Core exercise: Avs follow pattern of Stanley Cup champions
Joe Sakic adopted a very practical approach to the task of molding the Colorado Avalanche roster that will attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
“We know we’re not going to be able to sign everybody,” the NHL’s reigning general manager of the year said not long after his team hoisted the Cup. “We know that. But we’ve got our priority.”
That priority has been shared by many recent Cup winners that have bid adieu to key players in order to keep others in the hope of staying atop the league. Colorado is now banking on keeping its championship core of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog together long term and making changes around the edges to keep things fresh — a recipe that has worked for rivals like Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles in the West and Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa Bay in the East.
“I don’t look at change for the sake of change or change for the sake of keeping people honest: I think change is natural in a salary cap world,” said Doug Armstrong, GM of the Blues, who won the Cup in 2019. “We’ve been fortunate to have some really good players that have stayed here for a long time, and we’ve lost a couple too. When you look around the league, that’s more the norm than the exception.”
Go back as far as the 2010 Blackhawks to see a team forced by the salary cap to jettison top contributors. Colorado most closely resembles Chicago from 12 years ago because it made the decision to keep defensemen like Josh Manson and forwards Valeri Nishushkin around and switch out goaltenders, from Darcy Kuemper to longtime Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev.
The Blackhawks won it all three times in six years with two different goalies and a rotating supporting cast around Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Only Kane and Toews remain with Chicago plunging into a long-term rebuild.
The engine behind the Kings’ 2012 and 2014 Cup runs remain in L.A.: goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty and center Anze Kopitar. They’re now the elder statesmen for a team shifting back into contender status.
“They calm the pace,” Kings center Phillip Danault said. “They don’t panic. They go with the flow. They know what to do. They’ve done it twice, so they can do it again.”
The Penguins did it twice, too, going back to back in 2016 and 2017. Three players remain from those two Cup teams and the one in 2009 that won it after management re-signed center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang to keep the trio with captain Sidney Crosby together.
Can Pittsburgh win again?
“When you have those two guys — a leader like Sid — everything’s possible,” Letang said.
The same goes for the Capitals with Alex Ovechkin, and the bulk of the 2018 championship core remains from John Carlson on the blue line to Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie up front. Washington brought in Kuemper to take another run.
The Cup champs in between keep riding their goalies. Jordan Binnington is unquestionably the starter in St. Louis, and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is widely considered the best in the world.
After winning in 2020 and ‘21 and reaching the final last season before losing to Colorado, the Lightning made a difficult choice to part with a key part of the core, veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh, to maintain flexibility, re-sign younger players and remain one of the NHL’s best teams
“I think that extends our window of being a Stanley Cup contender,” GM Julien BriseBois said. “It allows us to make sure we can make sure we extend it beyond one season.”
The Avalanche are favorites to repeat, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but their biggest threat in the Western Conference is the team that has been what Armstrong called the “constant” amid other teams rising and falling in the standings. The Blues have become the blueprint for tweaking around the core, even letting captain and top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo walk while keeping players like Binnington, Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly.
“It’s impossible to keep teams, really, together that long with the salary cap and everyone wants a winner,” said Robert Thomas, who along with fellow forward Jordan Kyrou signed eight-year contracts worth $65 million each. “There’s always going to be change. And yeah, sometimes it can be good, sometimes it can be bad.”
It’s bad, MacKinnon knows, for Colorado to lose Kuemper and center Nazem Kadri in free agency. But with so many players back who were vital to winning the franchise’s third title, the Avalanche hope it’s enough to keep the Mile High vibes going for the Stanley Cup.
“I like our team, MacKinnon said. “I think we have the best D in the league — it’s not close — and I love the forward group. … I think we have a good enough players to do it again.”