The Samuel Girard-Cale Makar Pairing On Defence For The Colorado Avalanche Continually Prove The Value Of Mobility
Everything we’ve known about defencemen for a long time in the National Hockey League is that you have to be big and strong. You have to be physically punishing on forwards in the corners and in the slot. You have to block shots; you must have the size and reach to break up plays and you have to focus on defending. But the demands and essentials needed by NHL defencemen today are changing.
I’m not saying that this mindset and these attributes are useless now; these can still be bonuses or luxuries for teams to have. However, most of these shouldn’t be considered requirements and necessities anymore.
As the game has changed and certain rules have been interpreted differently and changed, the mindset needed to be a defenceman has changed and evolved over time because of it.
Hockey has seen a huge decrease in obstruction in terms of holding, slashing, hooking and other ways that defenders took advantage of offensive players. Also, the increase in suspensions in order to try to remove dirty hits or plays out of the game that would have been acceptable in previous decades. These changes have resulted in more room for playmakers to be more effective and games being decided by teams playing skilled and smart rather than who can cheat the best or who can outlast the other.
From the Dead Puck era, to the Obstruction era to now, the game has changed and evolved for the better, making a much more entertaining product on the ice for fans. The big thing that has also come with this is that it has opened more doors for a variety of different types of players, including smaller, faster players getting more of an opportunity and playing bigger roles on teams that used to depend on the larger, stronger player.
Since defenders can’t slash or hold opposing forwards as part of defending, it has become extremely important that defencemen are able to have the skill-set required to be effective in all three zones. One of the biggest skill-sets that every player needs to have now is mobility.
There are different elements to mobility then just speed. Players need to have quick, two-step acceleration to create and close down space. They have to have good edges in order to pivot, turn or make quick cuts to stay with an opposing player. Having the endurance to maintain consistency and play many minutes throughout a game and a season. Skating and mobility both influence all different aspects of the game, and there are different ways that skating impacts any play or any situation that players find themselves in during a game.
Without the use of obstruction, defencemen need to be able to defend using their mobility and smarts to be able to shut forwards down.
Being able to defend the blue line off the rush, having the skating skill to maintain gaps on players and step up on them as they’re approaching your zone. Either creating a turnover at the line or forcing them to dump the puck in rather than skate it in and set up. When they do dump the puck in, defencemen have to have the skating and smarts to retrieve pucks quickly, evade forechecking pressure and skate it out or make a clean pass to exit the defensive zone cleanly.
If the opposition has offensive zone time and pressure, mobility helps. This helps cut down the amount of possession time for the opposition when they can’t get into the zone with control and set up as easily. It also cuts down the high danger chances off the rush when they don’t enter the zone with possession as often.
When players can exit their zone and enter the offensive zone by rushing the puck, they are providing great value. Puck rushing might not necessarily be a necessity but it’s a big advantage for teams to easily transition from defense to offense. Mobility helps create separation from opposition, which can stretch the other team out and even open passing lanes for forwards to get the puck going in the right direction.
Being able to move the puck efficiently by passing or skating it out can jump-start a team’s offense and it also impacts the teams’ defensive game. When defencemen are getting the puck up to their forwards quickly and with space, the puck is moving 200 ft away from their own zone and net, which will obviously help with a team’s goals against.
A defense pairing that has so far been a great example of the evolution of defense is Samuel Girard and Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. They are perfect examples of new age defencemen because they don’t really have any old school aspect in their games.
Girard was acquired from the Nashville Predators in the Matt Duchene three-way trade last season. You can see why Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic aggressively pursued Girard in the deal when making it. Standing at just 5’10”, Girard is not a big guy. But his skating and puck moving ability allows him to flourish in the game today.
He makes up for lack of size and reach with elite smarts, and he uses his skating and passing ability to evade forecheckers and efficiently move the puck to forwards consistently at a high level. As you can see from CJ Turtoro’s (@CJTDevil) graphic below, Girard’s zone exit/entry results are fantastic the last two seasons. One area he maybe could still improve upon is defending the blueline, but he has shown to be a valuable player for Colorado.
