The home stretch has arrived. With the season set to kick off for the Avalanche at home on October 2nd, we have a fair idea of what the team is going to look like this season.
We all know what happened last year: the defense was atrocious, goaltender Semyon Varlamov did about all he could to help remedy that situation, and the Avalanche were dead last in just about every relevant category on their way to the first overall pick.
So what’s in store for them for the 2013-14 season? How do the Avalanche look compared to last year and most importantly, what will they do this upcoming season? Part one looked at the forwards, part two of this final preview series will take a look at the defensemen.
Quick disclaimer: since the defensive corps obviously isn’t as deep as the forwards, we’ll look at the top six and the reserves, breaking down each. Each group will get a rating 1-5 and the overall defensive corps will get graded as well. Let’s get to it.
The Top Six
Most places around the web seem to have a pretty good consensus on who’s going to start the year in Colorado but this could change at any minute. Remember: this was a bad, bad team defensively last year and while not all of that is to blame on the defensemen themselves, there’s a good chunk of the blame assigned to them. At the moment, it seems to be: Jan Hejda, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Ryan Wilson, Matt Hunwick, and Cory Sarich.
Hejda is the big, stay-at-home defender on the team. He often finds himself matched up against the opposition’s best lines and does an admirable job all things considered. Despite being a big guy (6’4” 237), he’s far from the most physically imposing player the Avs have. He uses his size more from a positioning standpoint than anything else. Offensively, he’ll chip in 20-ish points but not much more; offense isn’t what he’s paid for. He’s not an ideal shutdown guy but being a consistent, solid, veteran presence in a very young locker room is never a bad thing.
Joining him in the “stay-at-home” department is the newly-acquired Sarich. Coming over as a part of the trade that brought back Alex Tanguay, Sarich will bring size (6’4” 207) and a mean streak to the Avalanche back end; they desperately need the latter. Sarich will help keep things clean in front of Varlamov and is a guy who will drop the gloves to stand up for a teammate. Like Hejda, he’s very limited offensively but that’s not why he’s here. Could find himself as a seventh defenseman should one of the youngsters emerge. And by “could”, I mean “almost definitely.”
Speaking of emerging youngsters, Barrie is going to be the team’s resident offensive defender. Last year was his first full(ish) season and he put up 13 points in 32 games while showing his impressive skating and puck-handling abilities. He’ll no doubt get a ton of opportunities to produce, with more ice time and power play chances this year. He’s on the smaller side and not very physical, so it will be interesting to see how he holds up over a full 82-game slate. Avs fans have high hopes for him but they may want to taper those just a bit.
Johnson is the defacto “star” of the defense. The former #1 overall pick, Johnson hasn’t quite lived up to expectations but those lofty goals come with being the first player selected in the NHL Draft, so deal with them he must. Johnson has evolved into a very good defenseman but it looks like he won’t recapture the offensive game he had prior to his knee injury in 2008/09. The lesson as always: don’t mess with golf carts. It’s easy to forget that he’s still just 25-years-old and still growing into his game but maybe it’s time to stop expecting him to be piling up the points while playing shutdown defense. He’ll see most key situations for the Avalanche defensively and the team will no doubt lean on him heavily again this year; Johnson could help his case with another solid season.
Typically playing with Hejda, Hunwick has been used to battle the opposition’s top forwards. He’s not very physical (who is on this team?) but he uses his good skating ability to keep himself in the right position. He and Hejda were okay last year and aren’t ideal as the “shutdown” pair but the circumstances on defense kind of leave the team with limited options. The youngsters ready for the big time are smaller, quicker, offensive defensemen. Hunwick will likely step back into his role this year as the team auditions younger talent to see who fits where.
Rounding out the top six will be Ryan Wilson when he returns from his knee injury suffered in the burgundy and white game. When he’s healthy, Wilson has shown the potential to be a player for the Avalanche. He has a penchant for throwing clean, hard checks, chipping in offensively, and becoming more and more solid defensively. While he’s probably reached his glass ceiling, you could do worse than a solid, physical defenseman that can chip in a bit of offense.
A few of the top six could see their time and roles cut down depending on how the youngsters look. The Avs would love to see Stefan Elliott, second round pick in 2009, finally stick with the big club as he’s in the Barrie mold: good skater, strong offensive presence, lacks a physical game. Still, Elliott is a talented player and upgrading the talent on the defensive end should be the goal when your team is bad at defense.
Also in the wings is this year’s second-round pick, Chris Bigras. Bigras is – you guessed it – an undersized defenseman with good skating ability who can be dangerous offensively. Do the Avalanche know there are other types of defensemen out there and that you should probably have a balanced mix? No? Oh, someone should tell them. Bigras is expected to be a surprise this season and could stick with the Avalanche for a large chunk of the season. He’s got the talent, it just seems to be a matter of getting acclimated to the pro game.
The last of the youngins that could make an impact is Duncan Siemens. Siemens is an undersized defenseman who…what? He’s a big guy that loves to smash things? Are we certain he’s on the right team? Well then. The team would (and should) love to have Siemens up with them at long last. He’s talented (11th overall in 2011), large, and angry. Also a little creepy looking but that’s beside the point. The Avs would like him in the lineup tout sweet.
This group is predicated on a lot of “what ifs” and not enough proven results. Hejda, Hunwick and Sarich are solid as latter options, not as go-to defenders. Also a thing to remember: this is virtually the same top six as last year. The one that finished last in goals against per game and was near the bottom in shots against. They are not good.
It seems that regardless of how things go, unless this group somehow emerges as an elite unit, that there will be some turnover as the year goes on. The Avs likely want some combination of Bigras, Elliott, and Siemens to crack the team and show they belong; it can only help the team to implement its younger, talented defenders into the fold soon.
Until that happens, this group will likely face the same struggles as last season. The only good thing is that the offense should keep them in many more games and could potentially bail out the defense from time to time. They won’t be last in the league again but unless a fresh face or two emerges and shows they belong, it’ll be fairly close.
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