For the Colorado Avalanche, a common theme has been the ability to overcome adversity early on in the season, which is especially the case when it comes to the team’s blueliners.
Through moving past injuries to welcoming new talent, this group has stepped up and become a solid unit for a team that currently resides in second place within its division.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of young guys stepping in and making an impact,” said John-Michael Liles. “It’s never easy when you have some of your top players go down with injuries and you need not only the guy coming in to fill in for him and step up, but everybody around the room to step up and pick up that slack.”
There have been a number of changes to the team’s defensive corps since the start of the season. The Avs aquired Ryan O’Byrne and Matt Hunwick
in trades with Montreal and Boston, respectively, to go along with the emergence of Kevin Shattenkirk from the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters. Having those three teaming up with the veteran experience of Liles and captain Adam Foote – not to mention contributions from fellow blueliners Kyle Quincey and Ryan Wilson
- and this team has been able to maintain the cohesiveness that is necessary.
“There’s been a lot going on and there have been a lot of injuries this year, but we’ve been resilient as a team,” said Foote. “Guys get their opportunity and keep showing well. That’s what you need.”
Not only has the group of defenders been able to come together, the defensive pairings have also added a level of success to the team. Putting a puck mover with a stay-at-home defender has led to a balance in both the offensive and defensive zones. O’Byrne has played most of his games with Liles, Foote has recently been paired with Hunwick, and Shattenkirk has spent the majority of his minutes lately with Quincey.
Liles has found a way to not only come into his own this season, but also ranks among the NHL’s elite defensemen statistically. Through 27 games this season, Liles has accrued 26 points, netting five goals and leading the team with 21 helpers. Those numbers have him tied for the NHL lead among defenders in assists while also tying for second in points.
“Right away we [Liles and O’Byrne] clicked. Every game that goes by we kind of feed off of each other. We learn more and more about each other. We both complement each other well,” said O’Byrne, the 6-foot-5 defender. “Johnny is an offensive guy and moves the puck really well. I’m the guy that just makes a good first pass and plays physical and I think that, for whatever reason, we’ve had really good chemistry together.”
It’s not every day that a defender can come up from the AHL and immediately make an impact the way that Shattenkirk has. Not only has he been able to transition into a solid NHL defender, he has become a threat in the offensive zone as well.
“At first I was playing a simple game and trying to limit my mistakes as much as possible, but Sly [Assistant Coach Sylvain Lefebvre] just told me to make sure that I’m playing my game and to jump in the offense,” said Shattenkirk. “I’ve been trying to push it offensively and be creative for the team, but make sure I’m taking care of it defensively as well.”
Shattenkirk has also started to find himself rising up the record books. He recently had his nine-game point streak snapped, a franchise record for rookie defensemen, and was one game shy of tying the NHL record for rookie defenders. During the streak, Shattenkirk amassed 13 points (4g/9a). Shattenkirk also had a November to remember on his way to 11 points (4g/7a), becoming the first NHL rookie blueliner to total 11 or more points in the month since 1991.
The Avalanche’s early success and ability to rise above the injuries isn’t solely on the shoulders of the defense, but they have played a large part thus far.
“I think all of those guys bring something to our defense that management was looking for,” said Liles. “There are reasons why they’re playing right now and playing well.”