The Colorado Avalanche entered the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the full expectation of returning to the Finals for the second straight year. But after a shocking seven-game exit at the hands of the Seattle Kraken in Round 1, it's been a longer offseason than anyone in Denver anticipated. Still, the possibility of a three-peat in Colorado is still alive after the Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA Finals, and sports fans in the city will be over the moon if either team can bring a title to the Mile High City in 2024.
For the Avalanche to do that, a lot of things will need to go right. The lack of offensive depth was glaring during the postseason; without the likes of Nazem Kadri, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin up front, the team looked far from the squad that was nearly unbeatable in the incredible 2022 playoff run.
But despite a disappointing loss, the Avalanche remain one of the premier teams in the National Hockey League. They boast star power at every position, and have three of the best players in the sport in Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen. But a lot has changed this offseason, and is this team still good enough to bring two titles in three seasons to Colorado?
New-look offense, NHL's best D-core
The short answer is potentially. Despite a ton of turnover from complementary players, the team is much deeper up front than last season. Gone are the likes of JT Compher, Alex Newhook and Evan Rodrigues. In are Ryan Johansen, Tomas Tatar, Miles Wood and Jonathan Drouin, four players who have something to prove with their new team.
Drouin figures to slot in on the top line immediately, playing with a familiar face in MacKinnon; the two were teammates and linemates on the 2013 Halifax Mooseheads squad that won the Memorial Cup as the best junior team in hockey. Along with Rantanen, that projects to be one of the best top lines in the league if Drouin can find the offensive touch he had earlier in his career.
Ryan Johansen has big shoes to fill as he slots in at captain Gabriel Landeskog's 2C, but he has great linemates in Nichushkin and Arturri Lehkonen, the latter who was a revelation for the Avs in their 2022 Stanley Cup run. The third line of Wood-Colton-Tatar has incredible potential, and although it could struggle defensively, Tatar was a tidy piece of business; the 32-year-old is fresh off a 20-goal, 48-point campaign with the New Jersey Devils.
And the defense is as good as it's ever been. The only team that can realistically go pound-for-pound when this D-core is healthy is the Carolina Hurricanes. The top pairing of Makar and Devon Toews is the best in the game, and they boast three top-four D-man on top of that in Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and Samuel Girard. Health will always be a concern for this group, but if they can stay on track, it's the most skilled group of six defensemen in the world.
Gabriel Landeskog an option?
Landeskog was sorely missed all of last season and into the playoffs. Without him, the Avalanche are just not the same team. But after originally saying that the captain would miss the entire 2023-24 season, GM Chris MacFarland provided a brief glimmer of hope, saying the 30-year-old could be ready for the 2024 postseason.
If that is the case, and Johansen could move down to 3C near playoff time, it opens up even more options for a formidable forward group. It will be intriguing to see if Landeskog ends up becoming an option for the team down the stretch, and if so, how effective he is after almost two full seasons away from NHL competition.
The secret weapon
Avalanche fans keeping a close eye on the team's prospect pool will know that there's another top-six winger waiting in the wings. That would be 23-year-old Nikolai Kovalenko, one of the best players in the world not playing in the NHL. Kovalenko is fresh off an impressive 54 point campaign in just 56 games for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia's premier league. An absolute steal for the Avs at No. 171 in the 2018 NHL Draft, Kovalenko is likely to come over to North America once his season is done. There's no guarantee that he will be able to make an impact in America (just look at Vadim Shipachyov), but he is an intriguing player for Colorado fans to keep tabs on throughout the season.
At the end of the day, the Avalanche are a wagon. They've built a perennial Stanley Cup contender around a superstar core, and these same players have already got the job done once. Landeskog's health and the health of the team in general is a question mark, but in a seven-game series, Colorado can beat anyone. Whether or not they will be able to outlast a team like the Edmonton Oilers, Vegas Golden Knights or Dallas Stars is a question that can only be answered in time, but the Avs have as good a chance as any Western Conference team to be playing for Lord Stanley next June.
Final projected roster
Forwards: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Jonathan Drouin, Artturi Lehkonen, Ryan Johansen, Valeri Nichushkin, Miles Wood, Tomas Tatar, Ross Colton, Ben Meyers, Logan O'Connor, Andrew Cogliano (Gabriel Landeskog on LTIR)
Defensemen: Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Josh Manson, Samuel Girard, Bowen Byram, Jack Johnson
Goalies: Alexandar Georgiev, Pavel Francouz