The Avalanche defense has gotten a lot bigger since last year with the additions of players like Jan Hejda and Ryan O'Byrne. A size increase was a needed adjustment. But in doing so, they lost some of their blue line's offensive capability.
Colby Cohen was sent to the Boston Bruins. Then, Kevin Shattenkirk was sent to the Blues and John Michael Liles was traded to the Leafs. Liles, while he never lived up to expectations in Colorado, was a steady offensive defenseman who led the team in scoring from the blue line. Shattenkirk was a very promising rookie who had been talked about with great expectation for years.
It will take months, and perhaps years for the final verdict to come back on those trades. They may improve the team, or they may be viewed as mistakes. Regardless of outcome, insight into why the team felt comfortable trading away such talent can be found in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His name is Stefan Elliott—an Avalanche prospect, and defenseman for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades.
All Elliott managed to do last season was shatter the WHL record for scoring as a defenseman. In 71 games, he put up 30 goals and 51 assists for 81 total points. The Avalanche got him for a relative bargain—he was drafted in the second round, 49th overall, in the 2009 entry draft.
For the last few seasons, he has played a pivotal role as the quarterback of the Blades' powerplay unit. With the departure of Liles (who never really filled that role consistently for the Avs anyway), Elliott can immediately fill a gap for the Avs.
Blades head coach Lorne Molleken has emphasized Elliott's above average puck-handling skills, wrist shot and ability to read plays (see the coach's full comments here). Combined with his highly rated skating ability, he will inevitably be a threat in the offensive zone.
He didn't do too badly in his own zone either—he ended the season with a plus-62 rating (meaning he was on the ice for 62 more goals scored than goals against). NHL scouting calls him an "equal mix of solid defense and good offense."
The Avalanche have been trying to find that balance with their defensive core since the retirement of Ray Bourque and the loss of Rob Blake, with little success. If Elliott can successfully walk that line, he will bring balance to a defense that has drifted too far in one direction or the other.
It would be unrealistic to expect Stefan Elliott to carry the same type of production into the NHL next season. But if he can play solid hockey in his own zone and provide consistent offensive support, he will fill a vital role for the Avalanche.
On the other hand, if he does produce at a high level in his first NHL campaign, we might be looking at a Calder Trophy candidate for NHL Rookie of the Year. He has certainly shown that he is capable of putting himself in the running.
The Avalanche goes into the 2011-12 season hoping they won't feel the loss of Cohen, Shattenkirk and Liles on the blue line. It is obvious that they are placing a lot of weight on the Blades' all star to lessen the sting. And Avalanche fans everywhere hope he is up to the challenge.