Despite how easy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have made it look in the last decade, winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles is extremely difficult. Can the Colorado Avalanche join those teams by defending their title this season?
Teams don't often cruise to a Stanley Cup the way the Avalanche did in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Colorado swept two different opponents and went 16-4 en route to hoisting the Cup. It will be a tougher journey for the Avs in 2023. A few key players from last season's team are now wearing different jerseys, and Colorado has faced injury issues all year.
On top of that, the competition is notably tougher.
In order to examine the Avs' chances of repeating, let's take a look at how this team stacks up to last season's and what its path to the Stanley Cup might look like.
The Avalanche were head and shoulders above their competition from wire to wire in the 2021-22 season. That has not been the case this season. Other Western Conference teams have closed the gap -- Colorado could finish as low as third in its own division, depending upon how the next week plays out.
While this year's Avalanche squad is still one of the very best in the NHL, it hasn't looked as impenetrable. Here's how the current Avs stack up against the 2022 Stanley Cup champions at the exact same point in the season right now, through 76 games played.
46-24-6 (98 points)
55-15-6 (116 points)
5-on-5 xG Share
As you can see, a glaring difference is in the goal-scoring department. That is, at least partially, due to the fact that Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin have all missed some time in 2022-23.
But it can also be attributed to offseason departures. Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky combined for 50 goals last season, and both of those players are now on different teams. Kadri left a hole at the second-line center position that Colorado has had trouble filling. J.T. Compher hasn't exactly been able to fully replicate Kadri's production, and while the Avs did acquire Lars Eller from the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline, the team's center depth is just not as strong as it was last season.
Still, the core pieces of the blue line are all back this postseason. Cale Makar is having another strong season after taking home the Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, and Devon Toews remains one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. Add in players like Bowen Byram and Sam Girard, and Colorado the championship-caliber defensive corps are in place
Alexandar Georgiev has taken Darcy Kuemper's place in net, and there has been no drop-off in terms of results. Georgiev has saved 24.61 goals above average this season, per Natural Stat Trick, which is right on par with Kuemper's 25.19 goals saved above average last year. Let's not forget: Kuemper actually struggled quite a bit in the 2022 playoffs. He allowed 4.27 goals above average and posted a pedestrian save percentage of 90.2%, per Natural Stat Trick. Colorado was able to overcome that and did so with ease, but trying to win two straight Stanley Cups with mediocre goaltending seems borderline impossible.
If Georgiev can simply give this Avalanche team slightly above average goaltending in the playoffs, they'll be in good shape, but it's worth noting that his next postseason start will be his first. He has to be considered a question mark for Colorado. So while the 2022-23 Avs may not be as loaded as they were last season, the roster still has all the ingredients to win a Cup.
The Avalanche took advantage of some favorable matchups last postseason.
- First round: Nashville Predators (4-0) -- The Preds lost star goaltender Juuse Saros right before the playoffs.
- Second round: St. Louis Blues (4-2) -- The Blues were more of a test, but the Avs outplayed them for a vast majority of the series.
- Conference finals: Edmonton Oilers (4-0) -- This was a fun series, but Colorado took control with a shutout win in Game 2 and never looked back.
- Stanley Cup Final: Tampa Bay Lightning (4-2)
Colorado's biggest test came in the Cup Final against the defending champion Lightning, and the two juggernauts provided some exciting hockey. The Avs won in six games, but two of their wins came in overtime, so that series really could have swung either way.
Looking at the Western Conference right now, it's easy to see why the Avalanche might face some taller hurdles on their way to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. The first-round matchups are far from set, but no matter who the Avalanche face, it will be a stronger opponent than last year's Predators team. The Dallas Stars have elite offensive players and an excellent goaltender, the Minnesota Wild are one of the stingiest teams in the NHL and the Seattle Kraken have proven themselves to be a complete team. The Avs would probably be favorites in a seven-game series against any of those teams, but it wouldn't be shocking to see them lose.
If the Avalanche do get out of the Central Division portion of the bracket and reach the Western Conference Final again, it will be against a bona fide Stanley Cup contender:
- Last season's conference finals opponent, the Oilers, are an improved bunch in 2022-23. Connor McDavid has somehow managed to elevate his game, Leon Draisaitl has scored 50 goals (again) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman are also in the midst of big seasons. The addition of Mattias Ekholm ahead of the trade deadline has made the blue line much stronger, and I'm willing to assume that Stuart Skinner is capable of making a few more saves than Mike Smith.
- The Los Angeles Kings, who pushed the Oilers to seven games in the first round last season, have done some upgrading of their own. They have a dynamic forward in Kevin Fiala, play strong team defense, and the goaltending duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Pheonix Copley has worked out so far. If the Kings' goaltending continues to hold up, they could give the Avs a good fight.
- Finally, we have the current No. 1 team in the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights, who have bounced back under first-year head coach Bruce Cassidy. Jack Eichel has been fully healthy, and Vegas boasts one of the deeper rosters in the conference. As with the Kings, goaltending could be an issue, but the Golden Knights have the talent to match up with Colorado in a playoff series.
Oh, and the Eastern Conference boasts six serious championship contenders, and whichever team emerges from that side of the bracket will be battle-tested. In fact, the Eastern Conference champion might be a favorite against the Avalanche.
Last season, Colorado was a steamroller in the postseason, and that team deserves all the credit in the world for making its opponents look worse than they actually were. That said, the Avalanche will have to play some more tightly-contested series if they want to repeat as champions in 2023.
The Avalanche's roster simply isn't as deep as it was last season -- but it is still filled with some of the best players in the league. MacKinnon, Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Toews and Nichushkin are more than enough for this team to make a deep run. Even with horrific injury luck, Colorado could still win the Central Division, and the team should be closer to full health in time for the postseason.
The bigger impediment to two straight Stanley Cups for the Avsis the teams standing in their way. The Western Conference is deeper than it was in 2021-22, and there are a few different contenders in the Pacific Division. I'd be surprised to see the Avs produce two postseason sweeps in 2023.
All of this to say: the Avalanche should be considered one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year... but it is nowhere near as clear cut as it was in 2023. Last season, you could've used Sharpie when advancing the Avs in your playoff bracket. A pencil might be more appropriate this time around.