July 20, 2018

Relevanche: How the Avalanche Have Regained Relevancy: Defense / Goaltending

Yesterday, we visited the notion that the Avalanche and the NHL need a rivalry to blossom with the Minnesota Wild. The Avalanche had a tremendous rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings from 1996 – 2002. The Red Wings continued their sustained success until a few years ago. The Avalanche, have largely been irrelevant. Several coaches and a lot bad contracts for washed up players put the Avalanche far out of mind for most. But as Bob Dylan once said, these times they are a-changin’.

The Avalanche are relevant once again. Going into their bye week they are sitting in the last playoff spot in the West. The Avs were supposed be in the midst of a slow, painful rebuild with young kids that would make mistakes and float around 500 to have a good season. Well, much better than last year anyway. Instead, the Avalanche just won their 22nd game. They won 22 all of last year, in 82 games.  With 41 games left to go, the playoffs are a real possibility. The Avalanche haven’t looked this good and this deep since Roy’s first season in Denver. Before he Rage Quit the team. But before that miracle season, it’s been over 15 years since the Avalanche have had this much going for them.

Where did it all come from? Well, last year I wrote an article breaking down the Avalanche roster. I also said in the off-season that Sakic and Bednar deserved some patience from Avs fans. We’re halfway through this season, so let’s revisit. A few national hockey writers are just now noticing the Avalanche and writing about their resurgence. It’s nice, and they know more about hockey than 90% of us but they don’t know a ton about the Avalanche themselves. They are hockey experts, not Avalanche experts. So let’s take a look at the Avalanche’s numbers from half of this year vs all of last year. (Numbers are taken from Hockey Reference found here for NHL numbers and all minor/juniors/college stats taking from Elite Prospects here.)

For the sake of your reading sanity, this will be broken up into two pieces. One will be Defense and Goaltenders and the other will be Forwards.

Goaltenders
2016 – 82 games, 22-56-4, .899 SV%, 3.20 GAA
2017 – 41 games, 22-16-3, .910 SV%, 2.87 GAA

To quote an often heard phrase uttered by the Avalanche announcers….oooh boy. This was a disaster last year. Varlamov got hurt. Calvin Pickard wasn’t great and the backup was a goalie who sucked at the AHL in Jeremy Smith. Both great dudes, but not reliable enough NHL goaltenders. Pickard was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft and is now in the AHL for the Maple Leafs. He started against the Avalanche in his only NHL game this year, and lost. And now he’s back in the AHL. Sakic went out and signed veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier to take Pickard’s place and possibly Varly’s place if he gets injured. Overall the numbers are better than last year but still room for improvement. If the Avalanche want to make the playoffs and make noise in the playoffs then the numbers need to be better than they are now.

Semyon Varlamov
2016 – 23 games, 6-17-0, .898 SV%, 3.38 GAA
2017 – 26 games, 13-9-2, .912 SV%, 2.87 GAA

Varly has always battled injuries. It got so bad last year that Bednar shut him down and forced him to get surgery to help a nagging groin injury. This year Varly was healthy….until a few games ago when he left with a “lower body injury” that got a rare chuckle during a post game presser from usually stone faced Jared Bednar. Either way, Varly has looked like the #1 goal the Avs need him to be. Biggest gaffes have been failing to control rebounds. That’s a mental thing. It’s frustrating because he’s also made some spectacular saves, but the failure to control a rebound or locate the puck in the crease for an easy cover has led to opponent goals and ultimately, losses. It sounds way too simple but if he plays well, the Avs make the playoffs. If he doesn’t, they won’t.

Jonathan Bernier
2016 – 39 games, 21-7-4, .915 SV%, 2.50 GAA (Anaheim)
2017 – 17 games, 9-7-1, .909 SV%, 2.88 GAA

Bernier has been hit or miss this season.  He has matched his shutouts from all of last year with 2 but also his loss total with 7. The Ducks team he played for last year had a tremendous defensive core in front of him. Although the Avalanche in front of him this year are better than they were last year, they haven’t reached the level of the Ducks. So it’s not all on Bernier for the losses. Still, SOME of the losses have been because of him. A number of goals were soft this year. He’s your backup goaltender for a reason. But if Varly is hurt (again), then can you really rely on Bernier for an extended period of time? Based on the season so far, one would have to say no. But based on the last 3 games, there might be a possibility of him being the perfect guy for the job.

Oh….look at that.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance…

Defense

NO more Goloubef or Wiercioch or Tyutin. Siemens is gone too but the Avalanche defense is so good right now that they are on a winning streak with Tyson Barrie on the shelf. Zadorov struggled early on but now has got it going. Lindholm has been…ok. He’ll probably not figure into the long term success maybe even next year. Connor Timmins and Cale Makar are on full display at the World Juniors for Canada and even played on the same line. The thought of them in Colorado next year is not only lacking – it’s crazy pants, but seems like an almost certainty. Bigras and Mironov are also probably not going to be around for much longer, at least not in Denver, but maybe in the AHL or KHL. Barberio has been up and down but played well recently and the Avs have won recently. And Nemeth has had the best numbers of his career, in Colorado.

