J.D. Killian The Hockey Writers
Avalanche All-Decade Team: Defensemen
The Colorado Avalanche entered the past decade with a couple of big name players finishing their careers and new additions transitioning into a new era. The blueliners who took tough shifts over the past decade exemplify the kinds of changes the Avalanche experienced. Some were flashy, some were steady, and some took their share of grief in an Avalanche sweater. But all who made the list represent key pieces to the changing character and nature of the team.
Three players didn’t make the top six but their efforts are worthy of mentioning, whether for their historic significance to the team or their role holding the blue line.
Nick Holden played three seasons with the Avalanche, including one seven-game playoff series. He suited up for 214 games for the team, ranking 17th in scoring for franchise defensemen and notching four game winning goals. He took his fair share of heat on the blue line, but he was backstopping the team through some rough years.
John-Michael Liles played 523 games in an Avalanche sweater. However, his last season with the team was 2010-11 so his 135 games with the team in the past decade are not as noteworthy. But his career Avalanche numbers can’t be dismissed. He sits third in games played for the team by a defenseman, second in points scored, and seventh in penalty minutes.
It’s virtually impossible to talk about Avalanche defensemen without mentioning Adam Foote. He retired after the 2010-11 season, so his contributions for the past decade are not as significant as his complete record with the team.
760 games tops the list of games played by an Avalanche blueliner. Even though he played as a stay-at-home defenseman, he’s fourth in points among Avalanche d-men. His team leading 948 penalty minutes are 600 minutes more than the next leading defenseman. And his combined plus-107 is triple that of any other Avalanche blueliner this past decade. Let’s not even mention is 158 postseason appearances. However, since he only played 114 games over the past decade, honorable mention is where Foote ends up.
Top Six Defensemen of the Decade
The actual top six Avalanche defensemen encompass the breadth of change the team experienced over the past decade.
6. Sam Girard
The Avalanche picked up Sam Girard in the Matt Duchene trade and he has been a stalwart on the blue line ever since. Young, talented, and with a nifty little spin move, Girard’s acquisition highlighted a change in direction for the team. They were moving to a younger, skilled game and moving away from big guys clogging the ice.
Currently only 21, Girard has already played 195 regular-season games and 12 postseason contests in an Avalanche uniform. That’s more games than Nate Guenin and only 20 fewer than Holden. During his time, he’s climbed the Avalanche record books to sit 14th in points by an Avalanche blueliner. Girard signed a reasonable seven-year contract extension this past offseason and looks to have a long and promising career as he competes for top-pairing minutes.
5. Cale Makar
The Avalanche may have lost the draft lottery draw after their disastrous 2016-17 season, but they may have won the actual draft. The fourth overall draft selection, Makar brings a lot to the table. He’s fast, smart, incredibly skilled and he’s an amazing skater. Makar currently sits first among ALL Avalanche defensemen ever in points per game, at an impressive 0.889 per contest.
Still in his rookie season, Makar is the leading contender for the Calder trophy. His performance joining the team in the playoffs proved he was worth waiting for through his two college seasons. Makar’s skill and scoring ability hint that he could well be the generational blueliner teams dream of. Either way, he’s a first-round pick whose presence has already resonated throughout the NHL. And he has not even played a full season. Yes, he’s new to the team. But his impact already makes him notable.
4. Nikita Zadorov
Russian blueliner Nikita Zadorov makes the cut as his tenure in the Avalanche has seen him log 265 regular games and 18 postseason contests with the team. His time in Colorado has seen its share of ups and downs. Zadorov was one of the pieces in the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the Buffalo Sabres. There were rumors the Sabres mishandled Zadorov’s development so he spent some time finding his niche with the Avalanche.
His first season saw him play only 20 NHL games with the team as he spent the majority of the season in the AHL. He has grown as a player, learning to use his size to open up space on the ice. Zadorov does a good job exiting the Avalanche zone with the puck even though he’s not a high-scoring defenseman.
