Avs' D motivated to prove doubters wrong

MONTREAL -- During his French media scrum Thursday, Avalanche coach Patrick Roy's face lit up when he was asked about his defensive corps.

There seemed to be genuine excitement in his eyes.

"Yes," Roy said Thursday morning at Bell Centre when asked if that was indeed the case.

Because where everyone else around the hockey world sees Colorado’s soft underbelly, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner sees a group that’s very much under the radar.

"Tyson [Barrie] had a really good second half of the season," Roy said. "He was outstanding. When we lost him [against] Minny in the playoffs, that was a really big loss for us. Nick Holden, same thing, what a year he had for us. E.J. [Erik Johnson] is an important part of it, it’s a group that’s been learning. [Jan] Hejda and Brad Stuart will bring a lot of experience and help our young guys."

He then mentioned the likes of Ryan Wilson, Nate Guenin, Zach Redmond and Stefan Elliott, the fellows who round out his defensive options.

"We like our depth and we’re very comfortable with them," Roy said.

Was he saying it to give those players confidence heading into the season? Or does Roy truly believe it? Perhaps a bit of both.

The Avs were 25th in the NHL last season in shots against per game and last among the 16 clubs that made the postseason. By now you’ve probably heard that many in the advanced stats community predict a regression because of how poor a puck possession team it was last season and just how many shots it gave up.

Basically, some people don’t believe goalie Semyon Varlamov can possibly play out of his mind again to bail out his teammates.

And at the heart of it is the pointing of the finger to a defensive corps short on household names.

"The goalie makes up for a lot of it," a Western Conference executive from a rival team said. "I like their top four but it gets thin after that, to be honest. They gave up a lot of shots last year."

When his team plays the Avs, they stress the need to pin that Colorado defensive corps on its heels.

"I would say most teams would think that, certainly it was for us," he said. "It’s trying to expose their weakness, but it’s also because you don’t want their incredible forwards to have the puck in your own zone."

Well, yeah, there’s that.

But those same talented forwards can also become part of the solution this season if the Avs are going to cut down on scoring chances against.

"I think we have a great D-corps," Avs winger Ryan O'Reilly said after Thursday’s morning skate. "As young forwards, sometimes we weren’t as good as we should have been [defensively] and left them out to dry. Playing D-zone is not just about the defensemen. We gave up so many shots last year, Varly bailed us out, but as forwards, we got to do a better job to help them out.

"We got everything we need back there on defense," he added. "But collectively as a team we need to be better [defensively]."

When you’re a team as loaded as the Avs are up front, nobody on Colorado's defense is expecting to suddenly steal the media spotlight. They’re fine with that.

"We’re not dumb on the back end, we know where our strength is," Barrie said, smiling, after the pregame skate. "It starts with Varly back there and these guys up front. But we just go about our business and I think we’ve got some great players on the back end with E.J., we brought in Stuart, and Nick Holden was a surprise last year and he’s just going to get better. We’re comfortable with our D-corps and we’re excited to see what we can do this year."

They also know what has been said about them, and it’s hard not to use it as a source of motivation.

"Yeah, absolutely, that’s natural, right?" said Barrie, 23, who had 38 points (13-25) in 38 games last season. "You read some stuff and guys think that we’re maybe the weakness of this team, but I know we’re comfortable with the group we have back here. We made some moves that gave us even more depth. We’re definitely going to try to prove people wrong."

If they do, they might step out from under the radar. Holden, 27, is a late bloomer who, given a chance last season, put up 25 points (10-15) in 54 games and was especially effective late in the season.

"For us, the nicest surprise was Nick Holden last season," Roy said. "He really took advantage of his opportunity. Honestly, he really surprised us. And he’s having a really good camp right now."

Holden has fantasy sleeper written all over him.

"I don’t know about that, but it was funny though, some of my buddies last year picked me up in some of their [fantasy leagues] and said, 'You’re helping me win, ' " the native of Victoria, British Columbia, said with a red-faced chuckle Thursday.

But can this group defend well enough? That’s going to be a storyline all season.

One thing Roy won’t apologize for is the style his team plays. The Avs are one of the most entertaining, offensive teams in the league, a club that can crush you off the rush on the counterattack using their mind-blowing speed. It’s who they are. It’s how they play.

So while Roy hopes his team can be better defensively this season, don’t be fooled into thinking the Avalanche are about to change their identity.

"We’re always going to be an offensive team," Roy said. "Our fans know that the Avalanche is an offensive team and we’re going to give up shots. We’ll probably give up the same number of shots per game [this season] but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to play well defensively. If we can keep the shots to the outside, cutting down on the scoring chances is what we’re going to focus more than the number of shots that we’re going to give up.

"We believe we have one of the premier goaltenders in the league and we believe, if we keep the other team on the outside and reduce the scoring chances, we’ll continue to do well."