Colorado Avalanche Defense: A Deeper Look at Zones


The Colorado Avalanche defense is the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey — it never gets any respect. The best it ever gets is an acknowledgement that Erik Johnson is a great defenseman and Tyson Barrie is a clutch player.

Except for the current inception of the Denver Broncos, Colorado sports has always had an offense-first mentality. To me that says the majority of the team’s effort goes to scoring. To me that also makes for more exciting hockey.

However, I also fully acknowledge that good defense is to hockey what strong bass is to a rock song. It may not be the sexiest part, but it’s essential at the foundation.

Recently I spoke to Will Radke, a former varsity hockey player and referee who currently works as a hockey coach (while playing in an intermural league — anyway, the guy has some hockey knowledge). In speaking with him, I got to wondering how the Colorado Avalanche’s defense could be improved while still maintaining the integrity of the team’s natural style. (In fact, I warned that I didn’t want to hear about a cloggy neutral zone trap or equally boring style!)

Avalanche hockey is about speed and skill with a side of physicality and a goalie willing to withstand a barrage of shots. It’s ever been that way, and most of Avs Nation wants to see it remain that way.

In any case, Will started out by explaining what zone defense should look like. Basically, the defensemen are in charge of the corners and the front of their own net. The wingers are responsible for covering opponent defensemen in their offensive zone and the high slot in their defensive zone.

So, for example, here’s Will’s picture of what went wrong with the Avs’ defense against the Minnesota Wild:

Gabriel Landeskog is the bottom right player for Colorado. As a winger in his own defensive zone, he should have covered the Wild player in the high slot — according to zone defense anyway.

The center is responsible for either staying down low with the defensemen or shadowing the play. This is why centermen should be strong two-way players — and excellent skaters.

Will also explains why Nate Guenin’s move is so bone-headed in this picture (which is why he put a question mark above Guenin’s head). So, while it’s true Guenin is technically in front of his own net, like he’s supposed to be, he’s showing some poor defensive hockey sense. And, yeah, that’s pretty bad for a defenseman.

“What most coaches want to see is zone, and if there is a dangerous scoring threat you want him tied up.” ~Will Radke

See, as Will explains it, Guenin should be tying up the Wild player right in front of Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov. There are many ways he can do that — he does favor the forearm shiver, but a little “harmless” crosschecking like center Matt Duchene receives 100 times a game works, too.

Instead, Guenin is employing that “Face on the Puck” mentality, whereby all players must be aware of the puck’s location at all times. By focusing on the puck, he’s ignoring a potential puck recipient.

So, most coaches want to see a solid zone defense implemented. However, if there’s a dangerous scoring threat, said threat needs to be tied up (which is why Duchene takes so many crosschecks). Basically, Will explains that any opponent in front of the Avalanche net, in the high slot or backdoor should “have a man on him at all times.”Well, that makes perfect sense. Does such a system have the potential to cut back on the Avalanche’s speed and scoring, though? Possibly. However, two of Colorado’s speediest players are centermen Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. Presumably they should be able to cover their defensive zone and quickly transition to a breakaway when the occasion presents itself.

That’s my take anyway. Will has promised a post detailing the best system for the Avalanche while staying true to the Colorado style.

Next: Everybody Look at the Puck

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