The 2021-22 Stanley Cup Champions
It started with a quote from Nathan MacKinnon after they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round. "I'm going into my ninth year next year, and I haven't won shit. So, I'm just definitely motivated, and it just sucks losing four in a row to a team." The Avalanche had lost in the second round three times in a row. The first two times in Game 7 and this time losing four in a row after winning the first two. The best champions are often born from heartbreaking losses. This quote began their transformation from a Stanley Cup contender to a champion.
The Avalanche lost Joonas Donskoi and Brandon Saad but gained their top two goalies by acquiring Darcy Kuemper and having Pavel Francouz return from injury. The Avalanche finished three points away from the best record in the NHL. Had they won the President's Trophy, they would have been the first team to win the Stanley Cup the same season since the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. The Avalanche beat the New Jersey Devils in seven games. I taped Game 7 on my VCR. I never watched it, and I don't know where it is, but I taped it. The Avalanche had an 18-game unbeaten home streak, during which they had ten wins in a row and tied the NHL record for most wins in any month with 15. They finished the season in the top ten in goals, goals against, and power play percentage. In other words, they were dominant.
The Avalanche opened up their playoff run against the Nashville Predators, a very physical team that's been the Avalanche's Achilles heel. But the Avalanche showed they were up to the task matching their physicality and even outhitting them in the close-out game. They outscored them 21-9 during their sweep and seemed like a different team that no one would push around. Kuemper suffered his first injury, and Francouz won the final two games.
In the second round, the Avalanche faced the St. Louis Blues in a fairly close series, but you always knew the Avalanche were the better team. The Avalanche lost Game 2, their first bad playoff game. But they quickly recovered with two wins. Their only other loss was Game 5 after they blew a 3-0 lead. Two minutes after the Blues tied it, MacKinnon went coast to coast for the potential game-winner. But the Blues tied it up two minutes later with less than a minute to play. The Avalanche lost in overtime when they couldn't locate the puck off a funny bounce. They probably would have won if not for that play. They closed out the series in dramatic fashion with Darren Helm scoring a goal with six seconds left in Game 6.
In the Semifinals, the Avalanche faced the Edmonton Oilers in a matchup featuring several young stars. Even though it was another sweep, the Avalanche needed to work hard for the series win. The Oilers matched the Avalanche's high scoring and needed to score quickly to stop their momentum. They scored fourteen goals in Game 1. Three times one team matched the other's goal within 31 seconds or less. The Avalanche lost Kuemper for the series in Game 1. But Francouz stepped in again and played well. They also lost Nazem Kadri in Game 3. Game 4 featured 11 goals and an overtime winner by Artturi Lehkonen to end the series.
The Stanley Cup Finals pitted the Avalanche vs. the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite being the champs, the Lightning had to work extra hard to get here, except against the Florida Panthers. Despite Francouz's 6-0 record, the Avalanche returned to Kuemper, who was mostly decent. The Avalanche won a close and exciting Game 1 in overtime. Both teams were banged up, but the Avalanche were clearly the better team, especially in their dominant 7-0 win in Game 2. The Lightning had their own dominant game in Game 3. After getting the blowouts out of the way, we had three close and riveting games, including another overtime win for the Avalanche, who finished 5-1 in overtime games. A stark contrast from when the Lightning lost all their overtime games last postseason but still won the Stanley Cup anyway.
Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe, and it's hard to argue against the phenom. He was third in playoff scoring and fifth in plus-minus, things that are hard to accomplish as a defenseman. The other top three Avalanche players Mikko Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog finished in the top nine in playoff scoring.
The Avalanche have a great chance to win another Stanley Cup over the next few seasons. But it won't be easy because there are several quality teams. They lost Darcy Kuemper after only one season, but it's not a significant loss with the edition of Alexandar Georgiev. I'd still like to see Francouz get a fair shot at the top spot. As long as they stay healthy, they'll contend.
Breakout of the Year
Jason Robertson – Dallas Stars
It's hard for a player to have a greater impact than Robertson did for the Stars. He more than doubled his rookie season goal total to 41 to lead the Stars in goals and tied for the NHL lead in game-winning goals with 11, and boy, were they exciting. Roberston and Roope Hintz will form a formidable duo for the Stars for a long time. He's a potential 50-goal scorer. Not bad for the 39th pick in the 2017 draft.
Rookie of the Year
Michael Bunting and Trevor Zegras – Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks
In the real world, Moritz Seider won this award, and rightfully so. He's a defenseman on the Detroit Red Wings who scored 50 points in his rookie season. The problem is I've never seen him play. I have no idea what I'd write. Instead, I'll write about the next best rookies. Few players have impressed so early as them. Bunting helped form one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL. His net presence and hustle are something you can't teach. The Arizona Coyotes letting him go is one of many reasons they are so bad. Zegras' playmaking is also unteachable. It's a natural ability. It's scary to think about what else he can do when he gets more experience. The Ducks have found their replacement for the retired Ryan Getzlaf. Both scored 23 goals last season, but 30+ seasons are in their future.
Goalie of the Year
Igor Shesterkin – New York Rangers
Shesterkin fell three wins short of the goalie triple crown, posting a .935 SV%, 2.07 GAA, 36 wins, and six shutouts. Impressive numbers for his first NHL season. Shesterkin continued his strong play in the playoffs. His bad games were deceiving because those goals weren't his fault. The sky's the limit for Shesterkin, but there are a few goalies who burned brightly early and faded quickly. But that will unlikely happen here, even in New York City.
Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could probably win this every year, but that's no fun. Matthews finally broke into his own this season and led the NHL with 60 goals. The first to do so in a decade and the first US-born player to ever do it. He has the power to take over games, and he did that more this season. He continued his high level of play in the postseason, scoring over a point per game for the first time. But alas, it was not enough. However, we have not seen the best of Matthews yet. Next playoffs, he has a chance to break out like McDavid did this one. He's also on pace to break the NHL's all-time game-winning goal record.
Most Valuable Player to his Team
Johnny Gaudreau – Calgary Flames
In many ways, Matthews is the most valuable player on his team. But the Maple Leafs didn't win the division or get out of the first round. He's not there yet. Gaudreau is the engine that drives the Flames, and he set career highs in goals, assists, points, and game-winning goals and led them to their second division title during his Flames' career. He scored in all but three playoff games this season. The most eye-popping stat is his career-high plus-minus of 64. Good enough for the 45th best season of all time. He's the first to get that high since Wayne Gretzky posted 69 all the way back in 1986-87 when it was a completely different era. But now he's gone, and it won't be easy to fill his skates. Matthew Tkachuk is also gone, but they did get Jonathan Huberdeau in return (more on that later). It'll be an interesting season in Calgary. But I have no doubt Gaudreau will make the Columbus Blue Jackets instantly better.