DENVER | Cale Makar remained at his locker in full uniform — skates still laced — for quite a while after the Colorado Avalanche were eliminated from the playoffs.
The standout defenseman just wasn’t ready to move on from a tumultuous season filled with a rash of injuries and other quirky occurrences.
The harsh reality was only beginning to settle in: Their Stanley Cup defense was over after losing in seven games in the first round to the second-year Seattle Kraken. Their summer, for as short as it was last year, figures to be a long one and brimming with hard-to-answer questions.
Questions like: Can captain Gabriel Landeskog make it back after missing the season following knee surgery? What about the situation involving Valeri Nichushkin, the bruising forward who missed the last five games of the postseason for undisclosed personal reasons? And can they surround Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen with more scoring power? Especially after a series where the bottom lines couldn’t get on track.
“Obviously, you want to win it every single year and you know now the work that it takes to get there,” Makar said. “Unfortunately, I feel like we were inconsistent at times and not playing on our game a lot the other times. … I’m definitely proud of the group.”
The Avalanche were out of the postseason picture on New Year’s Day. In mid-January, they were a full 14 points out of the Central Division lead as they dealt with injury after injury.
They regrouped, went 31-7-4 down the stretch and captured the division crown.
“A lot of people wrote us off in January or February when we were really struggling,” said veteran defenseman Erik Johnson, who is a free agent this offseason. “We came together and found a way to get it done. I hate moral victories. It doesn’t really do anything. It’s nothing, right? But if you’re looking for positives, I feel like this team never quit.”
In the end, though, another early exit for a talented core. They lost in the second round three straight times before breaking through last season and winning the third Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
“We felt like we built so much as a group this year,” said Makar, who drew a one-game suspension in the postseason for a hit on Seattle’s Jared McCann. “Whether it was returning guys or new guys, everybody came in and showed what they could bring and I feel like everybody got stronger as the year went on, in terms of mentality and bringing it to the rink every day. Obviously, with all of the obstacles that we faced, yeah, it just (stinks).”
One big barrier was the loss of Landeskog, their leader. He tried to make his way back from a knee injury but announced just before the playoffs he wasn’t ready. He’s not sure when he will be ready.
Nichushkin’s absence was another blow. He had 17 goals and 30 assists through a banged-up regular season that limited him to 53 games. Colorado signed him to an eight-year, $49 million contract last summer.
In all, Colorado used 43 different players in the regular season, the most since the team moved to Denver before the 1995-96 season.
“Sometimes life throws things at you,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “You’ve got to just keep grinding and try to overcome them. You’ve got to be resilient. You’ve got to be mentally tough. … You get the taste of winning and you want it every year. But with winning, there’s a lot of things that happen.”
The Avalanche have several players who are slated to be free agents, including forwards J.T. Compher, Lars Eller, Evan Rodrigues, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm and Matt Nieto, along with defenseman Jack Johnson. Cogliano missed Game 7 after suffering a fracture in his neck on a hit from Jordan Eberle.
BIG SEASON, PART I
Rantanen finished with 62 goals, becoming the third Avalanche player to eclipse the mark of 60 goals in the season and playoffs combined. He joins Joe Sakic (69 in 1995-96, 67 in 2000-01) and Michel Goulet (66 in 1984-85).
BIG SEASON, PART II
MacKinnon carried his stellar regular season — 42 goals, 69 assists — into the postseason. He finished with three goals and four assists in the playoffs despite heavy attention from the Kraken defense. MacKinnon, Sakic (188) and Peter Forsberg (159) are the only players in team history with 100 career postseason points.