Erik Johnson (Michael Martin/Getty Images)
The Avalanche have the offensive punch with Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, but Tuesday’s signing of Erik Johnson shows that Colorado GM Joe Sakic is committed to building a solid blueline.
With Tuesday’s announcement that Colorado has locked up Erik Johnson to a seven-year, $42-million contract extension, it’s clear Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has his eyes on building a young, talented defense corps that can compete for years to come. Locking up Johnson was only the first step.
Formidable offensive talents Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are the cornerstone pieces up front and they’ll all be locked up long-term by the off-season. But it’s no secret the area where Colorado has struggled most over the past two seasons is on the defensive side of the puck.
Though the Avalanche have done well to build a group of forwards that can keep pace in the Western Conference, the backend has been a bit of a revolving door. Since the 2013-14 season, the mainstays of the NHL roster have been Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Nate Guenin and Nick Holden. The latter two, you may have noticed, aren’t exactly all-stars.
To fill out the roster, the Avalanche have used defensemen such as Andre Benoit, Jan Hejda, Zach Redmond, Cory Sarich, Ryan Wilson and Karl Stollery. The Johnson signing signals a change in mindset, though, as Colorado can now focus on getting some blueliners with big potential to stay in their rotation, which will help the club start building a backend that’s on par with their star offensive talents.
With Johnson locked up until 2022-23, the next move is to sign Barrie, Colorado’s breakout star in 2014-15, to a long-term deal. Barrie was a third-round pick, 64th overall, of the Avalanche in 2009 and has one year remaining on a two-year, $5.2-million contract before heading for restricted free agency in July. The likelihood of Barrie actually getting to free agency, however, is slim.
This past season, the 24-year-old rearguard led the Avalanche with 12 goals and 53 points while taking on the heaviest defensive-zone workload of his career. While he did face some of the weakest competition of all Avalanche blueliners, he did so with Guenin as his primary partner. This season could be much different, especially with Colorado’s signing of defenseman Francois Beauchemin.
Beauchemin, 35, will have an important role on the Avalanche. As a veteran, Colorado will likely use Beauchemin’s three seasons with the club to help shepherd in their young blueliners. Barrie will benefit from Beauchemin’s teaching, as will Johnson. But maybe most importantly will be what Nikita Zadorov can learn from Beauchemin.
The 20-year-old Zadorov was a big piece acquired from Buffalo as part of the blockbuster Ryan O’Reilly deal and already looks to jump into a bottom-pairing role in Colorado. Zadorov has incredible size and moves well for a 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman, but he still needs to be molded into the first- or second-pairing blueliner he can be. If he makes the progress some are expecting him to make, he could be a top-pairing defenseman in two or three seasons.
With Johnson, Barrie and Zadorov, the Avalanche have the ability for three pillars to form their blueline. And they’re not without projects that can further bolster their D-corps, either.
Earlier this month, the Avalanche sent 2009 second-round pick Stefan Elliott, 24, to Arizona in exchange for Coyotes 2010 first-round pick Brandon Gormley. Gormley suited up for 27 games in Arizona this past season, but has not yet been able to fulfill his potential as a full-time NHL defender. That said, he steadily improved with the AHL’s Portland Pirates in his first two pro campaigns and should continue that growth with Colorado.
Should Gormley reach his potential, and Zadorov does the same, the Avalanche have then set themselves up for a top-four composed of Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov and Gormley in the next three seasons. That’s clever planning, especially in a league where defense can still win championships.
Despite winning the Central Division in 2012-13, the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup window hasn’t really cracked open yet. In all likelihood, Colorado’s time to truly contend won’t come for at least two more seasons. But before they could seriously vie for a Stanley Cup, the defense needed to be taken care of. Johnson is the first piece, but he won’t be the last as Sakic and Co. build a blueline that will help the Avalanche get back to the winner’s circle.