NHL

NHL storylines to watch: Can the Colorado Avalanche repeat, is this Connor McDavid's year?

By Sports Desk October 05, 2022

The NHL season is just days away from dropping the first puck, and last year's playoffs planted the seeds for some intriguing storylines to watch.

After back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, the Tampa Bay Lightning were dethroned by a Colorado Avalanche side that looked nearly unbeatable. Both teams return similar casts with small alterations, and it would be no surprise to see these sides as the last two standing when it is all said and done.

Meanwhile, young phenom and arguably the new face of the league, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, showed he is more than a regular season performer as he took his team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. 

McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews and the Minnesota Wild's Kirill Kaprizov look set to be leading the charge for the league's most valuable player, and all three are yet to turn 26, indicating this season could be a changing of the guard as the next generation takes over.

Can the Avalanche repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

The Avalanche were just too good in last season's playoffs. They were completely dominant, amassing a 16-4 record without losing consecutive games at any point. 

Their Stanley Cup Finals win against the then-reigning back-to-back champions Tampa Bay included a 7-0 thrashing at home, and two gutsy road wins with goaltender Darcy Kuemper was named player of the game.

It is undeniable that Kuemper was a massive part of the Avalanche's success during his breakout season, but with his rapid ascension came a rapidly rising price tag, and he cashed in with a five-year, $26million free agent deal to the Washington Capitals.

Replacing him is last year's backup Pavel Francouz – who performed admirably in games Kuemper missed – as well as new signing Alexandar Georgiev, who was Igor Shesterkin's backup with the New York Rangers.

With offensive stars Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon returning, as well as elite defenseman Cale Makar, the frightening core of the Avalanche remains intact. 

The third-highest scoring team in the NHL last season (312, behind Toronto's 315 and the Florida Panthers' 340), there is no reason to believe Colorado will not remain in the top echelon of offensive teams.

But ultimately seasons can be decided by the man you trust to protect your net, and the Avalanche will need to be proactive in addressing the issue if Francouz and Georgiev are not up to the task.

Is the Lightning dynasty still alive?

Tampa Bay have now reached three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals series, collecting titles in 2020 and 2021 before falling short against the Avalanche.

As history shows, sustaining that level of success deep into the playoffs in consecutive years is one of the hardest feats, largely due to the fact teams are playing 100-game seasons and absorbing so much extra physical wear-and-tear.

Their seemingly impenetrable defense and future Hall of Fame goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looked vulnerable in the finals, and they started preseason with a combined losing margin of 14-2 in their first three games.

But this is the Lightning, and they still boast one of the best goalies in the sport, as well as a core of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman still in their prime.

They have earned the benefit of the doubt, and are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

Will this be the year for McDavid and the Oilers?

The best player in hockey and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP, McDavid enjoyed his first taste of playoff success as the Oilers won two series before being knocked out by the Avalanche in the Western Conference finals.

Prior to that, McDavid only had one series win in his first six seasons in the league, but he has led the NHL in points now on four occasions and it took an unbelievable 60-goal season from Toronto's Matthews to deny the 25-year-old his third Hart Trophy.

The trio of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl (who won the 2020 Hart Trophy and scored 55 goals last term) and Evander Kane constitute one of the best offensive units in the league, and they had won six of their past seven playoff games before being swept by the Avalanche.

With McDavid, the Oilers have one of the most talented players in the history of the sport who still may have his best hockey ahead of him. After falling just short last season, it would be no surprise to see him carry his team another step further.

Who are the Hart Memorial Trophy contenders?

McDavid will enter the season as the favourite, as alongside fellow 25-year-old and former top overall draft pick Matthews, he figures to reign over the league for the foreseeable future.

If he was on another team, Draisaitl would have to be considered a true contender, having already won the award in 2020, but playing next to McDavid limits the number of votes he can receive.

The Wild's Kaprizov is on an ascending trajectory, having won the 2021 Calder Memorial Trophy for Rookie of the Year before rising to All-Star status this past campaign, and could be a dark horse.

There has only been one goaltender to win the award since 2002 – Carey Price with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015 – but Shesterkin from the Rangers and Vasilevskiy from the Lightning both possess the ability and the star power to enter consideration if their teams put together outlier defensive seasons.

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