At 24, in some ways, he is still finding his game although he already ranks 18th in Avalanche history for games played by a defenseman. He’s also fourth for penalty minutes. Zadorov has spent half the decade in the organization. There aren’t many blueliners who have that long a tenure with the Avalanche.
3. Jan Hejda
Jan Hejda, the Czech blueliner, skated in 286 regular-season contests and seven playoff games with the club, appearing in his final NHL game as an Avalanche player. He played for the team from 2011-2015, starting with the club when he was 33.
Hejda was a stalwart on defense through the heart of the team’s fall from being a perennial playoff contender to becoming a struggling franchise. He averaged over twenty minutes a matchup manning the blue line. As a left shot, he ended up frequently playing on the top pairing with Erik Johnson. Hejda wasn’t particularly flashy but he played with heart, willing to battle it out in the corners and work hard. He was solid during the rough years, earning him a spot on the countdown.
2. Tyson Barrie
If you’ve followed the Avalanche for any length of time, it should come as no surprise that Tyson Barrie made it to #2 on the list. He had 484 regular-season games in an Avalanche sweater, making him the defenseman with the fourth most Colorado games ever. Starting with 10 games in the 2011-12 season going all the way through to the 2018-19 season, he also logged 21 postseason contests.
He played in all four playoff series the Avalanche competed in since he joined the squad. Arguably, Barrie being on the receiving end of a Matt Cooke knee-on-knee hit changed the course of the team’s 2013-14 playoff run.
But his tenure goes back even farther. Colorado drafted him in the third round, 64th overall, in the 2009 entry draft. He spent two years in juniors before starting with the team’s AHL club in the 2011-12 season.
By all accounts, Barrie was a great presence in the locker room. His cheerful smile endeared him to fans. And he became good friends with another Avalanche favorite – forward Nathan MacKinnon.
He leads all Avalanche defensemen in four categories – goals, assists, points, and game-winning goals. Barrie also owns one of the worst plus/minus rankings with a cumulative minus-59. It’s somewhat symbolic of his career with the Avalanche. Great offensive mindset, capable of scoring and quarterbacking the top power-play unit. Conversely, prone to some costly turnovers in his own zone. It reflects the roller coaster Barrie brought to the team – excitement on both ends of the ice.
1. Erik Johnson
In a shocking result (not really), Erik Johnson earns the number one spot. The Avalanche acquired Johnson in a win-win trade that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to the St. Louis Blues prior to the 2011 trade deadline.
He is the longest-tenured Avalanche player currently on the team. He trails only Adam Foote in the number of regular-season games played for Colorado (547) and penalty minutes earned (with a paltry 320). He’s also sixth in total points by an Avalanche defenseman.
But Johnson’s contributions go far beyond statistics. He has been the top pairing blueliner for most of his Avalanche career, skating with a rotating cast of partners. He plays with passion. He speaks honestly. And he aims to bring his best every game. He’s sacrificed his body to save goals and get wins. He does his best to be a stabilizing force in the locker room, knowing when to lead and when to crack a joke. And Johnson bleeds burgundy and blue. A more loyal Avalanche player would be hard to find.
During the dismal 48-point season, when many players avoided fan interaction, Johnson kept reaching out. He continued to work with the young prospects when they got called up. Johnson made coming to the rink interesting, even in the hardest of times. It’s called character. Johnson’s commitment helped carry the Avalanche through some rough transitions to set the stage for the team’s new success. All of those intangibles make Johnson the Avalanche blueliner of the decade. He earned it.
Changes on the Blue Line
Few aspects of the Avalanche reflect the team’s evolution over the past decades as the shifting face of its defense. The last of the old guard moved on, the team struggled for a new identity and then started to re-make itself into an entirely different kind of blue line.
Will this next decade usher in even greater success? No one really knows. But with the new players developing and the quality veterans leading the way, it sure looks promising.
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