From the moment Sam Girard stepped on the ice in an Avalanche uniform, fans knew there was something special about him. After a Summer spent gnashing teeth about the return from a Duchene trade and wondering if a smaller skilled defenseman like Cale Makar could actually make a difference, both questions were answered at once. And now we had two.
Sam’s first two games were spent almost exclusively with Tyson Barrie, which was fun but maybe a little too fun. The next 15 or so were with Erik Johnson which both gave him a little cover and exposed him to some tougher competition so the staff could get a read on his capabilities. The next 15 or so he bounced around with various partners and some different roles, had a bit of a setback and then came back stronger. At the end of that stretch he settled in with Patrik Nemeth, who would become his most common partner overall, for the rest of the season. Late in the year and in the 3 playoff games he was involved in, Sam and Nemeth would take the tougher zone starts while Z and Barrie loaded up on o-zone starts.
There was a lot to like about Sam’s season with plenty of room still to grow. Like the rest of the rookies he suffered from difficulties generating offense 5v5 and occasional growing pains in the defensive zone. I think it’s a big compliment to his game and his maturity that he was tops on the D in average time on ice at 5v5 during the playoffs by almost 2 minutes. Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
Legend: i – individual, CF – shot attempts for, xGF – expected goals for, G – goals, GF – goals for, P – points, CA – Corsi against, xGA – expected goals against
For the purposes of this profile I’m only looking at the top 7 D’s in TOI, which are the obvious ones plus Anton Lindholm
iCF/CF – 0.127, 7th
iCF/60 – 6.76, 6th
ixGF/xGF – 0.058, 6th
ixGF/60 – 0.11, 6th
Sam, along with fellow rookie Anton Lindholm, brought up the rear in all these categories. If you’re looking for a reason why he’s got lots of offensive upside then here you go. I don’t expect him to get to Barrie’s maniacal pace but it’s worth noting that in the playoffs he was a lot stronger and led the Avs D in individual shot attempts and shots on goal at 5v5.
G/GF – 0.051, 6th
P/GF – 0.20, 7th
iSh% – 3.92, 6th
Same story as in shot generation and share goes for point generation and share. We need to see the former go up before getting results in the latter.
CF/60 – 53.06, 5th
xGF/60 – 1.9, 5th (and very close to Barrie)
GF/xGF – 1.247, 5th
On-ice Sh% – 8.40, 5th
The on-ice stats reflect something we saw with just about all the Avs rookies, they tended to be low event and not as much scoring went on for anyone when they were on the ice. I think this is a product of coaching and usage. Like we saw with the forwards the staff seemed to be ok going with a “first, do no harm” strategy in regards to the youngsters. That’s fine as long as they realize that by not spreading the experience around the lineup they doomed themselves to results like this. It worked last year, barely, but long-term there needs to be a little better talent distribution and some complementary lines/pairs should be the goal rather than more specialized groups.
Since Sam, EJ and Barrie were the only D’s to get significant minutes on PP we’re going with placings out of 3 here.
PP TOI per Game – 2:13, 2nd
PP iCF/60 – 16.24, 3rd
PP ixG/60 – 0.11, 2nd
PP p/60 – 4.75, 2nd
PP CF/60 – 95.08, 1st
PP xG/60 – 0.102, 1st
PP GF/60 – 6.73, 2nd
As long as Tyson Barrie is around then Sam isn’t going to get better than the regular role he had on the 2nd PP unit. The hidden gem here is the shot generation and quality generation the PP had when he was out there. Much better tempo and the effectiveness with let’s face it, inferior talent, was surprisingly good. I’d like to see Girard with PP1 a lot more this year, the confidence gained from playing with the top guys in that situation would carry over into 5v5 play. There’s really no reason for the staff to do that because PP1 was quite effective anyway but it’s fun to contemplate.
