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The Difference is in the 'D'

Thursday, 09.27.2007 / 3:49 PM / Features
By Aaron Lopez  - Special to ColoradoAvalanche.com
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The Difference is in the \'D\'

Durable. Reliable. Solid.

Those are just a few of the most common words thrown around when describing an ideal NHL defensive unit.

While the above adjectives certainly apply to Colorado’s defensive corps, perhaps the term that best characterizes the team’s blueliners is ‘underrated’. The Avalanche’s current group of defenseman probably won’t jump out at you as being flashy, but will quietly and efficiently get the job done.

The player that best fits that mold is likely Brett Clark. Entering his ninth NHL season, Clark has been a steadying force on the Colorado blueline; a reliable minutes eater who led the Avalanche in ice time last season while appearing in all 82 games for the first time in his career.

“I think our whole defense is probably underrated and Clarky is a great example of that,” said Avalanche Head Coach Joel Quenneville. “He’s been a key guy back there for us in all areas: power play, penalty kill, matchups and minutes.”

One area that the team was looking to address in the offseason was to add a shutdown defender. It didn’t take long for the Avalanche to get their man, as Scott Hannan signed with the club during the first day of free agency in July.

The gritty defenseman is a nuisance to opposing teams’ top lines and will also see time on special teams.

I think we’ve got a stabilizing effect with Scott Hannan. He can play match-up minutes and shutdown top lines, which is what we’re looking for,” said Quenneville. “Scotty’s the kind of guy who’s not flashy, but steady. I think that’s typical of all our guys back there.”

Jordan Leopold returns after playing in only 15 games in 2006-07 due to injury
Perhaps just as important as Hannan’s addition is the return of Jordan Leopold. The fifth-year defenseman is back and healthy after missing all but 15 games last season due to three separate injuries.

This season, the former Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner looks to regain the promising form he showed during three seasons in Calgary before his arrival in the Mile High City. In Calgary, Leopold appeared in 214 games and notched 67 points (15g/52a). He also posted a combined +14 rating during his final two seasons with Flames.

“It’s like we’re adding another defenseman to the team.  He didn’t get an opportunity last year to play regularly and I’m sure watching created an appetite,” said Quenneville. “I think he just needs to play and he’ll get better and better as we go along.”

Another player who has become a fixture on Colorado’s blue line over the past few years is John-Michael Liles. With his offensive capabilities and ability to quickly turn the puck up-ice, Liles is exactly the type of point-producing defenseman that is able to thrive in the new NHL.

“Johnny has a little more upside offensively than most guys,” said Quenneville. “I think that he really enhances our power play.”

It would be cliché to say that if you look up the word “durability” in the dictionary, Karlis Skrastins’ picture will be there. It would be accurate, however, to say the same thing about the NHL’s record book.

Last season, Skrastins broke the NHL record for consecutive games played by a defenseman when he appeared in his 487th straight game, eclipsing the previous mark of 486 games set by Tim Horton with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1961-68.

And the defenseman is no stranger to sacrificing his body. Skrastins finished second on the team and seventh in the league with 190 blocked shots a season ago.

“He’s one of those guys that’s always around the play,” said Quenneville. “Killing plays, blocking shots, scrappy, tenacious, competitive and very predictable. As a defenseman that’s a very good compliment; you know he’ll get the job done for you.”

Quenneville will also be looking for consistency from players such as Kurt Sauer and Jeff Finger, who both saw their roles on the team increase toward the end of last season. Both proved to be more than capable NHL defensemen during their stints in the lineup.

Jeff Finger will look to build upon his strong finish from last season
“Kurt Sauer has had an outstanding camp. We saw down the stretch last year how importanthe was to our team,” said Quenneville. “Finger is another guy who was a very effective player at the end of last year. He’s a competitive, hard-nosed and scrappy guy.”

The organization believes that from top to bottom, this year’s defensive unit is deeper than in the recent past. The unit contains versatile and experienced defensemen that compliment the team’s overall game and can be supportive on the offensive end, bringing an important balance.

“I think we’re on the right track. It always takes a little while for guys to fit in and find their niche, but Scotty’s stepped in very well and we’re all starting to click,” said Liles. “I think we showed we had a solid team toward the end of last year. As long as all five guys on the ice play together, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

This year’s group raises some tough and important questions…such as who will play on any given night.

“Everybody does something a little different but I think they’re all capable of playing against anybody and playing our team game,” said Quenneville. “A lot of nights we’ll have some tough decisions with who is going to be in or out of the lineup.”

Not a bad situation to be in.

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