The Colorado Avalanche defence is stuck in neutral. It has struggled to generate offence since Cale Makar went out due to injury. One of the big problems is they have too many penalty-killing defenders and too few who can move the puck. Makar will return soon and help fix some issues but the organization needs to start making some decisions. It can start by picking between two nearly-identical options in Nikita Zadorov and Ryan Graves.
Colorado Avalanche Defence with Nikita Zadorov
Zadorov entered the season as one of the team’s best young two-way defenders. The former Buffalo Sabres defenceman is capable of chipping in points but has a much greater value as a physical enforcer. Zadorov has posted over 200 hits in the previous two seasons while exceeding 15 points just once. He is producing similar numbers this year with one goal, five points and 99 hits in 32 games.
However, the problem this year is that Zadorov seems to have gone more one-dimensional than is necessary. He is part of a defence that has only 314 shots on goal. That might sound like a lot but it actually tied for sixth-worst in the Central Division. The Winnipeg Jets are the only team with fewer shots from players on their blue line. Zadorov needs to recognize that he can be a bigger part of the action just by throwing the puck at the net to see what happens. His shot rate is at just 1.09 per game after a season in which he shot nearly 1.43 times per contest. It is possible his jaw injury is causing some tentativeness but he needs to do something to help the team succeed. Zadorov is getting outplayed in a big way by another big defender turning heads this season.
Colorado Avalanche Defence with Ryan Graves
Graves has been a huge surprise this season. He originally started the year on the third pairing but he has moved up the depth chart thanks to strong play and injuries to the position group. The 6’5″ former New York Rangers draft pick is capable of the same play as Zadorov. This year is his first “real” season in the NHL and Graves is making it count. He has six goals and 15 points in 35 games compared to Zadorov’s one and five. He isn’t checking as often with only 55 hits but has a team-high 75 blocks.
It is clear that Graves has provided some of what has been missing without Makar on the ice. He has the most shots of any defender since the star rookie took an injury against the Boston Bruins. Graves also has the third-highest shot rate on the team. His shots-per-game is 1.71 behind only Makar and Erik Johnson. The most impressive part of Graves’ production is that he is doing so much with the lowest average ice time of any regularly-used defensemen. The only blueliner with less time to have played in at least 10 games is Mark Barberio. Graves is doing more than enough to play more in games and should work into the power play if Makar is out much longer.
What Will the Avalanche Do
Both Zadorov and Graves will be restricted free agents this summer. The team will likely not trade either before the deadline even if they go into buying mode; the defence has been too shaky for that outcome. However, the argument to keep both changes dramatically once the season is over.
Zadorov is having an uneven year at the worst time. He has a cap hit of $3.2 million which he will want to go up for 2020-21. That is much larger than Graves’ $735,000. Keeping Graves as the cheaper versatile and physical presence frees up much more money to retain players such as Andre Burakovsky. Trading Zadorov after the year would also let Colorado chase another wing for the bottom-nine such as Evgeni Dadonov or Mike Hoffman assuming the Florida Panthers fail to re-sign both.
The final piece to consider is how close some of Colorado’s defensive prospects are to the NHL. Recent draftees Conor Timmins and Bowen Byram are both having good years at the AHL and WHL levels, respectively. Calle Rosen has also seen a handful of games this season and has done fine in his small sample. All three are left-handed shots like Zadorov and Graves. The Avs have far too many left-shooting defenders as it is so it is hard to see how both Zadorov and Graves remain after this season given they can do so many of the same things.
DENVER, COLORADO – OCTOBER 03: Nikita Zadorov #16 of the Colorado Avalanche advances the puck against the Calgary Flames in the first period at the Pepsi Center on October 03, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)