Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche were the hunters.
Unable to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs three years running, they finally got over the hump last spring before sweeping Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final and beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games to win the franchise’s third Stanley Cup – and first in more than two decades.
So, what changes now that the script has been flipped and Colorado is the matchup circled for the NHL’s other 31 teams?
“Nothing,” responded the ultra-intense MacKinnon. “I keep getting asked if I’m gonna, like, chill out now. I don’t feel any different. We’re still hunting.
“But it’s fun to have that experience now and have the confidence to do it again.”
Colorado defenceman Cale Makar, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top blue-liner in 2021-22, expects his team to thrive on the extra attention.
“We’re gonna be the ones that are getting gunned for,” he said. “It’s exciting when you have the ability to be at the top and then everybody wants at you.
“And you have that ability to take over that whole thing.”
The Avalanche raised the bar in a 2021-22 season where offence around the league hit levels not seen since the mid-1990s.
“Just never-ending waves of pressure,” Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger said of Colorado’s attack.
“We played them a bunch and got an idea of how good they were and how many skilled guys they have,” Anaheim Ducks centre Trevor Zegras said. “When they’re all pushing each other to be the best, that’s what you get – the Stanley Cup.
“A lot of fun to watch.”
Darcy Kuemper, who hoisted hockey’s holy grail to conclude his one season with the Avalanche before signing with the Washington Capitals in free agency, said Colorado’s depth is something the rest of the NHL is chasing.
“The top-end guys are really world-class,” he said. “If you take care of them, then it was just the next wave coming at you. We were just really tough for teams to match up against.
“It was hard to find a weak point.”
The gauntlet, in short, has been laid down for the rest of the league.
“Just the level that you have to get to,” McDavid said of what his group learned in the conference final against the Avalanche. “You see a lot of sacrifices that go on in the playoffs.
“It takes just about everything that you have.”
The Canadian Press looks at some of the other storylines to watch throughout the 2022-23 campaign.
The 23-year-old is coming off one of the best-ever seasons by a defenceman after winning his first Norris and then adding the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
What does he do for an encore?
“It’s not about topping that,” Makar said. “I go back to just the consistency. You look at all the guys like (Victor) Hedman, (Roman) Josi – they’re so consistent defensively, offensively and supporting their team year in, year out. That’s what makes them so unique.
“With team success comes individual success.”
Old faces, new places
Plenty of teams saw players come and go this summer.
Calgary said goodbye to Johnny Gaudreau in free agency when he surprised the hockey world by signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Flames then dealt Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers in a blockbuster trade for a package that included Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.
Huberdeau, Weegar and Tkachuk have all signed long-term contract extensions with their new clubs.
“I was a little down,” Huberdeau said of his mindset immediately following the trade away from the only NHL organization he’d ever known. “But at some point I said, ‘You’ve got to turn the page.’
“I want to be (in Calgary) for a long time.”
Another big name switching jerseys this summer was Jack Campbell, who bolted the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, while Claude Giroux signed with the Ottawa Senators after being a trade-deadline acquisition by Florida, and Nazem Kadri inked a deal with Calgary in the wake of his Cup victory with Colorado.
Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski said fans in Columbus deserved a star like Gaudreau after so many left town – Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky among them – in recent years.
“They’ve seen a lot of guys walk out the door,” Wereneski said. “This year, they got to see a guy walk in the door.
“And it’s the biggest fish on the market.”
No fewer than 13 teams will have different head coaches to start the schedule compared to a year ago.
Bruce Boudreau (Vancouver), Jay Woodcroft (Edmonton) and Martin St. Louis (Montreal) were all mid-season hires brought back by their clubs.
The rest of the list goes as follows: Jim Montgomery (Boston), Luke Richardson (Chicago), Peter DeBoer (Dallas), Derek Lalonde (Detroit), Paul Maurice (Florida), Lane Lambert (New York Islanders), John Tortorella (Philadelphia), David Quinn (San Jose), Bruce Cassidy (Vegas) and Rick Bowness (Winnipeg).
Auston Matthews won last season’s Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, but McDavid enters as the betting favourite to capture the award a third time.
Matthews scored 60 goals in 2021-22 – the most since Steven Stamkos a decade ago – while McDavid topped the NHL with 123 points.
Edmonton teammate Leon Draisaitl, the 2020 winner, and New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin, third in voting last season, should also be in the mix.
And then there’s MacKinnon, who’s finished second twice to go along with a third-place showing.
“I have been up for three,” he said, before adding of voters from the Professional Hockey Writers Association: “It’s just tough to put your happiness into ‘Jim from Philly’ that didn’t vote for me. Like, what am I supposed to do?
“I can’t help it if people don’t vote for me.”
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press