Colorado Avalanche execs Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy stated at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season that the only real free agency need over the summer was picking up a defensive partner for #1 defenseman Erik Johnson. Well, the Avalanche got two defenseman over the summer, acquiring Nikita Zadorov as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade and signing Francois Beauchemin in free agency.
Joe Sakic stated outright that the Beauchemin signing was to fill that top defensive pairing role, ie., to be Erik Johnson’s partner. However, Zadorov’s going to be suiting up next season as well. Though he’s projected to skate on a line with offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie, let’s examine if this is really the most effective top-four defensive pairings:
Erik Johnson-Franocis Beauchemin
Tyson Barrie-Nikita Zadorov
Taken on the face of things, it’s obvious that Francois Beauchemin is a top-pairing defenseman. Beauchemin led the Anaheim Ducks in ice time last season, averaging 22.44 in the regular season and 25.24 in the playoffs. That’s very similar to Erik Johnson’s 24.40 average last season.
By comparison, Nikita Zadorov averaged just 17.70 average minuted per game. Tyson Barrie saw more than that — 21.36. Barrie is obviously a second pairing defenseman, and Zadorov is aspiring to that level.
Let’s look at something on a basic level, though:
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Zadorov is the biggest of the bunch, and Barrie is the smallest. That seems a slightly awkward pairing. By comparison, Beauchemin is much closer to Barrie’s size — and to last season’s defensive partner Nate Guenin (6-foot-2, 211 pounds). Zadorov is actually a bit bigger than Johnson, which is new for the Avs’ cornerstone defenseman.
Now, size isn’t everything, I know. Let’s look at a couple of statistics that I like to consider with defensemen — blocked shots and hits. It should come as no surprise that the diminutive Tyson Barrie is the least physical of the four, with 3.2 blocked shots and 2.8 hits per 60 minutes. (I probably don’t need to point out he has the most points per 60, 1.86 on average.)
It’s probably not a huge surprise that the biggest of the bunch, Zadorov, is also the most physical — 4.1 blocked shots and 7.6 hits per 60. Again, that seems a little awkward for pairing with Barrie.
Beauchemin and Johnson are very similar, though. Beauchemin recorded an average 4.4 blocked shots and 4.3 hits per 60, while Johnson recorded 5.6 blocked shots and 4.9 hits per 60.
That speaks to the players’ style, so let’s look at that next.
Again, Nikita Zadorov and Tyson Barrie are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Zadorov is billed as a shut-down defenseman with a taste for the physical. Barrie is billed as an offensive defenseman with a flair for clutch goals.
Francois Beauchemin is a stay-at-home defenseman with some offensive upside. Erik Johnson is a straight up two-way defenseman with a lot of skill at both ends of the ice.
This is where it gets a little sticky. Johnson and Barrie are both stronger skaters than Beauchemin and Zadorov, with Johnson being the strongest skater of all. (Remember his race back to save a goal in the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild? He out-raced Tyson Barrie.)
Between Beauchemin and Zadorov, it’s hard to say which is better. Zadorov has that long stride which increases his speed. Beauchemin relies more on good positioning, which is nothing to sneeze at.
One aspect of Johnson’s style I noticed over the last couple seasons is that he does best when he and his partner have complementary styles. Jan Hejda was a stay-at-home defenseman, too, of the kind who also relied on positioning. He and Johnson had a lot of chemistry, which made them a force when opponents were rushing the Avalanche’s zone.
Taking that into consideration, it does appear Beauchemin is the better bet for partnering Johnson. Once Johnson gets accustomed to Beauchemin’s positioning like he was with Hejda’s — I’m sure he’ll spend all of the preseason working on exactly that — the chemistry will hopefully be commiserate.
That said, Zadorov certainly has the stride to eat up the ice to protect Barrie, which is what it may come down to. Just imagine Zadorov in his deep, Russian accented voice, declaring “You touch Barrie, you get Big Z.” More likely, he’ll let his big, mean hits do the talking.
A part of me likes the idea of presenting opponents with a one-two juggernaut of Johnson and Zadorov, though. Johnson’s pretty mean on the ice, too — ask Erik Haula. Imagine the two of them skating down the ice at the top offensive lines or stretching their impressive wingspans to protect the blueline.
Maybe that’ll happen in the future as Beauchemin ages a bit and Zadorov’s game improves. Until then, it does appear that Beauchemin and Johnson will be the top pairing.
Say, imagine that, Joe Sakic knows more about hockey than a little ol’ writer like me!
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