CA/60 – 57.98, 2nd
xGA/60 – 2.25, 4th
GA/60 – 2.25, 4th
On-ice Sv% – .928, 4th
In line with the low-event regime, Sam had some good shot suppression which ended up best out of the bunch other than Mark Barberio. I’l get into some partner effects below but Nemeth had the highest CA/60 on the team so this could have been lower still. Also interesting that Sam had a perfect 1:1 ratio of goals against to expected goals against.
One thing that’s nice to take from his defensive numbers is that neither his size nor his age kill him in the d-zone. The notion that he’s a frail young kid just spinning around out there is far from reality. He can take tough assignments and do just fine, we saw that in the playoffs. He was a strength not a liability. Now imagine having another defenseman that’s similar, and right-handed…
An area that has killed the Avs for years was exiting the zone. Honestly until this season I wasn’t sure that exiting the zone regularly with possession was even possible in Colorado. It’s something that Jared Bednar made a priority when he took over the team and we finally have the talent to execute proper breakouts.
Right up at the top is young Sam, leading the way in exit rate with possession and surpassed only by Barbs in successful exits per hour. This says a couple of pretty important things but most of all it indicates that he doesn’t panic under puck pressure. The zone exit is also the fundamental building block of the offense and the better the Avs get at this the more time they will be spending far away from their own net.
Zone entries by defensemen aren’t really a big deal, that’s mostly up to the forwards, but even so Girard has a knack for this too. As the yellow bars indicate, the D’s generally dump the puck but the ability to gain the zone is quite helpful. Sam, EJ and Z all carry the puck in around 2.5 times per hour. That’s fun.
Girard’s most common partners at 5v5 were Nemeth (323:21) and Johnson (244:45). Tyson Barrie was a distant 3rd at 161:07.
There are a lot of interesting bits to take from the progression of his usage. Other than his first two games he never paired up with TB4 regularly, but they usually got a couple shifts per game. We usually see this when the Avs need a goal in the 3rd period or if Coach Bednar wants to press.
Early in the season with EJ, he took a lot of the o-zone starts. When the staff toughened up their matchups there was a shots against spike and that’s when we saw his minutes go down and get paired up with Lindholm. I think it’s pretty underrated how tough that was to overcome and how much that meant later in the season.
Another interesting anomaly is how when EJ got injured the second time that Sam & Nemeth immediately took over a lot of the heavy lifting in the defensive zone and after a quick dip in shot differential really took the role and thrived. This continued into the playoffs and might be where they start out this season.
What we’ve got here with Sam Girard is an established defenseman that still has plenty of upside at age 20. He had 20 points (13 on PP) in 68 games, which is nice, but seeing the 5v5 scoring increase would be even nicer. He’s extremely good with the puck outside of the offensive zone which makes him a good shot suppressor.
The perception that he’s not a physical player is overblown. No, he doesn’t clear the crease and he’s not threatening Z for the team hits lead but he was 5th out of 7 D in hits per hour and drew more penalties than any. The Zac Rinaldo cheap shot inflated that of course but plenty of other NHL players were frustrated into taking a call from his speed and agility. Speaking of the Rinaldo hit, that might have been the turning point of the season. Sam sticking up for a teammate was the seed that eventually grew in to the playoff run.
As far as what’s in store this season, it looks pretty much the same as far as role and ice time – 3rd pairing and 2nd power play unit. I hope he gets the opportunity to win the job next to Erik Johnson out of camp but there’s a few bodies to climb over and experience has a way of beating out talent. Even in the same role he should threaten or maybe even surpass 30 points with a healthy season. By the end of the year I’d like to see him back up the growth we saw last year and establish himself in the top 4 for 2019. The Avs are set for some big changes on defense over the next 12 months so this is a transition period and he’s going to be a big part of it.
Thanks as always to Natural Stat Trick, Corsica and the NHL for the stats, CJ Turturro and Micah McCurdy for the vizzies and SeaMill for help for help with our derivative stats.