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NHL - US Sports: Can Colorado Avalanche defend their title?

The Colorado Avalanche won their first Stanley Cup in over 20 years to end the 2021/22 NHL season denying the Tampa Bay Lightning opportunity to three-peat.

But can the Avalanche win the cup back-to-back themselves next season?

Major turnaround

Five years ago, the Avalanche finished at the very bottom of the NHL standings with a horrid 22-56-4 record in Jared Bednar's first season as coach.

The team set a record for the fewest points in a season (48) and weren't in any way helped by dropping as far down in the draft lottery as they could.

Little did General Manager Joe Sakic know at the time, but the fourth overall selection of defenceman Cale Makar would prove genius and change the fortunes of the franchise entirely.

Avs in safe hands

Despite that difficult first season, Bednar has now become the winningest coach in Colorado history (240-168-46), and gained respect for being one of the very best in the NHL.

The first coach in history to win a Kelly Cup (ECHL), Calder Cup (AHL) and Stanley Cup, 50-year-old Bednar will continue to lead Colorado until at least the end of the 2023/24 season after extending his contract with the team in November 2021.

Even before going on to lift the Stanley Cup in the recent season, Bednar led the Avalanche to the best record in the Western Conference (56-19-7), which was the most wins and points (119) in Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques history.

Core of stars in Colorado

Like all Stanley Cup Champions in the salary cap era, the Avalanche will be forced to say goodbye to some of their heroes.

Most notably, goalie Darcy Kuemper has already signed with the Washington Capitals and forward Nazem Kadri has attracted much interest, as he too seeks a significant rise to his contract.

Whilst their departures will hurt, Colorado's chances of winning again won't be damaged too much as all of their key stars are locked up to long-term contracts.

This includes Captain Gabriel Landeskog, centre Nathan MacKinnon, winger Mikko Rantanen and the aforementioned Makar, all of which averaged more than a point-per-game in the playoffs.

MacKinnon joint-led the post-season for goals with 13 and Makar was unanimously named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs, collecting 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) from the blue-line.

Second-round monkey off the back

Following two divisional titles and a Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular season team, expectations had been rising for the Avalanche.

However, their red-hot form in the regular season hadn't translated into the playoffs with the franchise suffering three second-round exits in a row.

The hurdle was overcome this season, beating the St. Louis Blues in six games with MacKinnon admitting that it felt like a monkey had been removed from their back.

From then onwards Colorado's confidence visibly grew as they swept the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final and then ended Lightning's record run of 11 straight playoff series wins in the Stanley Cup Final.

Learning how to win

The Avalanche have clearly learnt from past disappointments and now they know how to win in the playoffs, there may be no stopping them.

Colorado never faced a series deficit on their run to the cup and had a remarkable 9-1 road record. Impressively they also managed to close out each series with a victory away from Ball Arena.

Over the playoffs, the champions elect had a plus-30 goal difference, and averaged 4.25 goals-per-game. Their defence was also strong conceding just 2.75 goals-per-game.

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Retention of depth

Colorado were helped in their quest to the cup by several crucial in-season additions, all of which have committed to the franchise again for at least next season.

This includes veteran forwards Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano, rugged defenceman Josh Manson and Artturi Lehkonen, whose championship winning-goal was his fourth game-winner of the post-season.

Sakic moves upstairs

For his outstanding work, Sakic won the Jim Gregory Award as GM of the Year, before it was announced that he would move upstairs into the role of President of Hockey Operations.

His long-time assistant Chris MacFarland was named the franchise's new General Manager and will lead their quest for another cup.

MacFarland in control

MacFarland played a key role in many of the shrewd decisions which saw the Avalanche be built into champions and he has already begun work to ensure they will be contenders again.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, just as the Lightning did in 2020 and 2021, so it's not uncommon in recent years for a team to do it twice over.

With Bednar in charge of a team which contains several of the world's best players, plus proven experienced depth, MacFarland has more than a solid base from which to work from in order to add the Avalanche to that list.

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