Why the Colorado Avalanche big guns regularly take risky moves

From front left: Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, left wing Jonathan Drouin and right wing Mikko Rantanen Mafia defenseman Devon Toews after scoring the go-ahead goal in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Arizona Coyotes, Sunday, Feb. 18. 2024, in Deventer. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

There was a moment Thursday night when Colorado Avalanche forward Jonathan Drouin carried the puck across the Edmonton blue line and had to make a decision.

The Oilers player in front of him was in good position, so there was probably no way out to create a scoring opportunity. For most of modern hockey history, there have been a few simple options.

The safest thing to do is to “get the puck in deep”: put it behind the defenseman and create an opportunity for one of Drouin’s teammates to win a puck battle. He could also have stopped and waited to see if anyone would get open, but that would also give the defender time to converge and possibly create a turnover.

So Drouin drove up to the defender, pushed him back further and then sent a pass backwards off the boards to the spot he had just vacated. A linemate arrived to retrieve the puck just before it entered the neutral zone, and suddenly had more space to work with and Drouin drove the net.

That was the creative decision. It was also risky. Experienced players have been scolded or benched for similar actions in different teams for years.

That’s also a staple of Colorado’s offense when Nathan MacKinnon’s line is on the ice with Cale Makar and Devon Toews. That five-man unit, the group that Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said earlier this season is playing “in a different league,” has the freedom of Avs coach Jared Bednar to make those kinds of decisions.

“We’ve earned that trust to be creative, but we do it within our structure and we know what we’re doing outside of it,” Toews said.

Drop passes near the blue line are a good move. So is carrying the puck forward along the blue line, which can be a risky maneuver and leave the team vulnerable to a breakaway. Makar and Toews have the green light to push down the walls to keep possessions alive, and even play forwards below the goal line.

It’s pretty close to the idea of ​​positionless hockey, and it can be like poetry in motion while cooking.

“When you get that kind of movement, a lot of times you get their five guys to pack in and play a tighter structure,” Toews said. “If there’s a loose puck, we can jump on it and create secondary opportunities. If they do get it, we try to create turnovers in the zone, or they chip it in the neutral zone and we can turn on them and it makes them work more than they want to.

They can play this way because the Avs’ big guns have earned the trust of their coaches. The freedom to be so creative on offense starts without the puck.

Toews is one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, but he’s also skilled enough and has great hockey IQ to match up with the likes of Makar, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Makar is considered by many to be the best defender in the world. His offensive ability is elite, but he is also a strong defender.

Drouin has found a home on that line, but only after proving to Bednar that he has the two-way skills and dedication to play without the puck. MacKinnon and Rantanen have both improved in that area as well.

“We talk about different keys with those guys. These are minor deviations from our regular structure,” says Bednar. “When they turned the ball on and became really strong defensive players, I think it was a give and take. There are still some non-negotiables in our structure and positions that you need to work on to be responsible 60-yard players on the ice.

“They read at a high level, see things before many other players do and have the ability to play under stressful situations. I don’t think that’s unique to us, but as they’ve matured as players, especially over the last few years, there’s more give and take.”

Keefe watched those five players dominate his team at the Scotiabank Center in Toronto and thought it was quite unique. It’s part of what makes the Avalanche such an explosive team, and especially those five together, so difficult to slow down.

“Our top guys are so good that they can read the play and make the right decision with the puck 95 percent of the time,” defenseman Josh Manson said. “They don’t want to make bad sales and want to be held accountable for their actions just like everyone else. That’s what drives our team. That is why we can achieve success.”