move in taking Colorado past the second round and beyond. He isn’t just a big body; he makes the Avalanche harder to play against in front of the net. One of Avalanche fans’ most significant concerns after last season’s series loss was the ease with which Vegas could attack and work behind the net. After seeing EJ injured the season before that against Dallas, it was also an issue. Manson effectively addresses that issue night after night.

Now if we built our back-end specifically in alignment with JFresh’s player cards, we would see a back end like this:

Cale Makar - Devon Toews
Samuel Girard - Ryan Murray
Bo Byram - Erik Johnson

My Ideal Pairings

I just don’t know how indicative JFresh’s analytics are to playoff results. Colorado is all too familiar with how things change come playoff time. One thing to consider perhaps more during playoff time is the penalty percentile. It’s important to stay out of the box to mitigate the impact of your opposition's powerplay abilities. I give Sam Girard the advantage over any possible replacement because despite having an off-year, he still produces and stays out of the box.

Erik Johnson is a leader for this squad as I previously mentioned and his G/60 and Defensive EV show that he produces a lot given his ice time. On top of that, I don't foresee Bednar scratching a guy that has given his heart and soul to the Avalanche franchise through the good and the bad. That being said I can see Johnson being swapped for the other Johnson if that choice has to be made.

Bowen Byram can and I think will play his way onto the roster come game one of the playoffs, I think he’s been on the brink of breaking out for two years and if not for taking some high hits we might have already seen him do so.

Lastly, Josh Manson could prove Sakic a genius if Colorado is able to advance on the back of solid defending and limiting net-front chances. Manson reminds me a lot of a younger Erik Johnson minus the skating and scoring ability. Josh is capable of replicating all of the good things EJ does on the back end. His player card is a little discouraging but I think his time with the Ducks negatively affected some of these metrics. Just look at that competition percentile.

Cale Makar - Devon Toews
Samuel Girard - Josh Manson
Bo Byram - Erik Johnson

It sort of comes down to the Johnson boys and Bowen Byram going after the last two spots on any given night. It could come down to who the Avalanche matchup with. If it’s heavy hockey, Byram may be a healthy scratch to keep him out of harm's way.

Let us know what you think the defensive pairings should look like in the comments!