Roman Josi looks around the Western Conference — and the NHL at-large — and does not see a lot of easy games for his Nashville Predators.
Still, he acknowledges, “Colorado is the team to beat.”
The defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche are favored to again come out of a rough-and-tumble West that also features the reliable St. Louis Blues and the Edmonton Oilers, who can go as far as Connor McDavid will carry them. Both look to be Colorado’s biggest challengers in a season that will be defined by which team can knock off the champs.
“I feel like guys, especially on our team, will thrive in that kind of environment,” playoff MVP and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Cale Makar said. “Everybody wants to play the defending champs. … It’s exciting when you have the ability to be at the top and then everybody wants at you.”
Colorado changed starting goaltenders, acquiring Alexandar Georgiev and letting Darcy Kuemper depart in free agency, and lost key center Nazem Kadri. The situation in net and depth down the middle are the biggest questions, but the core remains intact with stars in their prime from Makar and Nathan MacKinnon to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
They went through several years of playoff defeats before breaking through and dethroning the Tampa Bay Lightning, but that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with hoisting the Cup just once.
“I keep getting asked if I’m going to, like, chill out now, and I don’t feel any different,” MacKinnon said. “We’re still hunting.”
So are McDavid and the Oilers, the West runners-up who ran out of gas and got swept by Colorado in the conference final. He and teammate Leon Draisaitl have each won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and McDavid is coming off setting career highs in goals, assists and points.
In the aftermath of Edmonton’s deepest playoff run of his NHL career, McDavid sees the Avalanche’s journey as a blueprint.
“They’re a team that went through a lot of disappointments kind of leading up to that, and that seems to be the process for teams that win,” McDavid said. “They get close, they get closer and there’s those disappointments, but you learn from them and you use them when you’re in that situation again.”
If anyone has learned that lesson it’s the Blues, who have made the playoffs 10 of the past 11 seasons and done everything from losing in the first round to winning the Stanley Cup.
Now three years removed from the franchise’s first championship, much has changed about how the Blues play but not their blue-collar attitude.
“We roll up our sleeves and we go to work,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “I wouldn’t consider ourselves flashy or a lot of bravado. We just try and come and do our jobs every day and keep our head down and hopefully let the results speak for themselves.”
BATTLE OF ALBERTA
Before the Oilers can think about the Avalanche, they will have to go through a different-looking Battle of Alberta after the rival Calgary Flames underwent major changes. Gone are Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, replaced by Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar.
Two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Darryl Sutter called Huberdeau the best passer he has ever seen, and GM Brad Treliving deemed the gritty Kadri as “our kind of player.” Weegar fills the void that remained after longtime captain Mark Giordano went to Seattle in the expansion draft last year.
“I think we made our team better,” Treliving said.
Injury and salary cap woes factored into the Golden Knights missing the playoffs last season, the first time that has happened in their five years of existence. Peter DeBoer was fired and replaced by former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, No. 1 goaltender Robin Lehner is out for the season after having hip surgery and Vegas is still expected to win now.
“Same expectation as it’s always been: come to camp expecting to contend for the Stanley Cup,” captain Mark Stone said. “I still feel like we’ve got pieces in place to do that. We added pieces that can help us. And now it’s about gelling together and getting back to where we feel we belong.”
Cassidy is one of a handful of new coaches in the West. DeBoer is in Dallas, David Quinn in San Jose, Luke Richardson in Chicago and Rick Bowness in Winnipeg. Bruce Boudreau is also back for a full season in Vancouver after taking over the Canucks last December.
Boudreau’s team has made the playoffs in 10 of the 11 full NHL seasons he has coached. There’s a reason for that.
“You kind of want to run through a brick wall for him,” Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes said. “You want to win for him, and I’m sure that won’t change. I think we all feel hungry to try to win, so we’re going to be going from the jump.”