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Where's the beef? On Colorado's blue line

Friday, 09.30.2011 / 4:57 PM / NHL Insider

By Rick Sadowski  -  NHL.com Correspondent

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Where's the beef? On Colorado's blue line
Since dealing for Erik Johnson at last season's trade deadline, Colorado has added plenty of size on defense. Their offseason acquisitions ensure the Avalanche will be tougher to play against.
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- At 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, Kyle Quincey was one of the beefier members of the Colorado Avalanche defense corps last season. That's hardly the case now.

When the Avalanche open the 2011-12 season on Oct. 8 against Detroit, the roster will include four defensemen who weigh 230-plus pounds.

"We're not going to be pushed around on the back end," Quincey told NHL.com. "That's a great thing."

Quincey was recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery on Feb. 18 when the Avalanche acquired 6-4, 232-pound Erik Johnson from St. Louis in a blockbuster trade that included four players and two draft picks. Exactly one month before Quincey was injured in a game against Washington, the Avalanche brought in Ryan O'Byrne (6-5, 234) from Montreal in exchange for prospect Michael Bournival.

Colorado bulked up the blue line even more this summer by signing unrestricted free agents Jan Hejda (6-4, 237) and Shane O'Brien (6-3, 230) after trading John-Michael Liles to Toronto for a second-round pick in 2012.

"All of a sudden, we're harder to play against," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said.

"If you look at a team like the Boston Bruins, they were Stanley Cup champs last year, and they had a lot of size and grit on the back end. If you can have size and still have guys who can skate and move the puck and get it to the forwards, I think it's a good recipe for success." -- Shane O'Brien

At least that's the plan after the Avalanche allowed an NHL-high 288 goals a year ago and finished 29th in the overall standings with 30 wins and 68 points, the team's worst total since it arrived in Denver from Quebec in 1995.

"They wanted to bring in a little more size and experience on the back end," said O'Brien, 28, a five-year NHL veteran. He signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract after collecting 2 goals, 9 points and 83 penalty minutes in 80 games with Nashville last season.

"If you look at a team like the Boston Bruins, they were Stanley Cup champs last year, and they had a lot of size and grit on the back end," O'Brien said. "If you can have size and still have guys who can skate and move the puck and get it to the forwards, I think it's a good recipe for success."

Hejda, 33, is a five-year veteran who spent the past four seasons with Columbus. He posted 5 goals, 15 assists and 28 penalty minutes in 77 games last season and signed a four-year, $13 million deal.

"I'm trying to bring some experience to the team and also size," said Hejda, who made his preseason debut Thursday after recovering from a knee injury he sustained Sept. 20 in the Avalanche's Burgundy and White intra-squad game. "I'm trying to help the guys on the ice and off the ice. That's my plan, to be a guy who can help everybody.

"They decided to put some size on the back end. But this isn't just about the size, it's about the skill. You can't just stand back there. I know they brought me here to be a defensive defenseman. I'm here for defending, so I'll be defending."

The Avalanche is banking on Johnson, a candidate for the team's vacant captainship, to provide solid two-way play and leadership while living up to the promise that led the Blues to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft.

Colorado gave up power forward Chris Stewart, smooth-skating defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a second-round selection in the June draft to acquire Johnson, center Jay McClement and a first-round pick (No. 11) the team used on rugged defenseman Duncan Siemens, 18, who has been returned to Saskatoon in the Western Hockey League.

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"EJ's been good," Sacco said of Johnson. "He's another player that we're counting on to be a force for us on the back end."

Johnson is coming off a disappointing season in which he had eight goals, 29 points, 19 penalty minutes and a minus-13 rating. The Avalanche are relying on him to anchor their rebuilt defense, and he's determined to make general manager Greg Sherman look good for bringing him to Denver.

"I think the change of scenery will help what it takes me to be a dominant player in this League," Johnson said. "It's definitely what I want to be. This team is on the upswing and I'm excited about the season."

Sacco has yet to figure out whom to pair with Johnson, who has skated with different defensemen in three preseason games, including Quincey.

"He's a very gifted player," said Quincey, who missed the final 55 games last season after dislocating his shoulder on a hit against Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. "After missing so much time last year, you come back extra hungry. I was sick of watching the games on the satellite. Now I'm glad to be a part of it again."

The Avalanche still have 10 defensemen in camp, including returnees Ryan Wilson, Matt Hunwick and Kyle Cumiskey, the latter of whom has been sidelined with a groin injury. Rookies Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott also are in the mix for a place on the roster.

"This team has never had any trouble scoring goals," O'Brien said. "With the additions they made on defense and with the guys they already had, our D corps is big and strong. If we can keep it to the outside, do our jobs in our end, I think we'll have a good chance at success."
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