The Colorado Avalanche have reached the unforgiving phase of their development. The phase where just being a talented contender that makes the playoffs and wins a series is no longer going to be considered good enough.
They have set a high bar for themselves and created a certain level of hype and expectation. That expectation is a championship. And every year they fall short of that expectation, the outside noise is going to keep getting louder, and louder, and louder. You can already see it starting to happen in the wake of their Second Round loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, which is their third consecutive Second Round defeat.
On paper, it should be the best team in the league and most postseason predictions had them winning the Stanley Cup this season. There are superstars at the top of the lineup, an elite defense, young talent all over the roster, a really good coach, and a salary cap situation that isn’t overly complicated because the best player (Nathan MacKinnon) is signed at a steal of a rate. Every year they get a little better, and a little more impressive, and have a management that is willing to go all in on trying to win right now with this core. They are always adding.
But for now they are stuck at the Second Round. And whenever a great team with high expectations keeps hitting the same wall at the same point in the playoffs you start to hear the same old narratives. They need to learn how to win, they need to add some different character, they need to trade somebody to shake things up. Washington went through it. Tampa Bay went through it. St. Louis went through it. Pittsburgh went through it between its Stanley Cups in 2009 and 2016 and 2017. They all eventually broke through.
[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
The same can happen for the Avalanche, but they have to trust the talent and the course they have set for themselves. Because it is good enough.
The issue is not the core, or the roster, or anything with the team they have assembled. The problem in this particular year is the playoff format and divisional alignment put them into a spot where they had to play the team that tied them for the best record in the league in the Second Round. An equally talented Stanley Cup contender that split the regular season series with them. That was always going to be a 50/50 series and one legitimate Stanley Cup contender was guaranteed to go home early. It just so happened to be the Avalanche. It is not a failure. It is just the nature of the beast.
Every year there are five or six teams that, if everything goes their way, should see themselves as a legitimate Stanley Cup champion. All but one of them will lose, and it is not necessarily because they did anything wrong or need to make dramatic changes to their roster or organization.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Third Round schedule, TV info]
Looking at the Avalanche, there is no need to alter much here. The talent is elite across the board, and teams with that sort of talent tend to eventually reach their goal. Sometimes it just takes a little longer than fans, media, or even the team itself hopes.
Having said that, the Avalanche could still have a slightly different look next season given their free agent situation.
Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, and both goalies (Philipp Grubauer and Devan Dubnyk) are unrestricted free agents. And while the salary cap situation is manageable, they also have to worry about a new contract for restricted free agent defenseman Cale Makar, and that will not be cheap.
They are also going to have to lose somebody in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken.
So some changes are on the horizon. It is certainly possible that at least one (Saad?), if not more (the goalies), of those UFA’s is playing somewhere else.
But this is still an incredibly talented team whose championship window is wide open. They have MVP caliber forwards, a couple of Norris caliber defenders, and another wave of impact talent (Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram) ready to reach the NHL and make an impact.
They did not get the result they wanted this season, and MacKinnon might be frustrated he is entering his ninth season and has still not won anything. But there is no timeline for when a team has to win the Stanley Cup, as long as you eventually get there. It took Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals more than a decade where he was unable to get out of the Second Round. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos kept losing in the Conference Final, and then a four-game sweep at the hands of Columbus, before finally winning it all. The Blues’ championship came in a year where everybody had completely given up on them and written off their window. None of those teams shook up their roster. They stuck with their core. And they eventually got rewarded.
This Colorado team can definitely get there, and history suggests that it eventually will. It just requires a little patience.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.