4 Reasons the Avalanche Will Win the 2023 Stanley Cup

With the beginning of the 2022-23 NHL regular season mere weeks away, the preseason hype machines have roared to life. A number of teams – such as the Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators – navigated busy offseasons rife with significant trades and free-agent signings, giving their fanbases license to get lost in Stanley Cup daydreams.

Even while a number of championship contenders or playoff hopefuls boosted their title odds this summer, the Colorado Avalanche – winners of the 2022 Stanley Cup – remain the apex predator in the NHL food chain. From boasting an enviable collection of dynamic blueliners to facing an unimpressive playoff field, the reigning champions once again find themselves in the driver’s seat. Now, let’s dig into why the 2022-23 campaign will bring the franchise’s fourth title and further cement its status as the league’s latest blossoming dynasty.

Avalanche Have the Best Defence in the NHL

Whether you subscribe to the old school analysis of boxscore statistics or the new school of advanced analytics, little evidence exists to dispute the argument that the Avalanche own the NHL’s best blue line.

The team’s kingpin is 23-year-old Cale Makar, a budding superstar who just claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy for his role in Colorado’s Stanley Cup victory, as well as the first Norris Trophy of his career. Further, his 180 points in 178 games through his first three NHL seasons represent the highest points-per-game (P/G) rate among all defensemen since 1967-68 through their first three regular seasons. At this rate, he is on track for a Hall-of-Fame calibre career and unsurprisingly headlines the league’s best defensive core.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche 2022 Stanley Cup
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar hoists the Stanley Cup (Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Every star needs a wingman and for Makar, that is the wildly underrated Devon Toews. He is the calming and methodical balance to Makar’s unpredictable creativeness and anchors the blue line with his steady presence. He is a strong puck mover and rarely gets caught out of position while taking on other teams’ top forwards. His improved offensive numbers and overall reputation could be a byproduct of skating beside the reigning Norris and Conn Smythe winner, but there is little doubt his strengths allow Makar to flourish.

The rest of the Avalanche’s blue line is a collection of players exemplifying their tremendous depth at the position. Rising star Bowen Byram (more on him later) looks ready to capitalize on a coming-out party in the playoffs and expand his leaguewide notoriety. Samuel Girard – mostly due to injury and circumstance – has seen his stock within the organization fall in tandem with Byram’s ascent. Yet, he would still be the second or third-best defender on most NHL teams. Combined, those four give the Avalanche a truly unmatched quartet of impact players on the backend. Mix in the physical veteran presence offered by the pair of Erik Johnson and Josh Manson and that becomes a six-man unit that can go up against any opponent.

2022 Stanley Cup Win Proves Goaltending Doesn’t Matter

On the surface, this seems like an outlandish statement but let’s explore the claim on a deeper level. Although Darcy Kuemper (now of the Washington Capitals) had an exemplary regular season by all accounts, his postseason performances left a lot to be desired. In all fairness, his frightening eye injury suffered against the Nashville Predators in Round One likely had a significant impact on his ability to track the puck – but now we’re straying away from the actual argument.

After posting a .921 save percentage (SV%) and saving 16 goals above expected (GSAx) in the regular season (both fifth among goalies with more than 10 games played), his postseason play represented an abrupt turn in the opposite direction. He submitted a .902 SV% (14th among goalies with more than one appearance) and allowed over seven goals more than expected, last among all netminders.

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Kuemper’s playoff performance was so poor that his SV% is the lowest of all Stanley Cup-winning goalies in the salary cap era. Four other goaltenders have won the Cup while posting a sub-.915 SV% including Marc-Andre Fleury (2009), Antti Niemi (2010), Jonathan Quick (2014), and Jordan Binnington (2019). The data suggest that NHL goaltending is becoming more unpredictable and that constructing one’s team around a supposedly elite goalie is becoming an increasingly risky decision.

The Avalanche’s new starter, Alexander Georgiev, has struggled after a promising start to his NHL career but should find greater success in Colorado behind a much stronger defense. After a regular season filled with injuries and extended absences, rolling out their full lineup led to a nearly impenetrable defensive scheme in the playoffs.

StatRegular SeasonPlayoffs
Shots Against21st1st
Scoring Chances Against6th1st
High-Danger Chances Against15th3rd
Expected Goals Against9th1st
The Colorado Avalanche’s NHL rank in several 5v5 per-60-minute defensive metrics in the 2021-22 season and 2022 Playoffs

As long as Georgiev grades out as near average, history suggests that the Avalanche’s elite defensive metrics can propel them to another deep playoff run. Of course, trotting out one of the league’s few truly elite netminders is always preferable, but it’s not a strict requirement for a championship.

A Weak Western Conference Playoff Field

I made this point prior to the start of the 2022 NHL Playoffs, but a glance at the state of the Western Conference’s top clubs suggests more of the same this season.

The Calgary Flames, after an abysmal start to the offseason, managed to wring a net-neutral summer out of an untenable situation. They lost Johnny Gaudreau in free agency and Matthew Tkachuk forced his way out of Alberta, but the eventual trade with the Florida Panthers added star winger Jonathan Huberdeau and analytics darling MacKenzie Weegar, keeping the Flames competitive in the immediate future. They also won the prolonged Nazem Kadri sweepstakes, buffering against some of the inevitable dropoffs from Gaudreau’s departure while simultaneously weakening the Avalanche. They made the most of a bad situation but the former Panthers come with playoff baggage of their own, bringing into question just how much better off the Flames will be next season.

