The Colorado Avalanche blue line is a bit crowded

Adding three or four solid defenders back to your list on the way into the playoffs is helpful, right? Well, if you’re Colorado Avalanche, that means making some difficult decisions once the playoffs are over. It’s safe to assume that Cale Makar and Devon Toews will be the top pair or at least among the top four defenders hitting the ice in the first round. That leaves four defensive spots open for seven available defenders. Jared Bednar and Colorado must choose from the following:

  • Jack Johnson ($ 750k AAV)
  • Kurtis MacDermid ($ 875k AAV)
  • Bowen Byram ($ 894k AAV)
  • Ryan Murray ($ 2.0 million AAV)
  • Josh Manson ($ 2.05 million AAV)
  • Sam Girard ($ 5 million AAV)
  • Erik Johnson ($ 6 million AAV)

I put them in order of least to most significant cap hit so we can think of them in terms of value to start this thought process. Without considering anything else, if we just went by the numbers, the pairings would look like this:

Cale Makar – Erik Johnson
Samuel Girard – Devon Toews
Josh Manson – Ryan Murray

The off-season is about winning the trophy, not about maximizing the value of contracts, so let’s take a deeper dive. Let’s look at the people who did not cut it based on AAV.

Jack Johnson

Johnson is an audience favorite and was the first Avalanche to score a goal this season. It happens to be his only goal for the year. He has had an average of about sixteen minutes of ice time. He has more than fared better than his grade, especially in the late parts of this season. It will be hard to keep JJ out of the ranks with his recent success and Stanley Cup experience. Still, I at least expect him to serve as an experienced depth defender ready in case anyone gets hurt.

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Kurtis MacDermid

It’s no secret what Kurtis MacDermid brings to the table, which does not give him many minutes. He is the placeholder who stays ready to protect his teammates and go to the box for five after doing so. I could only see MacDermid sneak into a playoff series if the fights become physical in a way that is detrimental to the top six strikers and their ability to find open ice.

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Bowen Byram

Bo has had a tough time starting his NHL career and is struggling with the effects of concussion. He will eventually become a top-4 defender if he can shake off his injury problems. It has been great to see him hit the ice again. The thing with Byram is that at the moment he is not offering a lot offensively and is still getting a grip on the defensive side of things. Being a defensive player in the NHL is hard enough, but when you miss the time that Byram has, you start to lose some of the structural familiarity that a player establishes throughout the year. I think he’s going to have to play his way into the playoffs with the few games of the regular season left.

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Despite the numbers, all three of these players have a good chance of getting ice time in the playoffs. I would say that Jack Johnson and Bowen Byram are most likely to have some time after the season.

Now let’s look at the other four available defenders.

Erik Johnson

We all agree that Johnson is a leader on this year’s Avalanche squad. He does not get around like he used to, but is still a fat defender with lots of experience. He is one of the Avalanche players still out of the season with 48 points and he has worked tirelessly to get back on the ice and into the playoff action after being injured in the last two appearances.

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Sam Girard

Good Tornade. Sam is one of the more complex players to assess when the playoffs come. It’s not because he’s not productive or efficient. It is that his size and strength do not always meet the playoff requirements. He can and does create some scoring opportunities for his teammates, but he is constantly struggling to get point shots through the traffic. He has become the new Tyson Barrie in getting a ton of crowd from fans when he is out of the game, and praise when his playing style benefits Avalanche. Unless his weaknesses obviously outweigh his upsides, I do not expect him to be an endgame.

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Ryan Murray

Murray has been injured since March 21 with an upper body injury. However, he hit the ice with Nazem Kadri earlier today and looks set to return. Murray is one of those players that I see as a healthy scratch for the playoffs because his defensive upside does not offset his lack of offensive production. He stays out of the box but does not offer enough on PK to me.

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Josh Manson

I think the acquisition of Manson will prove to be an important step in taking Colorado past the second round and beyond. He is not just a big body; he makes the avalanche harder to play against in front of the net. One of Avalanche fans’ biggest concerns after last season’s series loss was the ease with which Vegas could attack and work behind the net. After seeing EJ injured the season before against Dallas, that was also a problem. Manson effectively solves this problem night after night.

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If we now built our back-end specifically in accordance with JFresh’s playing cards, we would see a back-end like this:

Cale Makar – Devon Toews
Samuel Girard – Ryan Murray
Bo Byram – Erik Johnson

My ideal matings

I just do not know how guiding JFresh’s analyzes are for the playoff results. Colorado is all too familiar with how things change when the playoffs come. One thing to consider perhaps more in the playoffs is the penalty percentage. It is important to stay out of the box to mitigate the impact of your opponent’s powerplay abilities. I give Sam Girard the advantage over any possible replacement, because despite having an off-year, he still produces and stays out of the box.

Erik Johnson is a leader for this squad, as I mentioned earlier, and his G / 60 and Defensive EV show that he produces a lot given his ice age. On top of that, I do not foresee Bednar scratching a guy who has given his heart and soul to the Avalanche series through the good and the bad. That said, I can see Johnson being swapped out with the other Johnson if that choice is to be made.

Bowen Byram can, and I think he will make his mark on the roster in one of the playoffs, I think he’s been on the verge of breaking out for two years, and if he had not taken some highs hits, we might have already seen him do it.

Finally, Josh Manson was able to prove that Sakic is a genius if Colorado is able to advance on solid defense and limiting net-front chances. Manson reminds me a lot of a younger Erik Johnson minus skating and scoring ability. Josh is able to replicate all the good things NOT doing on the back end. His playing cards are a bit discouraging, but I think his time with the Ducks negatively affected some of those measurements. Just look at that competition percentage.

Cale Makar – Devon Toews
Samuel Girard – Josh Manson
Bo Byram – Erik Johnson

It comes down a bit to the Johnson boys and Bowen Byram going after the last two spots on a given night. It could come down to who Avalanche matches with. If it’s heavy hockey, Byram can be a healthy scratch to keep him out of injury.

Tell us how you think the defensive pairings should look in the comments!

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