The Colorado Avalanche cruised to a Stanley Cup last season, going 16-4 in the playoffs. No team really put a scare into the Avs, so the question now is whether anyone can hang with them next season.
The Avalanche did lose some key players in the offseason, including forward Nazem Kadri and goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Colorado has plenty of talent to overcome those departures, but the team might be more vulnerable in 2022-23, even if it's not by much.
Still, the list of teams that could really take the Avalanche to the wire in a seven-game series remains relatively short. In the Western Conference, only a few teams stand out as threats to Colorado's crown. There are more teams in a deep Eastern Conference, but the Avs wouldn't see them until the Stanley Cup Final.
With the Avalanche set to hang a banner on opening night, here is the list of teams that could dethrone them with one of their own in 2023.
It's pretty amazing that the Flames lost Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in the same offseason and are still atop this list. That's a testament to the work general manager Brad Treliving did in the offseason, and the case could be made that Calgary is even deeper than last year, when it won the Pacific Division with 111 points. The Flames added one of the best playmakers in the league in Jonathan Huberdeau, and an already strong defensive team got another top-pairing defenseman in MacKenzie Weegar. To top it all off, the Flames signed Nazem Kadri to add a combination of offense and snarl to its top six. Add Jacob Markstrom in net, and the Flames have a recipe for giving the Avalanche a lot of trouble next season.
The Oilers do have question marks when matching up with the Avalanche, and those were on display in the brief playoff series between the two teams last season. I wonder if the defense is strong enough or deep enough to hold off the elite firepower at the top of the Colorado lineup, and it's fair to wonder how Jack Campbell will fare in net after his second-half collapse in 2021-22. Having said all that, the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Having the best player in the world and another top-10 center can cover a lot of flaws. Flanking them, the Oilers have effective scoring wingers like Evander Kane and Zach Hyman. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a third-line center, it's not inconceivable to think that Edmonton could win a high-scoring series against the Avs, as long as Campbell outplays the duo of Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz.
The Wild have the opposite problem of the Oilers, but they could challenge the Avalanche in their own way. Outside of superstar winger Kirill Kaprizov, it's hard to see exactly where the offense will come from in Minnesota, but that may not matter if no one can score on the Wild. Last season, Minnesota was one of the strongest defensive teams in the NHL, and that shouldn't change in 2022-23. With players like Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba leading the way, the Wild have a deep defensive corps. Plus, the line of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno gave up just five goals in 430 minutes together at five-on-five. If Marc-Andre Fleury can come anywhere near his Vezina Trophy form, Minnesota has the pieces to limit any offensive attack, even that of the Avalanche.
It's tough to score goals and win games when you don't have the puck on your stick, and the Hurricanes might be the best team in the NHL when it comes to playing keep away from their opponents. Last season, the Hurricanes controlled 56.22% of the shot share, 54.95% of the expected goals share, and 57.78% of the actual goals at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. All of those numbers ranked in the top five of the league, and Carolina added some veteran talent in the offseason. Defenseman Brent Burns and center Paul Stastny will add some great depth to an already loaded roster, and when Max Pacioretty gets healthy midway through the season, the Hurricanes will be an incredibly dangerous team. We'll see whether Freddie Andersen can repeat his excellent 2021-22 campaign between the pipes. If he can, Carolina can beat any team in the league in a seven-game series.
I hope it's possible for me to type this Stanley Cup Final series into existence because the Panthers and Avalanche would put on quite a show. Florida did shop out Jonthan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, but it might've been worth it to land Matthew Tkachuk. With his combination of offensive skill, defensive prowess, and tenacity, there are very few wingers like Tkachuk. It will be interesting to see exactly what they do with Tkachuk, but if the Panthers slot him on a line with Aleksander Barkov, that might instantly become the best line in hockey. The loss of Weegar does hurt Florida's defense, but Aaron Ekblad gives the team a bona fide No. 1 defenseman. As with several other teams on this list, goaltending would be the big question in a series against the Avalanche. Luckily for the Panthers, Colorado has some concerns of its own at the position.
Tampa Bay Lightning
With all due respect to Jordan Binnington and the St. Louis Blues, the Lighting probably gave the Avalanche their biggest test in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That may not be saying much considering how Colorado steamrolled its way to a banner, but Tampa was without star center Brayden Point for much of the series. Even though the Lightning's core is getting older, the team is still in the running for another Stanley Cup. The roster, both in terms of high-end talent and depth, compares favorably to a vast majority of the league. The issue for the Lightning will be getting back to the Stanley Cup Final for a fourth consecutive season, but I said the same thing about three consecutive appearances, and we saw how that went.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Don't laugh. Stop it. As someone who predicted that the Maple Leafs would finally break through in the playoffs last year, I do like this roster. How could you not? Auston Matthews is coming off a Hart Trophy season in which he scored 60 goals, but he is far from alone in a stacked forward group. Mitchell Marner is a top-five winger in the league, William Nylander is an underrated playmaker, and John Tavares has plenty of game left in the tank. Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, and Calle Jarnkrok also provide depth that most teams would love to have. That gives the Leafs a roster that can score with the Avalanche, and they are better on defense than they get credit for. If Toronto can get out of its own way in the first round of the playoffs, this team has what it takes to go the distance.