Erik Johnson
2016 – 46 games, 2 goals, 15 assists, 17 points, -6, 9 PIM, 22:05 TOI
2017 – 39 games, 6 goals, 10 assists, 16 points, +4, 48 PIM, 25:38 TOI

The Condor. Like Varly, injuries have been a problem. The minute EJ went down last year is the exact minute the Avalanche fell apart and never recovered. When he got back, it was too late to salvage anything, even pride, but the team did look better with him on the ice. Another “bad trade” by the Avalanche that’s completely unfounded. He leads all of the Avs skaters with Time on Ice and Barrie by over 4 minutes. Heck he’s 8th in the NHL in TOI.  He occasionally reverts back the the Bad EJ and takes penalties out of frustration and even got suspended this year for it. He’s the anchor of the defense and the most complete defensemen on both sides of the puck. He shouldn’t be on the power play but he should have the most ice time of any of the Avalanche. You don’t lose anything by playing him more (unless it’s on the power play). Oh and if you sucker punch is team mate because your Zac Rinaldo and that’s what you do (worthless punk) then you get your ass beat. EJ style.

Tyson Barrie
2016 – 74 games, 7 goals, 31 assists, 38 points, 1 PP goal, -34, 23:18 TOI
2017 – 34 games, 4 goals, 23 assists, 31 points, 2 PP goals, -4, 21:20 TOI

Like Johnson, Barrie has had some injury problems as well. He is currently out for upwards of 6 weeks. Last year he had to be the man with EJ out, and struggled. But now, the Avalanche have a 5 game winning streak without him in the lineup. It’s too early to write him off, because he was registering a point a game for a while and has been a catalyst in turning the Avalanche power play around. He was on pace to double last year’s totals but could still finish with 50 points on the season. Tyson seems to be the most popular guy on the Avs with his teammates. Hopefully he comes back healthy and picks up where he started.

Nakita Zadorov
2016 – 56 games, 0 goals, 10 assists, 10 points, -20, 73 PIM, 19:02 TOI
2017 – 36 games, 3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points, +1, 42 PIM, 18:24 TOI

An up and down year for Z but he has been on fire recently and so have the Avalanche. Once he got out of Bednar’s dog house, he’s shown his coach what he can do. The Big Russian is turning into what Avalanche fans hoped he would be, Rob Blake or Adam Foote 2.0, a big bruising D-man that makes the opposition shake in their boots. He went full WWE move against Stall of the Wild on Saturday. That was a big moment because the Wild have long dominated the Avalanche with pucks in the nets and also the physicality of the game. He’s really stepped it up offensively too, including scoring a couple of goals that were called back or given to Nathan MacKinnon who admitted he never tipped the shot. Z has been able to skate the puck into the offensive zone. This has been lacking for…well maybe forever, in Colorado. The fact the biggest nastiest guy on the team can do it is a huge bonus. The fact he has the CONFIDENCE to do it now, is a great sign in terms of his continued development. Zadorov playing with no fear on both ends of the ice is a scary awesome thing for the Avalanche and scary terrifying thing for the rest of the NHL. He has arrived.

Mark Barberio
2016 – 26 games, 0 goals, 4 assists, 4 points, +1, 10 PIM, 15:07 TOI (Montreal)
2016 – 34 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, -6, 4 PIM, 20:40 TOI (Colorado)
2017 – 38 games, 2 goals, 8 assists, 10 points, -1, 23 PIM, 16:58 TOI

He was a healthy scratch because he was playing like a guy worth a healthy scratch, or even to be placed on waivers. Instead of taking it as an insult, he’s used it as motivation to get better, and has been. He is a good skater and brings something to the table offensively. With the Avalanche best offensive defenseman out in Tyson Barrie, the rest of the D need to step up and pick up the slack. Barbs had done a solid job of that. He logged over 20 minutes a game last year and only went to the box for 4 minutes all season. This year he has had less ice time but has been in the box for 23 minutes. Seemingly most of those have come in the 3rd period and seemingly those have led to loses. When Barbs stays out of the box, the Avalanche do better. He’s well on his way to breaking the 13 points that was his career high last year between two teams. He’s producing more with less ice time this year. Which he’ll have to do if he wants to stick with the Avs going forward. Makar and Timmins just tore up the World Juniors and look to be pushing for a roster spot later this year or next year (even if it’s not at the start of the year). We do miss the flow and the beard though. His flow was amazing last year.

Patrick Nemeth
2016 – 40 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, 3 points, – 4, 14 PIM, 15:47 TOI (Dallas)
2017 – 27 games, 3 goals, 7 assists, 10 points, +11, 21 PIM, 18:42 TOI

Patrick is defensive defensemen. He doesn’t always have the prettiest games but he does have one heck of a shot. He’s nearly surpassed his CAREER numbers in just half a season in Colorado. Oh and he’s second in the team to Landeskog in terms of +/- numbers with a +11. He was kind of the odd man out for a deep defensive group in Dallas. Like some of the guys mentioned already, he’s in line to double his career totals this year. He had failed to score a goal in over 100 career games before he got to Colorado. Now he has three. His most recent success has been jumping into the play to unleash some top cheese. He is only behind Johnson and Barrie for goals scored by defensemen. Sakic picked him off of waivers hours before the season started. Avs fans were pissed because it took away minutes for guys like Meloche, Bigras, and Mironov. But like with Barberio and Nieto, Sakic found a piece without having to give anything up in return.

