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Playoff Preview: The Colorado Avalanche Defense

For quite a few seasons, the Nashville Predators have been known best for their high-powered defense corps: the ability to join the rush, quarterback an offense and play defense at a high level was nearly always a strength the Predators had over their opponents. However, the first round of the 2022 playoffs finds Nashville squaring off with the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche finished second in the league in points, and are known for their high-powered offense and an extremely dangerous group of defenders. So how do the Avalanche blue-liners match up, and what will be the pairings?  

Based off Sunday’s practice, here are the defense pairs we’re expected to see, at least in Game 1:

The First Pair – Devon Toews and Cale Makar

Cale Makar has been somewhat of a pseudo-rival for Nashville fans, as he represents the biggest threat to Roman Josi’s bid for a second Norris Trophy.  In this case though, the hype definitely matches the product on the ice. The 2019-20 Calder Trophy winner arrived in the league with a splash and continues to improve at an impressive rate.

Makar’s 92 points are second only to Josi’s 98 this season; however, the Avalanche defender scored two more goals than the Predators captain (23 to 21). Both players have an incredible impact while on the ice and can carry the puck 200 feet themselves when needed. However, there is one area of the game where Makar outshines Josi.

Cale Makar’s greatest advantage over Roman Josi is his defensive play. Makar’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR via EvolvingHockey.com) is similar in most facets of the game, but defensively is where Makar shines. Dante Fabbro, Josi’s likely defensive partner, has taken on leading the breakout and staying disciplined on defense, so Josi is able to push up and create opportunity on offense. But Makar is dynamic at both ends of the ice, and his defense partner makes him even better.

Devon Toews has put together a career season alongside Makar.  And where Makar draws parallels to Roman Josi, Toews has outperformed a very solid season by Fabbro—so much so that Toews is ranked 19th in GAR (to compare, Makar ended the season at 8th, Roman Josi at 21st overall).  His role is similar to Fabbro’s, and there are shades of the old P.K. Subban-Mattias Ekholm partnership—Makar is the offensive gamebreaker who can perform on both ends of the ice, while Toews has become an incredibly strong and disciplined defender and puck mover.

While it is true that Makar’s supporting cast is much more talented than Josi’s, metrics like GAR are developed to isolate a player’s performance from the influence of his teammates.  Makar and Toews do make each other better as defense partners, but both are having incredible seasons no matter who they play with or against. This isn’t a case of two pretty good defenders making an excellent pair thanks to their chemistry alone, this is an incredible talent and an excellent partner creating one of the best duos in the entire league.

The Second Pair – Samuel Girard and Josh Manson

Nashville Predators fans are very familiar with Samuel Girard. He was a Predators draft pick who showed flashes of his quick puck movement and flair for taking spinning shots, but after making the NHL roster, Girard was traded to Colorado as part of the three-way trade to obtain (the now bought-out) Kyle Turris.  Since then, he has flourished with the Avalanche—his puck handling ability and offensive-minded approach fit well with the style of play Colorado has developed. He’s not quite hit that next step like Makar—in fact, this season has been somewhat disappointing for Girard, and trade rumors followed the young defender throughout the season.  Still, a lot of his time was spent with Jack Johnson, and on a team filled with exciting young blueliners, time may be running out to make a case for a top-4 spot.

The Avalanche made a move at the deadline with the aim of giving the team more toughness and giving Girard some help by acquiring Josh Manson from Anaheim for a second-round pick and a prospect.  Manson is a typical big, stay-at-home defender who can use his physicality to free up space for the forwards and Girard.  Manson’s strong defensive play helps cover up for Girard’s usual struggles on defense and his offensive regression this season.  If Nashville wants to exploit this pairing, expect to see the Filip Forsberg-Matt Duchene-Mikael Granlund combination against them.  Plus, we know what Filip Forsberg can do against Girard in the playoffs:

The Bottom Pair – Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson

Rounding out the likely bottom pair for Game 1, Nashville will face a couple of defenders with a similar theme: an offensive young player and a physical veteran.  Erik Johnson has settled into his role to stand as a defensive grinder, and joining him is Bowen Byram, making a triumphant return. The young player suffered a concussion during the season that kept him from playing for three months.  With 5 goals and 19 points in 30 games, Byram was finding his feet in his late debut for the team, even getting time on the power play. Byram has shown flashes of excellent play at times in his young career, but he still gets lost in the game at times as he adjusts to the speed of top NHL forwards. Johnson’s veteran presence could help the youngster thrive, but the pair’s below-average defensive impact means the Predators have a chance to exploit the matchup as long as they don’t lose Byram behind the defense.

Data provided by: Evolving-Hockey.com, HockeyViz.com.

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