Colorado Avalanche Must Focus on Defense Again

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 9: Ian Cole #28 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 9, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 9: Ian Cole #28 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 9, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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The Colorado Avalanche must tighten their defense as part of the development of their road identity.

The Colorado Avalanche blueline has long been an Achilles heel for the team. Well, the Avs now have some of the best defensive depth they’ve had in a long time. But somehow, defense still let them down in the game against Columbus.

To be fair, it wasn’t just the defensive corps. From top to bottom, the Avalanche played bad defense.

Defense isn’t the sexy part of hockey. Highlight reels are usually made of skaters rushing up the ice and making some kind of sick goal like Nathan MacKinnon threading the puck between his captain’s legs:

According to MacKinnon, that was the only lane he could see open.

Highlights also consist of big saves by the goalie, the ultimate defenseman and the man the Avs have been counting on to bail them out since Patrick Roy joined the team two months into their existence here. (Belated birthday to the G.O.A.T., by the way.)

If someone like Nikita Zadorov makes a big hit, you might see the replay.  But you’re rarely going to see video of a defenseman perfectly positioned to cut the pass and force the shooter to the perimeter. At best you’ll see video of times when that didn’t work out, like Matt Calvert sliding right out of the shooting lane in Artemi Panarin‘s goal:

That was far, far from the only bad defensive play in the game.

The cliche these days is that players must play a 200-foot game. They must be solid on the forecheck, smart in the neutral zone, and sharp on the backcheck. However, none of that makes highlight reels either.

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But all of that is what wins hockey games.

In the first two games the Colorado Avalanche played, both at home, they played exactly that sort of stolid, 200-foot hockey. And they won both times. For some reason, though, they started playing loosey goosey on the road. And they lost the one road game so far.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Avalanche need to develop a road identity. Their home identity thus far, besides playing a 200-foot-game, is to make opponents chase their speed at altitude until they wear out, which is when Colorado’s supreme conditioning takes over.

That M.O. isn’t going to work on the road, obviously.

What the Avalanche are going to have to do instead is base their road identity on that 200-foot-game. They’re still well-conditioned athletes, per Jared Bednar’s system. They just need to play a meat-and-potatoes — or grilled-chicken-and-salad — style of a simple game. Leave the occasional jaw-dropping moments to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon.

What that’s going to mean is the Avalanche players lasering in their focus. Hockey takes mental discipline because of how fast it’s played. When you’re playing in the NHL, the speed is increased exponentially. When you then build yourself as a team based on speed as the Avs have… well, there’s no time for lapses in concentration.

Defense isn’t just an unsexy part of the game — it’s also the hardest part of the game to develop. It’s typically the last aspect of hockey that players develop, and it’s often the first attribute that flies out of their game when they’re tired or behind — or both.

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It’s up to the veterans on the Colorado Avalanche to lead the way. That was the rationale for bringing in the likes of Ian Cole and Matt Calvert — they’re both good at that meat-and-potatoes game. That’s the part of hockey that every player from Nikita Zadorov to Tyson Jost has to develop, to name a couple.

Because that’s the kind of road identity that the Avalanche can build a winning team around.