Colorado Avalanche: The New Look Defensemen

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 19: Erik Johnson
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 19: Erik Johnson /

The Colorado Avalanche have the pieces in place to put a decent defensive corps on the ice.

The Colorado Avalanche have a problem and it has been a problem for a while. It’s their

defense. Ever since I started to pay attention to hockey analytics, the Avs have had a consistent problem finding a stable of quality defensemen.

Now bear with me, here comes a lot of build up.

Colorado has been routinely out-shot and out-possessed by everyone they play. Over the last 5 years, this team has been in the bottom five in the league in terms of shot differential. I know that some people do not buy fully into hockey analytics, and I know they are not the only way to look at a team. I believe this statistic is important though. Getting outshot every game more often than not leads to the other team scoring more goals.

Even in the 2013-2014 season where the Avs finished 1st in the Western Conference this was a problem. Semyon Varlomov spent the entire season standing on his head, stopping everything teams threw at him, and the team had a way above average shooting percentage. I watched that season simply befuddled as I saw shot totals for other teams climb but not the score.

After that flaw was exposed in the first round against the Minnesota Wild, management’s solution for reducing shot totals was to acquire veteran defensemen who were good at blocking shots and not much else. Veteran defensemen like Brad Staurt, Fedor Tyutin, and Francois Beauchemin were added, but it did not translate into lower shot totals (Jan Hejda was another, but he was already in Colorado).

I’m not saying blocking shots is a bad trait to have, it’s pretty good actually. It just can’t be all a team’s defensemen are good at. Also, if you’re blocking a bunch of shots, it means you don’t have the puck.

When looking at how defense in the current era is played, I was trying to find a way to understand how it all works and who current defensemen on this team should be paired with. I found what I think is a pretty good answer a couple of weeks ago.

One of my favorite hockey podcasts is the Steve Dangle Podcast (I know, some people hear podcast and automatically dismiss it). The podcast is based in Toronto and has three people from Toronto on it, so naturally when they talk about hockey, it’s mostly about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Still, some of what they talk about can be applied to other teams.

Engage: This means attacking the puck carrier when you don’t have the puck. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking the puck away. It’s simply obstructing the puck carrier in some way, forcing him to make a different decision with the puck than he wants.

Support: This is going in after the battle is started by the engage. The goal of the support is to come away with the puck and make the first pass to obtain solid possession.

Transition: This is taking the puck out of the zone with possession, whether through passing or carrying the puck. A good transition defenseman will give you more options when he has the puck instead of simply gaining the red line and dumping it in.

Of course there is more than one way to examine a defenseman and defensive strategies. I do really like this one, so I applied it to the current crop of defensemen Colorado has on its NHL roster and in the system. Using this model, this is how I see the defensive core looking.

Nikita Zadorov – Erik Johnson

Andrei Mironov – Tyson Barrie

Mark Barberio – Duncan Siemens

(Anton Lindholm and Chris Bigras as potential call ups)

Nikita Zadorov – Erik Johnson

This is what I see as the top pairing. It might be too early having Zadorov on the top pair playing against the opposition’s best players, but this could be great experience for him. He can be a little erratic at times, but I see him as a great engage. He’s big, so he won’t get out-muscled by most players. Aand he’s quick enough to keep up with speedy and skilled forwards. I’m not sure I trust him yet with the puck for very long, making him an average support and a not so good transition.

Erik Johnson I think can be the engage on a pairing, but in this pairing I think he’s a pretty good support and a really good transition. This video shows the transition part really well.

The big man just glides. Like Zadorov, he’s got the strength and size to protect the puck.

What makes Johnson a great transition is what you see in the video. Once he gets up a head of steam, he’s incredibly hard to stop. He has the puck skills to take it end to end and the smarts to make the right dish. With Big-Z as his partner, he should be free to play a more offensive game. Offensive help from the back end is something the Avs need desperately.

Andrei MironovTyson Barrie

This I think is a little more cut and dry. Tyson Barrie gets criticized quite a bit by fans for his play in his own end, and frankly some of it is warranted.

Speaking in terms of the previously mentioned system, Barrie is a poor engage. He frequently gets turned around in the defensive zone, often leading to quality opposition scoring chances. The criticism that he’s a turnover machine I think is unfair. He handles the puck more than any one other defenseman and it’s not even close. So of course it’s going to look like he turns the puck over a bunch — he’s the only one consistently handling it.

We’ve seen what he can do offensively. He’s so dangerous with the puck, making him an excellent transition defenseman.

A lot of the success of this pairing depends on Andrei Mironov. As with the Johnson – Zadorov pairing, Mironov must be a good engage to allow Barrie to be the transition defenseman. If you are not familiar with his style of play, here is his scouting report on

"To call Mironov a bruising defenseman would be an understatement. Mironov has all the makings of an excellent stay-at-home defenseman and enough puck skills to help get the puck out of his zone and to his teammates………Mironov projects as a punishing defensive defenseman."

If he progresses as expected, he becomes a fantastic engage and a pretty decent support. Making that first pass after retrieving the puck is essential to retaining possession. Mironov must be able to do this for the pairing to work. I know he’s a rookie and has a lot of developing to do. He will make mistakes, but word from camp (from our own Nadia Archuleta) is he’s progressing well and adapting to the smaller ice surface quicker than expected. That is exceptional news.

Mark BarberioDuncan Siemens

This pairing is similar to the Barrie – Mironov pairing. Barberio is more of an offensive defenseman (transition) and Siemens is almost all defensive (engage and support).

I honestly think Barberio is underrated. Not criminally underrated, but underrated none the less. He can provide offense in a pinch and will probably see some power play time this season. I was surprised to see the Montreal Canadiens place him on waivers and pleasantly surprised to see the Avs pick him up.

Now for Duncan Siemens. When-oh-when are we going to see this guy in the NHL full-time? He’s an aggressive, physical defenseman, a guy who will go in the corners and in front of the net to battle with anyone.

Siemens won’t control the puck very often, making his game geared towards an engage. He apparently hasn’t developed to the coaching staff’s liking, but time is up. He’s spent enough time in the minors, and he needs to show what he can bring to an NHL squad. Siemens will have competition right behind him, so he needs to prove he’s an NHL defenseman that Bednar can’t take out of the lineup easily.

Potential call-ups Anton Lindholm and Chris Bigras

Ideally, these two wouldn’t spend much time in the NHL this season. I would prefer they stay in San Antonio and grow their game from there. However, it’s rare a team goes through an entire season unscathed and suffers no injuries. These two may be called up if one of the regular six go down. Bigras has more of an offensive game, so he would be the call-up if Johnson, Barrie, or Barberio are hurt. Lindholm is more of a 2-way defenseman who would be called up for injuries to Zadorov, Mironov, or Siemens.

Now I know that’s looking at it very simply and there are multiple other aspects to consider. What if the Avs sign Jared Cowen after his PTO? Is he part of the regular starting 6 or does he become the scratched defenseman? What if Siemens or Mironov don’t progress as expected and they fall to San Antonio? What if other defensemen such as Sergei Boikov has an incredible camp and earns an NHL spot?

It’s actually a little surprising how much defensive potential this team has. The Colorado Avalanche have been deprived of quality, home-grown defensemen that make it to the NHL level in the past. It won’t all arrive today or tomorrow, but it’s coming. For the first time in a while, I’m legitimately excited to watch our defense grow and develop.

Just a pleasant little reminder, Cale Makar and Conor Timmons are not far behind either!