Colorado Avalanche Training Camp Position Battles: 6th Defenseman


Colorado Avalanche training camp was in full effect this morning, as fans loaded up the limited bleacher space at Family Sports Center. The sounds of skates grinding on the ice, players crashing into the boards, pucks deflecting off goalie equipment, and Patrick Roy’s distinctive whistle were music to hardcore Avalanche fans’ ears. The stench of hockey gear that occasionally found its way to my nostrils… debatable!

The team broke into two squads, a  morning session and a late morning session. Each squad spent about an hour doing drills, and an hour scrimmaging, making for one cramped butt after four hours of sitting on cold metal benches!

There are plenty of recaps of training camp to be found on the internet, so I thought I’d put a little bit of a different spin on things, and highlight one of the more intriguing position battles, and how it is playing out. Who will be the Colorado Avalanche’s 6th defenseman?

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Despite the reputation that the Avalanche have for being weak on the back-end, it seems as though there is really only one spot that is actually up for grabs. Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Brad Stuart, Jan Helda, and Nick Holden all are virtual locks to make the Avalanche roster. This leaves a lot of guys vying for that last defenseman position.

Ryan Wilson, Stefan Elliott, Nate Guenin, Zach Redmond, Duncan Siemens, and Chris Bigras all have at least a shot at claiming that final defensive spot, although some are a bit more likely than others. Let’s dig in!

Ryan Wilson:

Strengths: Wilson is a big-time open ice hitter, has a big body that can hold up down low, and can be surprisingly effective on offense when he is on his game. Having a big hitter on your blue-line is a great luxury, because it can really help intimidate opposing forwards, and throw them off their game.

Weaknesses: Ryan tends to be a streaky player, and last year fought injuries and inconsistent playing time even when he was healthy. Wilson never seemed to be able to find his groove, and struggled when he did get on the ice. The biggest thing for Wilson is keeping his confidence up, so he can play aggressive. He is at his best when he jumps up to make big open ice hits, and looks to contribute on the offensive end.

Training camp overview and outlook: I’d say overall, he’s looked pretty good. He looks healthy which is the most important thing. Haven’t seen many big hits, but I would hope not, since he’s playing his own guys. The biggest thing Wilson can do to help his cause is really play with a nasty edge. One of the reasons I think Nate Guenin was so well liked by Patrick Roy last year, was because he was a rock-em sock-em robot defending the area around his net. Guenin is limited in other areas, where Wilson has shown he can shine. If Wilson can step up and be a nasty presence on the ice, and bring that physicality Roy seems to like, he should have the inside track to the starting spot in my opinion.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 40%

Stefan Elliott

Strengths: Elliott is known for his offensive ability more than his defensive prowess. He has an explosive wrist shot, and potential to be a good power play quarterback on the point. Elliott relies on smooth skating, positioning, and above average passing to be effective.

Weaknesses: Much like Tyson Barrie until last year, Elliott has struggled to really prove he is a full-time NHLer. He’s had his chances to play with the Avs, and shown flashes of good play along with some struggles. He has also been given the reigns as a top pairing guy, and featured guy on the power play in Lake Erie, but has never looked dominant.

Training camp overview and outlook: Overall, just okay. One thing I will say, is he really seemed to have hit the weight room over the summer. He looks filled out, which will really help him handle the beefy forwards of the West. Elliott has lots of skill, but it just hasn’t seemed to come together for him yet. You have to figure Elliott’s window of opportunity with the Avs is starting to close though, given the fact that Barrie has secured a spot on the team as an offensive specialist, and other young guys such as Siemens and Bigras are getting closer to being NHL ready. Elliott is a RFA after this season, so it’s a big year for him, no doubt.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 25%

Zach Redmond

Strengths: Redmond is another puck moving brand of d-man, and his scouting report actually sounds similar to that of Stefan Elliott. Redmond has a good shot from the point, chips in on the offensive side, and also is ever so slightly bigger than Elliott.

Weaknesses: Lack of consistency and ineffective use of his size are the common complaints on Redmond.

