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Colorado's defense is already good but could soon get much better

AJ Haefele Avatar
January 27, 2020

With the trade deadline fast approaching, it’s become clear the Colorado Avalanche are among the top contenders to emerge from the west this year and compete for the Stanley Cup.

No team is ever built perfectly and the trade deadline is not only the last chance for teams to improve its roster, but it also seems to serve as a catalyst for just that.

See a division rival make a big move? Better answer, lest you end the year feeling as if you didn’t do enough to get your team over the finish line.

Now, the trade deadline hasn’t been particularly kind for Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic.

When he’s bought, it hasn’t gone well.

In 2016, the Avalanche used the deadline to acquire Shawn Matthias, Mikkel Boedker, and Eric Gelinas. They missed the playoffs and both Matthias and Boedker left that summer as free agents while Gelinas stuck around for one more disastrous season before leaving.

Last year, the Avs aggressively pursued various options before settling on Derrick Brassard as their addition to the forward corps. He scored in his Avalanche debut before disappearing and playing his way to being a scratch at times.

The one time the deadline treated the Avs well was their buzzer-beater two years ago when they swapped Chris Bigras for Ryan Graves. Even then, it was just a change of scenery prospect swap that Sakic & Co. definitely deserve credit for getting correct.

This year, Colorado is feared around the league as one of the top contenders and there are clear areas for the team to improve.

One of the talked about areas is the defense as The Athletic writer and reporter Pierre LeBrun has mentioned Alec Martinez on a number of occasions. To me, it makes less than zero sense to not only acquire Martinez but even be after a defender at all.

Colorado’s current defense is not only set for this year, but they are also in the enviable position of having multiple ready-made replacements if they do decide to move on. If anything, this might give Colorado a surplus to deal from a position from strength, much as they did in last summer’s Tyson Barrie trade.

Let’s run down where this Avalanche defense sits, their age, and contract status and exactly why going after a defender doesn’t much make sense.

Erik Johnson – 31, three years left at $6M AAV

While there are plenty of fans who would be happy seeing the team move on from their longest-tenured player, the reality is Johnson has plenty of power as his contract contains no-trade protection and would need his approval for any deal to go through.

Johnson’s aging curve certainly has been a touch disappointing as the injuries suffered during his prime appear to have added up to a player whose physical decline is happening more rapidly than hoped.

The other issue with Johnson is the role he now plays. He was never a dominant defender but during Johnson’s prime, there was enough offense to go along with solid enough defense that he was easily Colorado’s top defensemen.

These days, Johnson’s offense has essentially evaporated (nine points in 38 games, just one goal) and his defense has slipped just enough to notice. He’s still having a strong year but he’s not quite the top guy he was during his prime.

Verdict: In the end, Johnson isn’t going anywhere this year or even this summer. Management loves him and he loves being an Av and is a significant part of the locker room camaraderie that currently exists.

Cale Makar – 21, one year left at $880,883 AAV

First of all, entry-level contracts are an insane steal and players might want to try to do something about them during the next round of CBA negotiations. Wow.

Second, Makar is Colorado’s best defenseman already and should have been at the All-Star Game. He’s having a dominant rookie season and while his two-way play is still a work in progress, he’s shown flashes of brilliance in his own end as well as enough of a physical edge to keep opposing players on their toes.


Verdict: Makar isn’t going anywhere and the Avalanche should aggressively pursue a long-term contract this summer. They would likely have to set the record for the highest post-ELC contract ever given to a defenseman but Makar has already proven he’s worth it. If they wait a year (and this is why Makar would decline to do anything this year), the price tag could go up significantly. Either way, Makar isn’t going anywhere for a long time.

Sam Girard – 21, seven years left at $5M AAV

Like Makar, I’m only putting Girard on here for the sake of being thorough. Girard has shown plenty of steady two-way play in his time with the Avalanche.

This year, Girard has stepped up and recently has really broken out offensively. There were some tough moments earlier in the year but they appear to be behind Girard now. Not only are they (hopefully) in the rearview mirror, inconsistency really hasn’t plagued Girard as much as it does other young players, especially defenders.

Girard has been remarkably consistent in who he is across his young career and that was certainly one reason the Avalanche felt comfortable committing to Girard through the bulk of his 20s (this contract will end when he turns 29).