Chris Bigras
2015 – 31 games, 1 goal, 2 assist, 3 points, -2, 16 PIM, 13:21 TOI
2016 – Injured
2017 – 15 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point, -2, 2 PIM, 13:52 TOI (Colorado)
2017 – 9 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point, -1, 6 PIM (AHL – San Antonio)

Speaking of Bigras, yet Avalanche and fans had high hopes for Chris. But…he’s in the AHL. He was sent there to get more minutes and hopefully improve as a player. He’s…struggled in the AHL and it looks like the chances of an NHL career in Colorado may be fading away. He has one point in the AHL against inferior competition to what he would be seeing in the NHL. He can’t afford to have these low numbers when the young D prospects are pushing for minutes next year and possibly this year. Chris had a chance to take a step forward but took a step backwards. This feels like it’s going the same way that Duncan Siemens did.

Sam Girard
2016 – 59 games, 9 goals, 66 assists, 75 points, +26, 29 PIM (Shawinigan of the QMJHL)
2017 – 5 games, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, -3, 2 PIM, 16:55 (Nashville)
2017 – 27 games, 0 goals, 7 assists, 7 points, -5, 0 PIM, 17:14 (Colorado)

Talk about taking a step up, welcome to the NHL Sam Girard. Flashy, consistent, exciting. Boy, can this kid skate and handle the puck. He dangles guys like a forward. He has no goals (in Colorado) yet but the upside is readily apparent. His numbers from the Q are insane with 66 assists in 59 games, even by Q standards. It’s frustrating that he isn’t getting more minutes in Colorado because he is arguably the best offensive defensemen on the team with Tyson Barrie playing and definitely the guy now that Barrie is gone. Barrie was the Power Play guy and Girard could take his spot going forward. Bednar needs to let Girard do his thing. There is an electricity when he has the puck that the Avalanche haven’t seen since Sandis Ozolinsh, maybe ever. The kid is dynamic and he’s only 19 years old. It was an absolute steal by Sakic to get him.

I think I’m in love….

Anton Lindholm
2016 – 12 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points, – 8, 2 PIM, 14:45 TOI
2017 – 26 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points, -1, 8 PIM, 13:47 TOI

Not flashy, not consistent but not terrible. He has yet to record a single point in 38 games in NHL. He has done a fine job of avoiding the penalty box but other than that, his numbers are…meh. Not a whole lot happens when he’s on the ice. That’s not always a bad thing but he just doesn’t seem to show up in the box score, at all. In 62 games for the Rampage last year he only had 13 points with a -18 rating. He could just be that quiet, stay-at-home defensemen a team needs. But, that might not be in Colorado. Once again, the suddenly renewed depth in the Avalanche organization means you have to rise above if you want to stick.

Andrei Mironov
2016 – 18 games, 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points, +2, 10 PIM (KHL – Dynamo Moskva)
2017 – 10 games, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, +2, 12 PIM, 11:03 TOI (Colorado)
2017 – 14 games, 1 goal, 5 assists, 6 points, +5, 20 PIM (San Antonio)

He doesn’t speak a ton of English and that may not matter. He might be heading to the KHL next season. His numbers aren’t flashy but seem to be consistent. Despite moving from the KHL to the NHL his numbers didn’t drop a ton. He showed some flashes in the KHL but that didn’t translate over to North American hockey, yet. He has a lot of raw potential and hopefully developing in San Antonio is exactly what he needs. A mistake in the AHL is lot easier to deal with than the NHL. He might have a shot long term but once again, with the depth Colorado has coming, he might have to go elsewhere. Still, it seems more likely he’d head back to Russia than go to another NHL team. Like Siemens and Bigras this is a guy Avalanche fans had high hopes for.

 

This is the best looking defensive group in a very long time in Colorado. It’s not a group of household names (yet) but much like with the Vegas Golden Knights, you don’t NEED household names to win. You need guys who gel and get the job done. Grit and effort go a long way in the NHL. Bednar HAS dressed 7 defensemen a few times this year, which is rare but it was more out of necessity at the time. There were injuries with the forwards and Jared put out what he thought was the best option. That very forward core, we’ll breakdown tomorrow.

 

 

J.T. Nutt 27 Articles
Staff Writer

JT "the" Nutt graduated from UNI in 2006 and worked at WHO-TV for a few years including Soundoff. JT then spent the past five years covering UNI most recently for On Press Row. He works as a cameraman for the Iowa Wild, Iowa Energy, and Iowa Barnstormers. JT loves the Cubs, UNI, Avalanche, Chargers, beer, hockey, the WWE, and cat memes.

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