Colorado Avalanche D Stepping Up at the Right Times


The Colorado Avalanche defense are known throughout the league as among the most aggressive. However they have been less so recently, which has paid off. 

When I was just a little kid zone entries always focused on the three forwards. The first forward with the puck always is taught to go wide to create space, the second forward crashes the net, and the third forward is high — hopefully in space opened up by the second forward driving the net.

However things have changed the last couple years in terms of zone entries. Now every team in the league has a four, if not five man zone entry. The difference is that the defense are expected to follow in rushes closely and provide another high option for a shot. This has corresponded with a general change in philosophy in the NHL and in hockey in general. It used to be the D were responsible for protecting the net and getting the puck to the forwards, who were responsible for scoring. Now every player is expected to play both sides of the ice, no matter their position.

Yet, the Avalanche have often taken this to an extreme with their defense commonly leading rushes or even the forecheck. Which worked great for a while, systems aren’t designed for the possibility of a defense leading a 4 man rush. However as teams quickly figured out Tyson Barrie‘s and Erik Johnson‘s M.O. it lead to tons of chances against for the Colorado Avalanche.

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So many times at the beginning of the year we’d see Tyson lead the charge in deep, only for a turnover leading to a quick counter attack with only one D back, or at best a D and very scared forward. Heck in the first game of the year against Minnesota, John Mitchell took multiple odd man rushes back on his own.

We have not seen that nearly as often lately, as the defense are still breaking up the ice, but now their moving the puck to the forwards so they can lead the rush. This has led to two positive outcomes.

Letting the Forwards Do Their Job

First I will acknowledge Barrie, Johnson, even Nick Holden, have considerable offensive instincts for defenseman. However, this is a team with Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Alex Tanguay, Jarome Iginla all at forward, and now spread out on different lines. As good as Barrie and EJ are at leading rushes, they’ll never be as good as any of these forwards at it. In practice the D spend time taking rushes, while the forwards spend their time working on offense. So all things equal, I take most of the Avs forwards leading the rush 9 times out 10 regardless.

But there’s even more than just whose making the offensive zone play, a D carrying the puck all the way up also makes it hard for the forwards to maintain speed in the neutral zone. Even if the D have the open skating space the forwards have to wait for the D to get up the ice with the puck, which means trying to drag the blue line with speed and still be in a good position once the puck gets into the offensive zone.

Lastly, the D moving the puck up to the forwards allows the forwards to drive the play down low, opening up the top of the zone for the pass back to the D (as discussed in the intro). It is a lot easier to sneak the D in there if he enters the play a half second later with speed than if a forward has to stand there after straddling the blue line.

Reducing Rushes Against

This one is pretty simple, but it’s so important. If the Colorado Avalanche have a defenseman low they either have only one D back, or they have a forward back. Either way the Avs are less prepared to play solid defense then if they had two defenseman back.

That’s without considering the fact that a lot of the Colorado Avalanche forwards are either just not that good defensively (Matt Duchene), or climbing up there in age and losing foot speed-especially backwards (Alex Tanguay, Jarome Iginla). And the Avalanche D are pretty good at odd man rushes — probably in part because they give up so many — but Barrie and Johnson are both have incredible stick presence in odd man rush situations.

The last defensive benefit of having your D back is that when the rush against is over it’s much easier to set up defensively if your D are already the two deepest players in the zone. If Alex Tanguay (just an example) took a 3 on 2 rush, he’s stuck low until the Avs D gets back to switch with him. This can lead to confusion, chaos, and goals.

Next: Avalanche Should Pursue Jonathan Drouin

Finding The Right Balance

Now as always my disclaimer: I’m by no means suggesting the Avalanche defense needs to play stay at home hockey. They have some great offensive minds at the back end, but the trick is picking the right times to jump up in the play and if nothing develops getting back in position at the back end so I don’t have any more heart attacks as John Mitchell tries to take a 3 on 1 against.