Over the last two seasons respectively, the Colorado Avalanche finished dead last and then qualified for the playoffs. The turnaround surprised both the entire league and Avs fans themselves. After years of weak defence, the team appeared destined for an extended rebuild period. However, the Avs roster had other plans and were instantly better just a season later.
Big Improvements for Colorado Avalanche Blue Line
One of the biggest reasons the Avalanche found footing so quickly came as a result of the team’s young core developing. Every team in the league possesses a handful of prospects they believe to be destined for strong NHL careers, but in reality, the vast majority of them end up bouncing around the league, filling depth positions or playing the majority of their careers out in the AHL or other pro leagues.
Colorado, though, hasn’t had this problem too much as of late. It appears nearly every prospect the team acquires or promotes from within pans out. This is especially true for the team’s defence, where Colorado struggled most for the past half dozen seasons. Suddenly, the list of names on defence looks promising to say the least, both now and for the future of the franchise.
From Then to Now
So what happened?
Avs D – The Big Guns
Well, Johnson didn’t change much. He was reliable on defence then and is reliable now. Barrie continued developing into one of the league’s best offensive defensemen and now regularly turns heads around the league. His production consistently floats around 45-60 points per season, but he improved massively in his own zone last year. He was on the ice for way fewer goals against and drives play out of his own end better than anyone else in burgundy and blue.
Then there’s Zadorov, who absolutely exploded in 2017-18. He nearly doubled his career-best total for hits, ending the year with 278 to pair with 106 blocked shots. The Avs have increased his defensive zone starts each year too, as he continues establishing himself as a top-tier defensive defenseman in the league.
More Diamonds in the Rough
Behind the top three, Colorado boasts plenty of others with their best years still ahead of them. Leading the group is youngster Samuel Girard, acquired through the Matt Duchene trade early last year. Girard, a second=round draft pick in 2016, played 73 games last year (his rookie season). He put up 23 points, and with Colorado had a +0.2 percent relative Corsi-for; extremely impressive for a 19-year-old rookie defenseman playing nearly 18 minutes a night. The Avs hoped he could stick on the roster after they added him. His immediate impact on defense came as a major surprise, a happy addition to the team’s top four.
Colorado also still has plenty of other young depth defensemen all working to establish themselves as regulars in the NHL. Mark Barberio and Patrik Nemeth both came to Colorado as waiver claims over the past two seasons. Its always a huge plus to add someone of value via waiver claims, which was the exact case when Colorado landed both these diamonds in the rough. At 28 and 26 respectively, they’re entering the prime of their careers hoping to become mainstays.
AHL Defensemen with NHL Experience
Mark Alt and David Warsofsky both played minutes for the Avs last season, but will likely start in the AHL next season. From Colorado’s perspective, these two provide the team yet another solid level of competition for playing time and insurance against injuries.
Veteran Addition: Ian Cole
To supplement all these defenders and add one more strong piece to the puzzle, Colorado signed veteran d-man Ian Cole this summer. Cole, 29, is on a three-year deal with the Avs. His role will likely be as a second or third pair guy, mentoring the youngsters and providing some leadership and experience in the locker room.
Now, the Avs can dress seven or eight different defensemen without much concern. This sets them up nicely to face the trials of a full season. Injuries tend to set teams back, especially younger ones without viable replacement options. Last year the Avs felt this firsthand when they lost Johnson for the end of the season and playoffs. This only got worse once Girard had to sit out a couple playoff games with an injury.
With Cole, the Avs’ roster looks sound on the back-end. Heck, they looked solid without him. On opening night, they can dress Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov, Girard, Cole, and either Barberio and Nemeth. Already we see there are enough bodies to leave one in the press box. It would take multiple injuries, or some really surprisingly bad performances, to even reach the likes of Alt and Warsofsky. That’s not a bad situation.
But wait, there’s more.
The Prospect Pool
So we’ve talked about the Avs defensemen likely to slide into the top spots. Already there are nine players on the list, seven of which the franchise is comfortable having in the lineup today. But we haven’t even mentioned the handful of defensemen Colorado’s got waiting in the wings or vying for their own opportunity to play spoiler.
Topping that list is Anton Lindholm. Last year, although not a complete disaster, didn’t quite go as planned for the 23-year-old. After making the team out of training camp, he broke his jaw in November and never quite gained his footing back. He’d get a game here and there, but only when the regulars went down with an injury. A solid camp could put him back in the conversation, but there are more bodies this time around in his way.
Best of the Rest
Conor Timmins just signed his entry-level contract with the Avs, and at 19 will be fighting to land as high on the team’s depth chart as possible. Nicolas Meloche, Sergei Boikov, and Josh Anderson are also all on entry-level deals. They are only 21, 22, and 20 respectively. They’ll all likely play in the AHL in 2018-19.
Then, there’s Colorado’s 2017 first round draft selection Cale Makar. A sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (NCAA Div I), Makar’s extremely highly touted. He might just wind up receiving a contract after the end of his season and be a regular for the Avs starting a year from now.
Consistency Brewing in Colorado
For the first time in probably a decade (at least), Avs fans can relax about their defence entering the season. Year after year, they’ve struggled to field a respectable group of defensemen. Simply put, the blue line has been a revolving door. The team either went with career AHL’ers (Karl Stollery, Patrick Wiercioch, Nate Guenin) or slow old defensemen (Francois Beauchemin, Fedor Tyutin, Brad Stuart) to plug holes in the past.
But that was then, and this is now.
Today, Colorado can be confident about their depth on defence. Their top two pairs can compete with anyone in the league. Their bottom pair will see three or four capable players fighting for those minutes. They have roughly ten defensemen with NHL experience, so they’re prepared to handle injuries. And they’ve got some of the best defensive prospects in the NHL. This team should be set for a very long time.