Verdict: Like Makar, Girard is a building block and isn’t a threat to be traded anywhere anytime soon. It’s just not happening.

Ryan Graves – 24, RFA after the season

Here’s the x-factor right here. Nobody saw this coming. Even Avalanche management would tell you that while they were hopeful after Graves’ brief stint in the NHL last year, this was not expected.

But, as Bob Ross often reminded us, life is full of happy accidents. The breakout of Ryan Graves from “NHL hopeful” to “belongs in the NHL” has created the good kind of problem for the Avalanche.

Still just 24, Graves is facing restricted free agency this summer and with 19 points, including eight (!) goals, he is staring down the very real possibility of a multi-year extension and following the path laid out by Nick Holden.

The path Graves has walked makes it an uphill battle every day, every game, every shift, and constantly forge believers out of the world. That belief in himself, though, is certainly there and he is one of the most positive guys in that locker room.

Coming into the season, Graves was viewed by many (myself included) as on the outside looking in on a very crowded blueline. He beat out all comers for the job and appears here to stay.

Verdict: Graves has played his way into the future of this team. As you can see in the chart above, his offense has actually been solid in both of his stints but the underlying defensive numbers are much better. As the partner for Cale Makar right now, Graves will certainly be a key player for Colorado down the stretch and beyond.

Nikita Zadorov – 24, RFA after the season

It’s kind of amazing to see Graves and Zadorov both at age 24 but Big Z has 337 games played and Graves has just 74. If anything, it’s a good reminder that development isn’t a straight line.

Anyway, Zadorov has had kind of an unusual year. There was the customary slow start, too many penalties, and the inevitable healthy scratch message sent by the coaching staff.

Then Jared Bednar and Nolan Pratt decided a different approach – challenge Zadorov. They began matching him up against the top opposing forwards and it worked for a little while. Zadorov had strong outings in that role but still some warts to his game.

As the coaching staff struggled to find consistency from their defensive pairings, Zadorov’s game continued to be a roll of the dice from night-to-night.

On top of the inconsistency, he suffered a broken jaw that greatly limited just how physical he was comfortable being. He’s had to expand how he played and as a result has unlocked aspects to his defensive game we haven’t seen before.

He’s among Colorado’s best defenders at denying the opponent clean zone entries as most opposing forwards would tend to just dump it than risk Zadorov putting them on the wrong end of a highlight-reel hit.

Verdict: Zadorov’s future is probably the most complicated of those listed so far. He’s a talented player who can be at times dominant and apathetic.

The reality is his offense has dried up so far (just two goals after seven each of the last two years) and he’s already making north of $3M. Typically, at this stage of their careers, players only see their salaries go up barring major injuries or disaster. None of that has happened with Zadorov so his next contract gets tricky.

He’s two years from unrestricted free agency and the team has been averse to committing to him long-term. I can’t imagine they look to part ways with Zadorov during the season but next summer is a different story.

Until the team commits to him, he’s the obvious candidate to be the odd-man-out eventually.

Ian Cole – 30, one year left at $4.25M AAV

Cole actually turns 31 next month so he’s already on the wrong end of the age part of this equation. In every other respect, though, Cole is a perfect fit for Colorado.

He’s a third-pairing defender at this point in his career and he’s having a significantly better year than last season when the team overextended him, sometimes out of need.

With the adjustment in his usage, Cole’s game has really taken off. The start of the year saw his career-long penalty problems continue but he’s really found his stride. I don’t expect the penalties to just magically disappear after 500 career games but that he’s reducing them can only be viewed as a positive.

The offense this year has been crazy as he’s on pace to smash his career-high of 26. Hell, he already has 23 with 33 games left to play. It doesn’t matter how many cheap secondary assists might be in there, it’s just reality.

As you’ll see below, Cole has enjoyed a very strong year and the Avalanche has found the right role for him to thrive at this stage of his career.

Verdict: So, while Cole has been excellent as a third-pairing defender for the Avs this year, his age makes him the obvious misfit here. A year left on his deal and his Stanley Cup-winning experience is catnip for GM’s around the league, which includes Sakic.

That’s why it’s unrealistic to believe Cole to be on the move during the season and certainly as a healthy scratch in the postseason if they acquired a player such as Martinez. Honestly, that’s true of all six players listed here.