Next is the Minnesota Wild who finished second in the West with 113 points in 2021-22. Salary cap constraints caused by the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts necessitated the Kevin Fiala trade to the Los Angeles Kings, stripping the Wild of their 85-point forward (second on the team) and a neutral-zone magician. Matt Boldy (39 points in 47 games) and Marco Rossi (tied for the Iowa Wild’s scoring lead) are two vivacious up-and-comers who can mitigate the impact of his loss, but the pair only counts 49 NHL games between them. Their future is bright, but it may be too early to regard them as All-Star-calibre talents. Further, veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was unremarkable in the playoffs (.906 SV%) and at 37 years old, is well out of his prime.

Marc-Andre Fleury Minnesota Wild Robert Thomas St. Louis Blues
Marc-Andre Fleury of the Minnesota Wild makes a save on Robert Thomas of the St. Louis Blues (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers are bringing back the same team except for making Jack Campbell their new starting goalie. Full seasons of head coach Jay Woodcroft and Evander Kane should bolster their regular-season standing, but they were torn to shreds by the Avalanche’s speed in the playoffs and did little to remedy those issues in the offseason.

The St. Louis Blues gave the Avalanche the most trouble on their way to the Cup, pushing them to six games while being a Darren Helm dagger away from taking Game 6 to overtime. Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas took big steps in their development, and veterans in Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko provided immeasurable support. Yet, despite his strong playoff showing, goalie Jordan Binnington had a turbulent regular season and it’s unclear which version of him will emerge in 2022-23, especially as safety valve Ville Husso left in free agency.

The Vegas Golden Knights are arguably the biggest wildcard in the NHL. After a season in which Alec Martinez (56 games), Mark Stone (45), Max Pacioretty (39), and Reilly Smith (26) all missed significant time through injury – as well as Jack Eichel – 2022-23 promises to be a more successful campaign. Phil Kessel has also been brought in to replace the outgoing Pacioretty. Still, a season-ending injury to Robin Lehner throws their arrangements in the crease into disarray. None of Adin Hill, Laurent Brossoit, or Logan Thompson have assumed a starter’s workload with sustained success, and that uncertainty could be their downfall.

Although the Kings’ efforts to bridge two competitive timelines are admirable, the timing remains slightly off for them to legitimately contend next season. One is led by Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick and the other by Quinton Byfield, Fiala, and Arthur Kaliyev, among others. Snagging Fiala from the Wild was a shrewd move and upgrades their top-six considerably, but they still lack the bonafide superstars that currently lead the Avalanche’s lineup.

The balance of power, on aggregate, still resides in the Eastern Conference, leaving the Avalanche with a much easier path to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances. The impact of the difficulty of a team’s journey may be overblown, but there is no doubt the Tampa Bay Lightning were hampered by playing several extra games along the way and losing key contributors to injury in the process.

Avalanche’s Young Stars Ready to Take the Next Step

Although much of the plaudits for the team’s 2022 triumph rightfully go to their veteran contributors, the Avalanche’s rising stars deserve recognition for their efforts in a dominant playoff run. Byram was elevated into a top-four role after Girard’s season-ending injury and became one of the Avalanche’s postseason breakout stars.

Despite finishing the playoffs with nine assists in 20 games while averaging just under 20 minutes a night, the young blueliner truly came into his own in the final two rounds. He tallied eight assists in 14 games, averaged 21 minutes per game after the injury, and the Avalanche accounted for 63.4% of all shots, 72.7% of all goals, and 64% of expected goals at 5v5 with Byram on the ice, with all three marks ranking within the top-10 of the 2022 Playoffs. After (warranted) concerns that he would even return following prolonged concussion issues, the fourth-overall pick from 2019 looks set to launch himself into the upper echelon of NHL defensemen in 2022-23.

Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche
Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche (Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The second player looking to cut a more prominent figure in the Avalanche lineup this season is 21-year-old forward Alex Newhook who despite showing flashes of his potential, has yet to cement his place in the team’s top-six. Drafted as a center, it is still to be determined where he lines up in the long term, but Kadri’s departure opens up the possibility of an extended audition down the middle.

Newhook scored 33 points (13 goals and 20 assists) in 71 regular-season games but only posted four in 12 games in a diminished role during the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup journey. Despite the uninspiring scoring totals, his underlying metrics suggest a player who can thrive within the team’s fast-paced system. He’s shown a preference for carrying the puck into the offensive zone and produced one of the best high-danger shot rates on the team (those coming off of passes going across the slot or from behind the net), both of which are welcome traits for Colorado’s offensive strategy. With increased usage alongside the Avalanche’s skilled players and more favourable deployment, there is no reason Newhook can’t be one of next season’s breakout players.

Avalanche Can Repeat as Stanley Cup Champions

Winning a single championship in any sport is commendable. Throw in the randomness and uncertainty inherent to the sport of hockey and predicting a Stanley Cup winner with any confidence goes out the window. The unforgiving nature of a strict salary cap structure dictates that no team is perfect, and that’s without considering the impossible task of staying healthy all season long.

Still, few teams currently boast as much top-end talent as the Avalanche and it’s fair to claim that none of their direct competitors did enough to overtake them this offseason. The season is agonizingly long and judging the accuracy of any preseason predictions must wait, but be warned, this Avalanche core does not appear content with ending this era with just one banner to their name.

Data courtesy of All Three Zones, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, and the NHL.

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