Colorado Avalanche Defense: Maybe It’s The Scheme?


The Colorado Avalanche defense is always under scrutiny thanks to the high number of shots they allow per game. Last season the Avs gave up 32.7 shots per game. In the offseason the Avs tried to address the issue by bringing in veteran defenseman Brad Stuart. His addition, along with the growth of Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Nick Holden, haven’t helped as the Avs are giving up 35.5 shots per game this season.

While the Avalanche defensive core might not look great on paper, it’s certainly better than the likes of the Carolina Hurricanes, who only give up 27 shots per game.

So what’s the problem with the Avalanche defense? Maybe it’s time to start looking at the system.

Patrick Roy has implemented a man-to-man scheme, which is designed to keep things simple as every player is responsible for their guy and that’s that. Unfortunately it’s not that simple as the man-to-man scheme is extremely flawed, especially when the talent level isn’t up to par.

In hockey, the offense is almost always at an advantage because they know what they are going to do with the puck before the defense. They know when they are going to twist and turn, make a sharp cut, pass, or shoot the puck. It’s the defenseman’s job to read and react. It’s not an easy job, but they know what they signed up for. In a man-to-man scheme, the offense has an even bigger advantage. The offensive player knows what and who they are up against and they can easily exploit the system or the player.

One mental lapse in a man-to-man scheme and the whole thing is blow. If a forward loses focus for one second and allows the defenseman to slip down, that player is wide open. If the defense doesn’t recognize a quick line change and sort out who has who, that leads to an odd-man rush. If the offense decides to run a little “pick play” and the defenders run into each other or forget to switch, that leaves at least one guy wide open. If the team fails to clear the puck that leaves guys scrambling as forwards are heading up ice and might not recognize the failure to clear in time.

The Colorado Avalanche defense isn’t built to play man-to-man coverage. Stuart, Nate Guenin, and Jan Hejda are psychical but slow defensemen who can’t keep up with today’s speedy and shifty NHL forwards. Meanwhile, Holden has seemingly taken a step back this year, which leaves Barrie and Johnson as the only two players that are talented enough to play one-on-one defense and not get completely burned.

Roy has to change the defensive scheme to match the talent. Half the defensemen in the line-up are big guys with limited mobility while the other half are good mobile defenseman. So use that to your advantage. Maybe the Avs should adopt a low zone collapse strategy, which basically parks the immobile defenseman in front of the net to clear away anyway who dares enter the crease area. This defensive scheme would allow the points to be more or less open, but the Avs are very good at blocking shots and have quick forwards who can get out to the point shooter before he’s able to make a play.

One thing that would help the defense give up less shots is if the offense could produce more shots. For all the offensive talent the Avs have, they only manage 28.1 shots per game. The Arizona Coyotes manage 31 shots per game and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would take the Coyotes offensive line-up over the Avs, at least on paper. Of course, part of getting shots is getting the puck in the offensive zone, which is something the Avs struggle with thanks to their lack of puck-moving defensemen.

As I mentioned earlier, if a team fails to clear the puck in a man-to-man scheme, that leaves forwards who were heading up ice scrambling to get back, putting them out of position and leaving Semyon Varlamov with even more trouble. The Avs don’t have good puck clearing defensemen. It’s a predictable “everything up the boards” clearing strategy, which teams can easily keep in. The only two guys who don’t use this strategy are Johnson and Barrie. The rest of the defenseman aren’t good enough to make a strong outlet pass, but it still comes back to the man-to-man scheme.

Roy should know that Hejda and Stuart can only clear the puck one way, and when they fail to do so, it’s going to cause trouble because guys are out of position and the offense is immediately attacking. In a different scheme, the forwards can get back and into their set position without having to chase an offensive player around or worrying and wondering who is picking who. This doesn’t only apply to the defensemen. This also applies to Varlamov.

I think we can all agree that Varlamov’s brilliance covers up a lot of the defensive mistakes, but as good as he is in the net, he’s not very good behind it. Varlamov is a terrible puck handler and seems to suffer from “Roy syndrome.” Long-time Avalanche fans remember that it was an adventure every time Patrick would roam the net to handle it. It’s the same thing with “Varly.” And like Roy, whenever Varlamov goes out to handle the puck, not much good seems to come from it. Rarely does it lead to a break out. Most of the time he just whips it up the boards where it’s intercepted or quickly shuffles it to a defenseman, where he’s immediately pressured, and almost always forced to whip it up the boards…where it’s intercepted.

Again, Roy should know that Varlamov isn’t a good puck handler and when he turns it over, it puts the rest of the team in a bad position. The simple solution would be for Varlamov to stop handling the puck, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.

Think about this: the Avalanche gave up less shots under Joe Sacco. For all the complaining we as fans did about Sacco, and I know that I did plenty, in the 2011-2012 season (Sacco’s last full season, not counting the lockout, with the team) the Avs only gave up 29.6 shots per game. I think we can all agree that Roy is a much better head coach than Sacco, but numbers are numbers. And right now the numbers don’t look good for the Avalanche defense.

Something has to change. Roy isn’t going anywhere, the current group won’t suddenly get better, and there doesn’t seem to be a big trade in the works that’s going to bring in a game-changing defenseman. So why not tweak the scheme to allow it to fit the players on the ice.