This group of six isn’t the league’s best defense. I’d probably slot it somewhere in the 10-15 range. On a good day, closer to 10. On a bad day, closer to 25. Fortunately, they’ve had a lot more good days than bad with this group.

I don’t want to leave out mentioning Mark Barberio, who is a perfect seventh defenseman and is very well-respected within the locker room. He’s a hard worker who comes to the rink with a positive attitude and is completely bought into the team’s success, regardless of whether he plays or not.

Barberio is in the final year of his deal and is 29. Given the guys below on this list, it’s hard to imagine he returns but his contributions should not be overlooked.

The prospects

Calle Rosen, 25

Okay, so I’m kind of cheating here. Rosen isn’t really a prospect and is already older than four of the guys on Colorado’s current blueline and still isn’t a regular.

That said, the Avs are high on him and he’s an obvious replacement for Barberio next season. He doesn’t need to get regular reps anymore as he’s a proven performer at the AHL level and is, at worst, replacement level in the NHL.

The idea is that Rosen will be younger and cheaper than Barberio and can at least give something similar on the ice. I’m not sure how committed the organization is to this one but it’s an option if they want it.

Conor Timmins, 21

Here we go. Now it’s getting interesting.

Timmins has been a top prospect from the moment he was drafted with the first pick of the second round back in 2017. He was exceptional in his D+1 season, teaming up with Cale Makar to help lead Team Canada to the gold medal at the WJCs.

He suffered a concussion at the end of his OHL career and missed all of last year recovering. He was so impressive in the preseason he actually made the Avs out of training camp but lasted just two games where he looked like a typical rookie and the coaching staff didn’t trust him with meaningful minutes.

He’s since gone down to the AHL and excelled with the Eagles, at times being their best player and living up to the hype that has followed him since getting drafted. Timmins suffered a lower-body injury and missed around a month but returned last week and immediately picked up two assists in his return.

On the season, Timmins has 15 points in 24 games and absolutely looks like an NHL player. The only thing Timmins lacks is a consistent track record of good health and, maybe, more importantly, opportunity in an organization that needs defense right now.

The future is very bright for Timmins and it’s not hard to imagine Timmins sliding in for one of Cole or Zadorov if the Avs move on from them. He would be the clear-cut top prospect was it not for…

Bowen Byram, 18

The fourth overall pick last summer, Byram is arguably the top defenseman in the world not already in the NHL. It’s an unbelievable feather in Colorado’s cap to have a player of this caliber just waiting in the wings.

Byram wasn’t quite ready to contribute in the NHL this year but that might have been more about Colorado’s desire to compete for a Cup than Byram’s ability level.

His season back in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants hasn’t been the same kind of dominant offensive effort but that team as a whole has taken a step back and Byram’s goal upon being returned was to hone the defensive details of his game. He’s succeeded.

Byram belongs in the NHL next season. How Colorado will create space for him will be interesting given the talent and depth of the current group.

You don’t want him as the seventh guy not regularly playing so he shouldn’t be competing with Rosen for a role.

If you’re Joe Sakic, how do you balance having two high-end prospects who are NHL-ready in Byram and Timmins and the evaluation of the roster as Cup-worthy right now?

How Sakic balances those two competing ideas will determine a lot about how Colorado finds success in the next several years.

The easy answer is to find a home for Zadorov (maybe in a top-six F trade?) and deal Cole for whatever draft pick compensation teams are offering and put Byram and Timmins in the NHL.

But then the team has four players 22 and younger (Girard, Makar, Byram, Timmins) on its blueline and that lack of experience might set back the Stanley Cup aspirations.

Even if it’s just for a year, there’s a ticking clock on Nathan MacKinnon’s sweetheart contract and the pressure to win during it is only going to get higher every year. Can the organization take the lumps of rookie mistakes in a postseason where they believe they’re good enough to make a run for the Stanley Cup?

How will they find the space? Certainly, the Seattle expansion draft after the 2020-21 season looms large and at least one of the six players at the top will be a prime target for the league’s newest franchise.

But that’s two playoff runs from now.

In the meantime, the smartest and safest play is to sit tight, especially if the target is a player like Alec Martinez.

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