We are two weeks into the new NHL season, and the Colorado Avalanche defensive unit already looks different to opening night. A trade sending Ian Cole to Minnesota left room for Bowen Byram to emerge onto the roster, a chance that he has so far taken with ease.
Even without Cole, the Avalanche have seven very solid defensive players in their lineup, and it is expected that a combination of six from those seven will play from here until the end of the season, barring any major injuries of course.
But how exactly will they look? Right now, that is certainly up in the air, and perhaps the most intriguing element of this Avs roster.
The best lineup?
What we saw from Colorado on Tuesday night against San Jose appears to be their best lineup on paper. This leaves Conor Timmins as the healthy scratch, with a lineup of Byram, Samuel Girard, Ryan Graves, Erik Johnson, Cale Makar and Devon Toews on the ice.
Byram was paired with Girard for much of the game, which was fine given their superiority over the Sharks and the comfortable nature of the game. But if that was on the road against a top team, would the Avalanche be happy trusting Byram at the side of Girard?
This is where we are likely to see changes to the defensive pairings, certainly for specific games but also depending on the situation the Avs are in and what they need at that moment.
— NHL (@NHL) January 27, 2021
Situational defensive pairings for the full season?
We have seen Colorado use situational pairings with success in the past, so they are certainly not afraid to do this. On countless occasions last season, we saw Girard play with Makar when they have an offensive zone faceoff and wanted to apply some pressure.
With so much talent on the back end this season, do not be surprised if we see more of this, both to apply attacking pressure and also shore up defensively when it is needed.
If the Avalanche need a goal, they could add Byram to the side of Makar to give the youngster a chance to show his skills in the offensive zone, something we have seen a little of already this season. If the Avs need to shore up defensively, we may see Byram move down to play alongside Johnson, who can keep risks and mistakes to a minimum alongside the rookie.
Girard is also likely to get involved here, as he has started the season in excellent form and has worked with Makar in the past. That would leave Toews and Byram without a partner, so we could also see those two put together in specific circumstances.
The positives for Bowen Byram
The long-term expectations for Byram are that he develops into a highly skilled top-four defenseman, but there was no expectation for him to do that this season. It is fair to say he could well be on his way to doing that already just four games into his NHL career.
The biggest positive for Byram is that there is no pressure on him because there is so much talent on this defensive unit. There is no reason for him to shine, and if he does not, then others certainly will.
However, Colorado will give Byram the chance to shine, and put him in favorable situations, which is a real luxury and one that is only going to help the rookie rearguard. Favored positions when the team has an offensive zone faceoff and being a little sheltered in tough games should only equal more points and more chance to impress for Byram.
Byram could very well find himself alongside every other Avalanche defenseman at some point this season, but fear not, if he does, it will only be for the good of the team and for Byram himself.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) January 23, 2021
The role of Devon Toews
If there is one member of the Avs’ defensive unit that has an intriguing outlook, then it is certainly Toews. The 26-year-old has been a huge addition to the blue line and has impressed throughout the beginning of the season.
Toews is a player who can play in all situations, has a spot on the power play, spends time killing penalties and is the current regular partner to Makar on the No. 1 defensive unit. However, if the Avalanche want to put either Girard or Byram at the side of Makar in certain situations, then it will be Toews that suffers because of that.
Although starting on the power play, do not be surprised to see Toews come off that at some point, allowing him to focus on penalty killing, with few options for that on the Colorado blue line. The team would likely prefer to keep Girard and Makar for the power play, possibly with Byram, while Toews would join Graves and Johnson to form a unit of three penalty killers.
Toews has done absolutely nothing wrong since joining the team, and has been one of the bright spots of the season so far. Even with that, he may have to settle for being displaced from time to time by the more offensive players who currently sit behind him on the depth chart.
What to look out for this season
Colorado has six very good defensemen, seven including Timmins, and as a unit, this is the envy of many in the league. However, the actual pairings for this defense look a little vague, and we may see these pairings change depending on the situation in a game, or the opponents the Avalanche are playing.
This has been used with success in the past, and the hope is that it can be used in the same manner again. Look for Byram to be one of the real winners if this happens—his emergence has given the Avs another weapon—and do not be surprised to see them use him in the best possible way.