My Colorado Avalanche season preview will be split up into two parts, this one focusing on the defense and a second one coming Wednesday based on the forwards.
Looking at the unit that head coach Jared Bednar has at his disposal, there is one thing that jumps off the page, and that is health.
Keeping healthy is the No. 1 priority
Can the Avs stay healthy for a full year? Cale Makar is seemingly pencilled in for a 60–70-game regular season due to the niggles we have seen him have over the past couple of years.
Add into that Bowen Byram missing a big part of last year, Erik Johnson missing almost all of last year, Devon Toews starting on injured reserve and the injury history of Ryan Murray, and it is easy to see why people worry about health.
If they have those six players available for most of the season, being the best defensive team in the league is a big possibility. Lose a couple of them and start relying on those below and the Avs are going to be solid, but probably nothing more than that.
It is nothing too wild to suggest that the number of games each of the top six defensemen play this season could well determine the Stanley Cup chances of this team.
Pairings and usage
Just like last season, I think the Avs will have pairings they use at the start of each game, but those will not always stay together, with a lot of in-game situational changes.
Sam Girard and Cale Makar out here doing ridiculous things in practice to remind you they are ridiculously good at hockey.
— Evan Rawal (@evanrawal) October 11, 2021
Expect to see Makar and Toews as the top pairing, with Samuel Girard and Murray forming a second pair. Bottom pairing will be Byram and Johnson, putting an experienced head at the side of the rookie.
In terms of usage, the first point to make is that Byram and Johnson will see more ice time than your traditional third-line pairings as they move up in various situations. If the Avs are pushing hard and have an offensive zone draw, do not be surprised to see Byram or Girard out with Makar, something we have seen Bednar do in the past.
Similarly, late in the game, we may see Johnson move up and play alongside Toews as a shutdown-type pairing.
It would not be the biggest surprise to see Murray regularly listed as a second-pairing defenseman but finish the game with the least minutes.
The last point to mention in terms of usage is that it would not be a surprise to see less power play time for Toews, with more focus on the penalty kill for him. The Avs have a lot of forwards who can play on the power play. However, if you look at the defense from a penalty-killing point of view, only Johnson and Murray stand out as being involved, unless the team decides to trust Byram with a spot.
Who will step up to the roster when needed?
The Avs went well into their depth pool last season, and once again, they have set themselves up with a number of options should they need them.
Top of the list is Jack Johnson, signed to a one-year deal, primarily to be the seventh defenseman on the roster. Kurtis MacDermid is likely to be next on the list, and with his flexibility—meaning he can play both defense and forward—he will likely spend a lot of time with the team in the press box as an option.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) October 10, 2021
Then we go down to the Colorado Eagles, where there are three main options, should the team need them. Jacob MacDonald did nothing wrong at all last season, but has not been at his best in preseason. He has cleared waivers and will report to the Eagles, with the hope of dominating the AHL and finding his form again.
Justin Barron is the young option, just 19 years old, and he was given a long look in preseason. It is fair to say that there is plenty to work on, but he is the hope long term, so if the Avs want to look at the bigger picture, he may get a look at some point.
Lastly, Dennis Gilbert rounds off the trio in Loveland, a rugged defenseman if the Avs want to bring in someone who will play the body.
If you look at all of the options, each one is slightly different, so it may be a case of not having a set depth chart this season, but choosing the replacement based on the player who is out.
Getting the balance right
This is something that the Avs struggled with on occasions last season, and hopefully an area they do better. They need to get the balance of their defense right this season, and not overload it.
Part of this will involve the call-ups we have just mentioned. For example, if Erik Johnson is out, MacDonald may be playing great for the Eagles, but in terms of fit, he would not be the best man to turn to.
Having so many call up options is a luxury, even more so when they are so varied, so let’s hope the Avs use that to their advantage.
Will a star emerge this season?
Bowen Byram, future NHL superstar. pic.twitter.com/1KgqNugKo1
— Avalanche Forever (@citchmook) September 29, 2021
I was incredibly disappointed when Byram missed a large part of last season, as he appeared to have all the tools to succeed in this type of defense.
He is likely to be given a favorable role this season, with regular minutes alongside an experienced partner and a shot higher up the lineup in good situations. It would be no surprise to see him thrive in this type of role and really come of age this season.
The league knows how good the trio of Girard, Makar and Toews is, but soon, they could find themselves talking about a foursome with Byram included.
Should that happen, combined with good health, then yes, the Colorado Avalanche could well have the best defense in the league this season.