Lesson Learned: Avalanche Defense Needs Johnson


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There are a lot of takeaways after the Colorado Avalanche’s overtime loss to the struggling Winnipeg Jets Sunday. We could talk about their return to a low shot count, Nate MacKinnon’s continued goal drought, Semyon Varlamov’s transformation into a simply ordinary goalie. However, the Avalanche D-corps is a popular point of contention, and I’m going to focus on that.

Avalanche Defense in Winnipeg

The Colorado Avalanche defense was not bad in the game against Winnipeg. Quite the contrary. They limited the Jets to 28 shots — which is low for the Avs. And the penalty kill, powered by defense, was perfect. Winnipeg had four power plays, but was unable to convert once.

What was noteworthy about the D-corps was the fact that, early in the third period, defenseman Erik Johnson collided with Jets defenseman Mark Stuart. Johnson fell awkwardly and bounced his head into the boards. He immediately clutched his head. He made his way off the ice, sat on the bench for a minute or two then went to the dressing room with the trainer. He did not return.

The lack of Johnson was not why the Avs lost in overtime — even without EJ, they successfully killed off a late penalty and fended off the Jets’ desperate offense. Winnipeg center Jeff Little simply beat Varlamov in overtime with a tip-in that the Avs goalie should have stopped. Nonetheless, seeing Johnson leave the game with what looked like could have been a concussion drove home how central he is to the Avalanche defense.

Size and Strength

Size isn’t everything. However, on a hockey blue line, it is important. Johnson is big — 6-foot-4, 232 pounds. More than that, he’s also very strong. It’s hard to knock him off his skates, and it rarely happens without the opponent going down as well.

Johnson is also fast and agile. Matt Duchene and, presumably, MacKinnon, are faster, but that’s about it on the team. Johnson also doesn’t move like a big man — he’s surprisingly graceful, in a hockey sort of way. Those are all valuable assets.

The Avalanche are a big team. Jan Hejda matches Johnson, and Brad Stuart isn’t far behind. Nick Holden is lanky, and all other defenseman barring Tyson Barrie are over 6-foot, 200 pounds. However, none of the other players are as well-rounded as Johnson in playing style.

Johnson’s All-Around Play

Erik Johnson is a massive hockey player who can lay big hits on opponents — and he sometimes does. However, he’s also a skill player. Once he’s targeted an opponent, there’s no getting rid of him — he’s too fast and agile. He may not have a sniper’s shot, but he has a bomb of a slap shot and enough knowledge of geometry to generate rebounds with his initial shot — or bang the puck into a tiny corner. Johnson is a smooth, powerful skater whose coast-to-coast moves can be used as a demo of what the play should look like, it’s so flawless:

Johnson is not an offensive defenseman — he’s a two-way defenseman. He can pinch in and generate plays, or he can fall back and defend. And he can transition between the two instantaneously. He’s also got a good eye for the puck and keeps it in the zone with his massive reach. He’s become a staple on both specialty teams, and typically logs more ice time than any other Avalanche player. These talents and skills are what make him the cornerstone of the Avalanche defense.

Looking around the rest of the Avalanche defense, certainly other players can match or exceed him in some plays. Tyson Barrie has better offensive skills, but he can’t keep the puck in the offensive zone for anything. And he certainly can’t hit quite like Johnson. Brad Stuart and Jan Hejda have excellent defensive skills, but they lack Johnson’s ability with offense. Zach Redmond and Nick Holden are a little like EJ Light — they may have two-way skills, but not at Johnson’s level.

Head coach Patrick Roy has started pairing Barrie with Stuart and Redmond with Holden. Barrie’s offensive skills and Stuart’s shut-down defense together equal Johnson’s ability, as do the EJ Light line together. But when Roy pairs Johnson with his longtime linemate, Jan Hejda, it’s almost like having a three-man blue line.

Johnson vs. Barrie

Tyson Barrie gets a lot of publicity, deservedly so. He is really maturing into a solid offensive defenseman. If anything, he’s come back speedier than ever after his season-ending knee injury in the playoffs. He’s got a goal-scorer’s instincts and the shot to pull it off. He’s the guy you want on the ice late in the period if you’re down by one or even two goals.

Barrie is not the defenseman you want holding the fort, though, against opposing power forwards, as Winnipeg forward Dustin Byfuglien illustrated most graphically late in the second:

The Avs nation lauded Barrie for not only getting up and shaking it off, but later

laughing as he remarked

, “That’s probably one of the bigger [hits] I’ve ever taken. That’s a big boy, and he got me good there.” That’s our T-Bear, cuddly in the face of adversity.

However, Byfuglien didn’t care about cuddly, and what gets lost in the admiration for Barrie is that the hit took him out of the play completely. Not only that, a forward (John Mitchell) had to actually go in and stand up for him, which ultimately resulted in Winnipeg’s earning a power play.

By his own admission, Barrie is neither big nor tough — he’s kind of like that 80s movie starring Rob Lowe as the “too fast to catch” forward Dean Youngblood. That’s fine for a scorer — that’s not what you want to build your defense around, though.

To be fair, Byfuglien is a ridiculous 6-foot-5, 260 pounds — bigger even than Johnson. However, most teams have a big power forward like Byfuglien — David Backes, Milan Lucic, Ryan Getzlaf, Jaromir Jagr, to name a few. The #1 defenseman on a team needs to be able to stand up to the “big boys.” Size isn’t requisite — Erik Karlsson manages just fine with his grittiness. But it helps.

Johnson’s got the all-around play to meet the big boys head on — and at the very least take them down with him.

Luckily, Johnson cleared the concussion protocol. He practiced fully with the team on Monday and is scheduled to play against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. However,  the scary-looking injury drove home the main takeaway from the game in Winnipeg — the Avalanche defense cannot do without Johnson and hope to be fully effective.