How Devon Toews Has Become the NHL’s Premier Security Blanket

From the very instant Cale Makar debuted in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche became the league’s most exciting team. By slotting his otherworldly speed and skill alongside an elite bull in a china shop (Nathan MacKinnon), a big-body dual threat (Mikko Rantanen), a high-end power forward (Gabriel Landeskog) and a spectacular puck-mover (Samuel Girard), they could play at a pace and manufacture chances that 90% of clubs couldn’t even dream of.

This freewheeling approach has served them well. MacKinnon and Makar have become perennial trophy finalists, while Colorado has advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

By that same token, the Avalanche occasionally press too hard for offense, which can open the door to devastating counterpunches. Devon Toews (11 points in 11 games) has become a critical figure in Colorado’s lineup precisely because he can dampen this return fire. The 27-year-old isn’t quite a shutdown defender, but his knack for limiting damage, flipping possession and extending attacks allows the Avs to fulfill their all-gas-no-brakes desires without fear of fishing pucks out of their net.

If you ever needed evidence of Toews’ value, the early goings of 2021-22 have provided an ample amount of it.

Over their first nine games, the Avalanche averaged 3.00 goals but conceded 3.56 of their own on the road to a 4-4-1 record. Even though they controlled 52.8% of the expected goals at 5-on-5, they were stung every time they overreached on offense. Outside of Toews, they simply don’t have many fundamentally sound blueliners. The forwards—especially the top line—aren’t too fond of helping out either.

Following his return from offseason shoulder surgery, Colorado is 8-3-0 with a 4.73 GPG and 3.00 GAPG. MacKinnon, who was dealing with a lower-body injury, only dressed for three of those outings. The Avs engineered this turnaround thanks to an injection of poise on the back end.

Make no mistake: Toews isn’t the straw that stirs the drink in Colorado. However, he may well be the league’s finest security blanket. He brings a level of three-zone intelligence and polish that hides many of his team’s flaws while enhancing its strengths. That begins in the neutral zone, where he leverages his anticipation and mobility to prevent clean entries:

Given their defensive warts, the Avs need to stay out of their end as much as possible—and Toews’ outstanding gap control stymies opponents before they can ever get the ball rolling. His reads are so educated that it sometimes looks like the other team is passing to him.

When forwards do manage to break into the zone, he disrupts them with his active stick and sterling positioning. He’s always where he needs to be, whether that means sitting in a shooter’s pocket, peeling off his assignment to bail out a teammate or laying out to block a shot at the last moment. His decisions are crisp and efficient. He doesn’t chase the puck unless he absolutely has to, instead staying in his lane and protecting the house:

Toews provides a crucial last line of defense to a club that frequently doesn’t feel like defending. This steadiness has been particularly beneficial to Makar, a dynamic superstar who remains raw on the defensive side of the puck. When he takes the ice without Toews, Colorado’s GA60 stands at a horrifying 3.88. During their shifts together, that number is shaved all the way down to 1.57. In other words, they transform from one of the worst defensive teams to one of the best once Toews hops over the boards.

Oh, and he logs more ice time on the penalty kill than any player on the roster. He’s trusted in every situation.

Unlike old-school safety nets, Toews is a key contributor on the attack as well. Despite boasting a decent skill set, his greatest offensive gift is his timing. He understands when to pinch or skate into a certain seam:

Moreover, his decision-making and off-puck movement are superb. His rotations create space for the Avs and he makes quick, accurate passes. The puck never sticks, he never crowds his teammates and he never kills possessions. He doesn’t necessarily make the telling play, but he consistently grants his teammates additional cracks via clever choices in the offensive zone. They always have options:

We can’t forget that Toews was actually the main play-driver on his pairing with the New York Islanders. As such, he has the talent required to deliver the goods himself too. Usually, his best option is to feed the likes of Makar, MacKinnon and Rantanen, but if they’re covered or he receives the puck in the middle of the ice, he’s more than capable of grabbing the bull by the horns. He knows how to filter his shot through traffic and displays great vision in transition:

There’s a reason he hasn’t been a minus all year. There’s a reason he ranks 11th in GF60 (3.70) and eighth in GA60 (1.23) among NHL defensemen.

He denies zone entries exceptionally well, he’s a strong defender, he extends Colorado’s waves of attack and he gives his teammates every opportunity to fill the net. He’s the perfect utility player for a high-octane, high-risk club like the Avalanche. Toews doesn’t rein in their wild impulses. Rather, he facilitates them by ensuring that they can bend, not break and then pour on the pressure.

His presence emboldens them because they’re no longer bleeding goals, and an emboldened lineup of this caliber is…scary.

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