Training camp overview and outlook: Redmond has looked impressive. The shot and passing are very good, as advertised. Redmond actually has a bit of an interesting story, as he suffered a life-threatening injury when his leg was severed by a skate during practice a little over a year ago. He considers himself lucky to still be playing, and also has a lot of upside. Nick Holden came out of nowhere last year, and was one of the better d-man on the team, especially in the playoffs. Redmond has the talent, and if he is patient, he could pull a similar feat. It wouldn’t surprise me. My guess is he probably won’t make the top 6 on opening night, but he is going to see time in a burgundy and blue sweater this season.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 15%

Nate Guenin:

Strengths: Guenin is an in your face, physical, forearm shiver, stick to the back of the legs kind of defenseman. He also found a niche role as a serviceable penalty killer last season. Roy trusted him in the line-up for these reasons, despite a few shortcomings in other areas.

Weaknesses: Guenin is not a particularly good skater, and struggles mightily to make effective outlet passes. He is a bruiser in his own zone, which I guess is a good thing, because he usually ends up trapped there. If by chance he does manage to find his way to the offensive zone, he doesn’t really offer any spectacular play-making talents.

Training camp overview and outlook: Guenin has been doing his Guenin thing so far. He looks pretty shady in the high speed transition drills, but when they go to the 1-on-1 corner drills, or battles in front of the net he actually looks pretty good. I like Guenin for his work ethic, but to be honest, his skill-set really just seems too limiting for him to be an effective NHL d-man. He can fill in for injuries, and is a nice depth guy to have when you want to inject some nasty into the line-up on a given night. Realistically, I honestly think starting him as the 6th d-man on a regular basis is a mistake.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 10%

Duncan Siemens:

Strengths: Siemens is like Guenin junior as far as the physicality goes. He plays a mean and nasty game. Today he ruffed it up on several occasions, and completely manhandled Borna Rendulic in a 1-on-1 drill. Siemens also is a solid skater and passer, which project him as a significant upgrade over a guy like Guenin long-term.

Weaknesses: Siemens is still raw and inexperienced. I have a feeling Roy is going to play favorites to the veteran guys who were here last season, which ultimately hurts Siemens. Siemens still seems prone to the little mistakes, that are difficult to pick up on in a training camp environment, but will be costly in a full-fledged NHL game.

Training Camp overview and outlook: Siemens has been fun to watch. He doesn’t back down from anyone, and isn’t looking to make friends with his teammates when he is on the ice. During today’s scrimmage, Siemens was paired with Johnson frequently. I know… we’ve all been waiting for the Johnson/Siemens pairing. The duo looked dominant, and shut down MacKinnon and Iginla when they were out there today. I was also impressed with Duncan’s communication. The future looks bright, and it won’t be too long before Siemens is shutting down NHL forwards, and Duncan donuts will be posted on the score-sheet for the other team when he’s  on the ice.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 6%

Chris Bigras:

Strengths: Bigras is an excellent skater and passer. He also has a reputation for being very composed. During rookie camp, he had the quickest feet of any d-man, and it was noticeable. He always kept his feet churning with short little strides to re-position himself against an attacker, or create a better angle for an outlet pass or clearance.

Weaknesses: Chris isn’t the biggest blue-liner you will ever see. As long as he effectively positions himself, and uses good stick work, he can work around his lack of size. However, it still causes him to be prone to struggling with bigger guys, especially down low.

Training camp overview and outlook: Bigras has looked good, and shown the skill-set that had Roy and the media singing his praise last year during training camp. As I said before, he has very quick feet. The calm and collected demeanor he carries himself with suit his style very well. He doesn’t back down, although there have been instances where if he is slightly out of position, guys have effectively used their bodies to shield him and create a dangerous chance. I can see Bigras struggling against forwards who use the body well.

Odds he is the 6th d-man: 4%

Well, if you have been counting in your head, and my math is correct, we have arrived at 100%. As you can see, it is a wide open race for the final defensive spot on the Avalanche roster this season. I really like what Wilson can bring if he is on his game, so I’d say he is the slight early favorite in my mind, but don’t count out Redmond or Elliott. Roy has also proven he doesn’t do things by the book, so maybe we should expect one of the young guys to nab the final spot!

I figure it’s a safe bet to project the Avs carrying 8 d-man. Guenin and maybe Redmond or veteran Bruno Gervais will hold down the two alternate/press box duty roles. Elliott, Siemens, and Bigras will likely be sent to Lake Erie so they can continue to get regular playing time. Gervais is a guy I didn’t mention, he is a journey-man. I’d say he has a 0.1% chance to be on the opening night starting roster, and I really don’t know a whole lot about him, so that’s why I didn’t include him in this write-up.

Stay tuned for more training camp coverage, and positional battles insight from Mile High Sticking! Also, join the debate, who do you think should suit up as the 6th defenseman for the Avalanche on opening night?