We’re previewing the upcoming playoff series between the Colorado Avalanche and the Seattle Kraken.
If you missed it, we already previewed the forwards on both teams.
What’s on the docket today? Taking a look and comparing the defensive cores of the two squads.
The expectation is that the Avalanche will get not only Josh Manson, but Cale Makar back on Tuesday night when the series starts. If that’s the case, it will be the first time since Nov. 4 that all Makar, Manson, Byram, Girard, and Toews will be in the lineup at the same time. That’s 165 days. And how different does that defense look with those two in there? Assuming Erik plays over Jack, you have three right shots and three left shots, creating a perfect balance, something Bednar really likes.
And that balance is important. Toews and Makar is an elite pairing, so you don’t mess with that if they’re healthy. But Byram and Girard being separated and paired with bigger, more physical defensemen really rounds out the defense. It also kind of frees both of them up to play a little more offensive.
Erik over Jack is the assumption, mainly because of that right shot, but we don’t know if that will happen for sure. Jack Johnson has been really strong since being re-acquired from Chicago mid-season. He was brought in for depth, and has provided exactly what the team expected he would. Jack starting the playoffs as a healthy scratch would not be a surprise, since he did it last year and was brought back specifically for that purpose. The other option is the Avalanche rolling 11 forwards, and seven defensemen. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they did that with a few forwards banged up.
The Avalanche are built to push the play, and their defense plays a big role in that. Six defensemen on the team finished averaging one point or more per-60 at even strength this year, and believe it or not, Bowen Byram wasn’t one of them. He actually was down at .99, but was second on the blueline in goals-per-60. You’ve got four defensemen averaging half a point-per-game. That’s difficult to find.
It’s hard to look at the team numbers on defense for the Avalanche and not consider that they played the entire year with some big injuries. Even with a lot of their top five missing time, the defense was stout. Scoring chances against is a team stat, but only the Hurricanes allowed less scoring chances at 5-on-5 than the Avalanche. Now imagine how much better this team could be with a healthy blueline.
When healthy, is there a better defense in the NHL than the one in Colorado? I don’t think so. The issue is health. Beyond the top seven defensemen, the Avalanche are a little more vulnerable. They just have to hope Hunt and MacDermid aren’t needed at any point in the playoffs.
Both members of the top defensive pair for the Kraken had career seasons. Vince Dunn and Adam Larsson, both former first-round picks, combined for 97 points. The Kraken also controlled a lot of the play with those two out there, as nearly 55% of the shot attempts with those two on the ice belonged to Seattle. Dunn, in particular, had a tremendous year. With 64 points, he shattered his previous career high, and averaged 1.62 points-per-60 at even strength. Believe it or not, that’s higher than Cale Makar.
Dunn, however, is really the big guy to worry about on the defense from an offensive perspective. They have Justin Schultz, who has always been a skilled offensive player from the blueline, but for the most part, they have a lot of big and sturdy defensemen. Jamie Oleksiak is massive, and Carson Soucy only looks small because of how big Oleksiak is.
One thing the Seattle blueline will have is cohesion. Their top six played together pretty much the entire season. It’s actually kind of remarkable how healthy they were able to stay. They had six defensemen play 73 games or more. On the flip side, the Avalanche only had two defensemen play 70 games.
That cohesion for the Kraken, combined with some strong defensive forwards, made it difficult for opposing teams to generate shots. The Kraken allowed the fourth fewest shots on goal in the league, and only four other teams allowed less scoring chances against (The Avalanche being one). That stout defensive play is why the Kraken managed to make the playoffs despite another year of sub-par goaltending.
With all due respect to the Kraken, whose defense has far surpassed any expectations anyone would have had for them, this has to go to the Avalanche. It’s been months since the Avalanche have seen their top five play a game together, and maybe that becomes a factor in the series, but it’s hard to not look at that defense on paper and think it blows the Kraken’s away. And that’s not a slight against the Kraken, because there’s a good case to be made that the Avalanche have the best defense in the NHL. The team defense for the Kraken will be tough to penetrate, but the Avalanche are one team that can do it because of how active their defense is.
That total package is why the Avalanche have the advantage here. And the reality is, if the Avalanche go far in the playoffs again, a healthy defense core might be the big reason why.