Colorado Avalanche: Rebuilding D Corps in Capitals Model

Apr 1, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Chris Bigras (3) collides into Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) in the first period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 1, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Chris Bigras (3) collides into Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) in the first period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche can model their defense on the Washington Capitals blueline and see an improvement.

Pretty much every NHL team’s defensive corps is better than the Colorado Avalanche‘s. It would be hard to be worse. The Avs are dead last in the NHL with a -75 goal differential (at the time of writing).

Now some teams, such as the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks, have superstar defensemen. Those d-men don’t grow on trees, though, so trying to build a blueline in that model doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Recently I wrote a post basing the Colorado Avalanche rebuild on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ blueline. CBJ had faced a similar deficit that they’ve since turned into the crown jewel of their resurgence.

Today let’s look at how the Colorado Avalanche can rebuild their defense according to another strong blueline, the Washington Capitals. The best part: no super-rare, stud defenseman needed.

Washington Capitals Defense

colorado avalanche
Dmitry Orlov /

Thanks to superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals are more known for their offensive prowess than defense. They’re polar opposite to the Colorado Avalanche in that they’re first-overall in the NHL with a +71 goal differential (at the time of writing).

Sure, a lot of that comes from having the premiere goal scorer in the NHL on your team, but Ovi can score all the goals he wants. If you’re not keeping the puck out of your net, you ain’t winning.

So, let’s look at who helps Caps goalies keep the puck out of the net:

Karl Alzner-John Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Brooks OrpikNate Schmidt

Karl Alzner: 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, 28 years old, LHS. A shutdown defenseman with good mobility, Alzner can eat big minutes. (3 goals, 8 assists, +23) The Capitals drafted Karl fifth-overall in 2007.

John Carlson: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, 27 years old, RHS. Solid in all zones, Carlson can provide explosive offense as well as aggressive defense. He has a great shot. (6 goals, 22 assists, +14) The Caps drafted John in the first round (#27) in 2008.

Dmitry Orlov: 6-foot, 212 pounds, 25 years old, LHS. Another solid all-around defenseman, Orlov is aggressive in his own end and loves open-ice hits. He can throw out good offensive numbers, too. (4 goals, 22 assists, +26) Washington drafted Dmitry in the second round (#55) in 2009.

Matt Niskanen: 6-foot, 200 pounds, 30 years old, RHS. An excellent skater, Niskanen owns good offensive ability. He’s not as defensively sound as the above three, but he can still log big minutes. (4 goals, 28 assists, +19) The Caps signed Matt as a free agent in 2014. (Sakic apparently courted him at that time.)

Brooks Orpik: 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, 37 years old, LHS. Orpik is the veteran of the blueline. He plays a physical shutdown role. Orpik was part of the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. (0 goals, 12 assists, +32) Washington acquired Orpik in free agency in 2014.

Nate Schmidt: 6-foot, 191 pounds, 25 years old, LHS. A capable puck mover, Schmidt is adept at getting the Caps back on the offensive. (1 goal, 13 assists, +18) The Capitals signed Schmidt as an undrafted defenseman in 2013.

So, essentially the Washington Capitals defense looks like this:

mobile shutdown d-man – aggressive all-around d-man

aggressive all-around d-man – offensive defenseman

physical veteran – journeyman puck-mover

It doesn’t look like much. However, this defense provides an excellent backdrop for the team to showcase its offensive prowess. That’s an exciting brand of hockey — and it’s hard to argue with a team that looks good to win the President’s Trophy for the second year in a row.

What I love about this model is that it wouldn’t be all that hard for the Colorado Avalanche to copy.

Colorado Avalanche Following the Model

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There are three Colorado Avalanche defensemen who are almost certain to be with the team next year — Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Nikita Zadorov. Francois Beauchemin has another year on his contract and a No Move Clause. He could waive it to go to a playoff team, but let’s say he stays with the Avs.

Colorado also has waiver-wire acquisition Mark Barberio under contract for another season, but we’ll get to him in a moment.

In the Caps’ model, Johnson slots in as the aggressive, all-around d-man. Barrie, obviously, is the offensive defenseman. Zadorov is another example of an aggressive, all-around d-man. Beauchemin even works in this model because he’s the physical veteran.

The Avalanche probably have Chris Bigras moving up to the big team next season. He’s a shut-down guy with good puck-moving skills. I’d slot him into the journeyman puck-mover role.

In reality, that leaves the Avs with only one real role to fill — mobile, shutdown d-man — plus a little depth. Personally, I like two-way players for depth.

Colorado does have a pretty good — and mean — shutdown defenseman in Duncan Siemens. The Avs’ 11th-overall pick in 2011, Colorado has nonetheless been unable to solve its Duncan problem. The Avs signed him for another year (this one), but he’s only ever been given one game in the NHL — last year in the final game of the season. Personally, I’d give the kid a shot this year since Colorado has nothing to lose, but let’s not count on him for next year.

So, the Colorado Avalanche will have to look to free agency.

There are a couple players that I really like for Colorado, even though they don’t precisely fit that role — Dmitry Kulikov (Buffalo Sabres) and Michael Del Zotto (Philadelphia Flyers).

Dmitry Kulikov: 6-foot-1, 204 pounds, 26 years old, LHS. A two-way defenseman, Kulikov has a big shot from the point and excellent mobility. He loves to jump into the play. (1 goal, 1 assist, -9)

Michael Del Zotto: 6-foot, 195 pounds, 26 years old, LHS. A great skater, Del Zotto is also a good puck mover. He can work the power play. (4 goals, 6 assists, -10)

Honestly, either one of them would fit with the Avs. That said, Colorado’s top defenseman, Erik Johnson, doesn’t need a shut-down partner. I’d pair him with Zadorov and either put one of these players with Barrie on the second or Beauchemin on the bottom pairing.

An intriguing fact is that Karl Alzner is also coming up on free agency. Colorado could literally fill that role with the player who created it in the Washington Capitals model. I’d actually love to see him paired with Tyson Barrie. That said, he’s not as young as the other two, so I somehow doubt the Avs will seriously consider him.

And now to Mark Barberio. He’s got decent size — 6-foot-1, 207 pounds — and good hockey sense. He scouts as a puck-moving depth defenseman. He also doesn’t cost much — $750,000 — so there’s no reason to try and get rid of him.

Barberio has done well with the Colorado Avalanche, so he certainly deserves his shot to make the defensive corps next season.

So, let’s say the Avs only pick up one defenseman this summer — either Kulikov or Del Zotto. Their blueline could look like this:


Barrie-Kulikov/Del Zotto



That’s not awe-inspiring, but it does match the Capitals’ model. That said, Colorado needs to draft another defenseman and work on getting their prospects NHL-ready. It wouldn’t hurt if they signed a couple depth defensemen to two-way contracts in the summer.

Here’s the thing — following this model is predicated on the Colorado Avalanche having a stellar offense. To be honest, that’s part of what I love about this model — offense is more fun anyway.

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In another post we’ll look at how the Colorado Avalanche can build an offense that could support this defensive model.