Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog — still giddy after lifting the Stanley Cup on Sunday at Amalie Arena — was asked by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan what other NHL clubs could take away from his team’s success.
“Find a Cale Makar somewhere,” said Landeskog, searching for an answer. “I don’t know.”
The league is in a lot of trouble if Landeskog is right, because defensemen who win the Calder, Norris and Conn Smythe trophies by age 23 don’t come around often. Colorado’s deep pool of star power — which includes Landeskog, Makar, center Nathan MacKinnon, right wing Mikko Rantanen and defenseman Devon Toews — means it will be difficult to knock the defending champions off their perch.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The Avalanche are the consensus favorites at Las Vegas sportsbooks to win the 2023 Stanley Cup, but have a litany of free-agent decisions to make.
Here are three things the Knights can do to get to their level:
1. Reclaim their identity
The Knights know, when they’re at their best, they can beat the Avalanche.
They were the last team to defeat Colorado in the playoffs. The Knights beat the Avalanche four straight times in their six-game, second-round victory in the 2021 postseason. Colorado lost only four times during its Stanley Cup run.
The Knights defeated the Avalanche as a fast, physical, counterattacking team that punished any mistake made by their opponent in the neutral zone. After losing Game 1 by six goals, they outscored Colorado 19-11 while creating 60 percent of the five-on-five high-danger scoring chances in the series.
The Knights didn’t reach that level for consistent stretches this season, partly because of an onslaught of injuries that kept the lineup in flux.
General manager Kelly McCrimmon said he thinks that was an anomaly.
“The identity hasn’t vanished,” he said. “We had a year where it wasn’t what it had been the previous four years. It’s not going to be hard for us to get back to that, for (coach) Bruce (Cassidy) to put his stamp on that. I think you’ll see that happen very quickly.”
2. Build depth
Another reason the Knights overwhelmed Colorado in the 2021 postseason was their strength in numbers.
Only two of the 21 skaters the Avalanche used from Games 2 to 6 had a positive goal differential at five-on-five. It wasn’t one line or one pair struggling. It was everyone.
The Avalanche learned from that experience and became one of the league’s deepest teams. Key players such as center Nazem Kadri (four games), left wing Andre Burakovsky (eight games), defenseman Samuel Girard (13 games) and starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper (four games) missed time in the playoffs and they hardly missed a beat.
It will be hard for Colorado to maintain that depth advantage since they start the offseason with only 14 players under contract. That could present another edge for the Knights if they get healthy and develop some of the younger players in the organization.
“You want it to feel for the opponent like it’s wave after wave coming after them, and that’s why we’ve been successful,” center William Karlsson said in May. “Maybe we lost that a little bit. (We need to) try to get back to that.”
3. Never stop building
The Avalanche don’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft or a second-round pick for the next three. But general manager Joe Sakic probably isn’t complaining.
In constructing their team, the Avalanche were always adding pieces to the puzzle in their pursuit of the Cup. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer walked in free agency last offseason, so they traded for Kuemper. Colorado had a playoff berth well in hand by the trade deadline but still acquired forwards Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Nico Sturm, and defenseman Josh Manson.
Sakic’s aggressive moves are a huge reason the Avalanche became champions. The Knights also haven’t been afraid to bring in talent, though their limited salary cap flexibility could force them to get creative for the 2022-23 season.
“Great group of players here that want to win, been very close,” Cassidy said. “Hopefully we can all sort of go hand in hand and get us over the top.”