Colorado Avalanche: No Time For Passengers on Defense


Through 6 games of their 82 game season, the Colorado Avalanche have yielded modest returns thus far. With a renewed focus on team defense, that could quickly change.

The Colorado Avalanche are currently 2-3-1, but it’s hardly time to panic yet. With new season jitters done, and enough film compiled for coaches to begin making adjustments, the next phase of the game plan is ready to engage. The target for Patrick Roy and coaching company? Setting and gelling an assertive defense to match the offensive production.

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As fans, we can read between the lines a bit when players like Erik Johnson reiterate their team’s focus to the media. Going into their homestand against a desperate Carolina Hurricanes team (1-4-0), Johnson broke down what he knows is key for his team to emerge as victors:

"“We’ve got to be the more desperate team. They haven’t had a great start either, so we know that we have to be the hungrier, gritty team. Come out, possess the puck, make plays and control the tempo of the game. We’re a good team when we’re moving our feet and spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. It’s got to be a big homestand for us.” – Erik Johnson"

I was drawn to Erik’s comments on how to remedy the defensive flaws thus far. He calls for desperation from the team, which to me, indicates a desire to recover more pucks from neutral and defensive territories. Once in control, Johnson highlights the need for tempo and puck possession. Simply put, Johnson knows the team needs to be more assertive with the puck.

While some of the comments are likely aimed at the blue line corps as a whole, I imagine Johnson would like to see more aggressiveness from the forward group as well, as opposing players are being given way too much liberty to carry the puck into the Avalanche zone. Instead of harassing the puck carrier to force a turnover or pre-emptively positioning themselves to remove scoring lanes, the Avs have been too content to remove the threat on the second level — namely other passing lanes.

While I agree that simplifying the number of offensive threats to Semyon Varlamov and company will make their decisions easier, I’ve been unhappy with the gap control the Avalanche defenders are warranting to opposition. I’d like to see roller hockey style, whacking at incoming puck carrier’s sticks and poke checks and chips along the board out of the Colorado zone once the opposing play has been stymied.

"“We’ve put the puck in the net for the most part. The guys that should be scoring are putting the puck in the net. That’s good to see. Really, you’ve just got to come down and find a way to win. We’re a team that’s obviously based on offense, but we’re really trying to tighten up our D-zone and be better in there. The more time in the O-zone, the less time you have to defend.” – Erik Johnson"

Johnson must be seeing what a lot of the analytics community have been seeing from the Avalanche in the relatively small sample size of 300 minutes of hockey: maintaining possession of the puck continues to be a problem for the boys in burgundy. While the team’s Corsi For % are hardly finalized, neither are they trending in a very positive direction.

Similar to what we saw last season, the Avalanche are having a hard time keeping the puck on their sticks. Part of this has been their opposition, which have notably excelled at puck possession in seasons past. However, the more vital tell I’ve noticed through six games is the lack of tenacity by the team on defense. Too much emphasis is being put on zone positioning and not enough has been placed on winning one-on-one battles for the puck.

As illustration, I submit the highlights from the game against the Kings.

On nearly every shift where the Kings are playing defense, you’ll see lots of checking, stick lifts, slashes and poke checks on Colorado puck carriers. By contrast, reviewing the Marian Gaborik goal, there is simply not enough pressure applied to any Kings player with the puck, and as a result, they were able to get in prime position to set up shop in the Avalanche zone. Too many guys are caught looking at the puck. When they react, they look slow and tentative.

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The Kings’ game winner by comparison was created by a more assertive approach. After reading the play between the defensemen, Tyler Toffoli interrupted the pass to force a turnover, and it was off to the races by the time he had recovered it. Tyler Toffoli is a great player, in part, because he can be so disruptive to the opposition’s puck possessors.

So, while I agree with Johnson that a greater emphasis needs to be on controlling rebounds around the goal crease, and that the Avalanche will need to play with more desperation to their games, as a fan I’d like to see fewer passengers in the Avalanche puck possession vehicle. Everybody wants to have the puck. Who wants to go take it away from the other team?

If Johnson and his team mates can apply more pressure, I think the standings scenery could change rapidly in favor of the Colorado Avalanche.

Next: Why Roy Is Right about Corsi

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