Cup-champion Avalanche remain a team to beat in the NHL West
“I feel like the guys, especially on our team, are going to thrive in that kind of environment,” said Cale Makar, playoff MVP and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. “Everyone wants to play against the defending champions. … It’s exciting when you have the ability to be on top and everyone wants you.
Colorado changed starting goaltender, acquiring Alexandar Georgiev and letting Darcy Kuemper go in free agency, and lost key center Nazem Kadri. The situation in the net and the depth in the middle are the biggest questions, but the core remains intact with stars in their prime from Makar and Nathan MacKinnon to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
They went through several years of playoff losses before breaking through and dethroning the Tampa Bay Lightning, but that doesn’t mean they’re content to lift the Cup just once.
“I get asked all the time if I’m going to relax now, and I don’t feel any different,” MacKinnon said. “We are still on the hunt.”
The same goes for McDavid and the Oilers, the Western runners-up who ran out of gas and were swept away by Colorado in the conference final. He and teammate Leon Draisaitl have each won the Hart Trophy as league MVPs, and McDavid is coming off career highs in goals, assists and points.
Following Edmonton’s longest playoff run of his NHL career, McDavid sees the Avalanche’s run as a model.
“This is a team that’s been through a lot of disappointments before this, and that seems to be the process for winning teams,” McDavid said. “They get closer, they get closer and there are these disappointments, but you learn from them and you use them when you’re in that situation again.”
If anyone has learned that lesson, it’s the Blues, who have made the playoffs 10 of the past 11 seasons and done it all, from a first-round loss to a Stanley Cup victory. Now three years away from the franchise’s first championship, a lot has changed in the way the Blues play, but not in their blue-collar attitude.
“We’re rolling up our sleeves and going to work,” said general manager Doug Armstrong. “I wouldn’t consider us flashy or bravado. We just try to come in and do our job every day and keep our heads down and hopefully let the results speak for themselves.
Before the Oilers can think about the Avalanche, they’ll have to go through a different-looking Alberta battle after the rival Calgary Flames went through major changes. Gone are Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, replaced by Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar.
Two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Darryl Sutter called Huberdeau the best passer he’s ever seen, and general manager Brad Treliving called the plucky Kadri “our kind of player.” Weegar fills the void left after longtime captain Mark Giordano traveled to Seattle in the expansion draft last year.
“I think we’ve improved our team,” Treliving said.
Injuries and salary cap issues factored into the Golden Knights missing the playoffs last season, the first time in their five-year history. Peter DeBoer was fired and replaced by former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, No. 1 goaltender Robin Lehner is out for the season after undergoing hip surgery and Vegas should still win now.
“The same expectations as always: come to camp thinking of playing for the Stanley Cup,” said captain Mark Stone. “I still feel like we have the pieces in place to do that. We’ve added pieces that can help us. And now it’s about gelling and getting back to where we feel we belong.
Cassidy is one of a handful of new coaches out West. DeBoer is in Dallas, David Quinn in San Jose, Luke Richardson in Chicago and Rick Bowness in Winnipeg. Bruce Boudreau is also back for a full season in Vancouver after taking charge of the Canucks last December.
Boudreau’s team made the playoffs in 10 of the 11 full NHL seasons he coached. There is a reason for this.
“You kind of want to walk through a brick wall for him,” Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes said. “You want to win for him, and I’m sure that won’t change. I think we’re all hungry to try and win, so we’re going to jump from the jump.
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