Cale Makar has burst onto the scene in a big way in this year’s playoffs for Colorado.
After coming over from the NCAA UMass Minutemen where he played in the Frozen Four this season, Makar has jumped right into the NHL with no problems whatsoever. His skating ability and skill with the puck is so incredibly dynamic. He creates so much space for himself and his teammates by separating from opposing players and using his skill to create scoring chances. He and Girard have combined to make a terrific pairing as they compliment and read off each other so well.
Also, an important part of offense and what Girard and Makar do so well is in-zone movement. Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) on twitter, tweeted about this a couple of days ago and I want to follow-up on it.
Really enjoying the dynamic of Girard and Makar playing off each other in the offensive zone. Point men can get way too stagnant around the blueline, makes it easy to defend. These two are constantly moving and probing, it's crazy to think they've played just two games together. pic.twitter.com/CEUS4zbVAT
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) April 29, 2019
When defenders are stagnant and staying in a certain area in the offensive zone, the other team has an easier time defending what they are trying to do. Coaches and teams game-plan well against this because they can stay in a defensive structure easier without having to constantly move and interchange with each other. There’s not as many moving parts and it becomes less complex to defend the zone.
When you’re moving around the way Girard and Makar are in this twitter video above, you’re forcing the other team to constantly move around as well. Doing this will also increase the odds of an opposing player losing an assignment or it will open up passing lanes to the slot, or possibly create angles for the offence to attack or take advantage of.
Another graphic below from Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), shows the line combinations and defense pairings of all the playoff teams and shows where they rank in terms of expected goals for and against.
Expected goals is basically looking at how many shots and high-quality shots your team generates and what your shooting percentage is when you’re on the ice. If you’re in the 55-60% range in shots and scoring chances, you should have an expected goal % of around the same. It’s broken down into 4 categories, Good Defense/Poor Offense (Dull), Poor Defense/Offense (Bad), Poor Defense/Good Offense (Fun) and Good Defense/Offense (Good).
As you can see from the graph, the Girard-Makar pairing is one of the best in the playoffs, ranking well into the good category in terms of expected goals. According to Natural Stat Trick, they have controlled 58.49% of shots, 64.52% of scoring chances and have an expected goal share of 65.17%. It’s not a hug sample size yet, but the early signs of this pairing are extremely promising.
You don’t need to be big and strong to defend well and impact the game in all three zones. Playing that way is not the most efficient way of play because it results in a lot of wear and tear on the body. It can result in consistently playing through injury or illness and it is taxing on a player throughout a long season and playoff run.
Playing skilled and smart results in impacting the game the same way but with less wear and tear. Players need to have the skill set required to drive the play when they’re on the ice and they need to have the smarts in order to take advantage of situations and use their skill set to the best of their ability.
Girard and Makar don’t physically wear down opponents or punish them with strength. They wear players down by making them spend most of the game trying to chase the play and by using their speed and skill to come in waves and not letting their opponents regroup or rest.
They are so good at possessing the puck and creating high danger chances. According to ThePointHockey, Girard is fourth among all skaters in the playoffs in puck possession per game entering Game 4 of their series against the San Jose Sharks. Ever since Makar joined the team in round 1 against the Calgary Flames (and being paired with Girard), the Avalanche have been a different team and they are a big reason why the Avalanche are where they are in the playoffs right now. They don’t spend a lot of time defending because Colorado always has the puck when they are on the ice.
We have seen this trend start to develop over the years with more skilled, dynamic defencemen playing the biggest roles on a team. There are other examples of this with Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg in Dallas, and Seth Jones and Zach Werenski in Columbus. The mindset and philosophy of defense will continue to change, and these types of pairing will start to be considered the new age “Elite #1 Pairings” in the NHL.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals
Stats and Visuals are found from