The Avalanche will again be Stanley Cup-or-bust next season

The win window remains open. wide open.

After winning the first Stanley Cup in 21 years, the Colorado Avalanche may just be getting started.

“That’s a great team over there,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. “They deserve it as champions.”

The Avs are now aiming to follow the Lightnings as the NHL’s next back-to-back champion.

“They win two trophies and are back in the final. I have to take my hat off again because I don’t know how they did it,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of Lightning. “I’m just starting to figure it out and I think our players are, too. There’s a tremendous amount of respect there; They were the benchmark that we as a team have in mind and want to emulate.”

Most of Colorado’s core players remain under contract for next season, and many are suspended well beyond. Among the 13 players signed for 2022/23 are forwards Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog and defenders Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Sam Girard and Bo Byram.

And Bednar, who signed a two-year contract extension in December, will almost certainly be behind the bench for the foreseeable future.

“I look back on it now and I’m thrilled with how this season has gone,” said Bednar after hoisting the Stanley Cup at the Amalie Arena. “I think the maturity and growth of our players over the past few years, feeling that heartbreak, has really changed us this year in terms of our resilience and focus. I used to laugh when people said you have to lose before you win, but I think in this case it was an important lesson for our team that we learned and helped our team maturity get the point achieve where we were able to win the trophy.”

The learning curve is complete. The regulars under contract will now teach newcomers these skills.

With forwards Nazem Kadri and Valeri Nichushkin, and defenders Josh Manson and goaltender Darcy Kuemper all free agents, the franchise is sure to lose some key elements of its championship lineup.

Forwards Andre Burakovsky, Darren Helm, Andrew Cogliano and Nico Sturm are also lined up as unrestricted free agents, alongside defenseman Jack Johnson. Thus, young up-and-coming talent with relatively cheap entry-level contracts will become necessary players below a salary cap of $82.5 million next season.

Look for forwards like Oskar Olausson, Ben Meyers, Martin Kaut and Sampo Ranta to spend more time with the Avs than the Minors next season. Colorado lost its top two defensemen (Justin Barron, Drew Helleson) at the close, but the Avs already have arguably the best blueline in the NHL.

Goalie is the biggest question mark as Kuemper seems committed to at least testing the free agent market.

Avalanche CEO Joe Sakic and his staff have done a remarkable job of shaping this team since ending Bednar’s inaugural season in 2016-17 with a league-low 22 wins and 48 points.

“I have to thank Joe and our ownership group for trusting me that I could be a guy that helped us win and stuck with me and was patient which gave me an opportunity to come back after this year,” said Bednar. “It’s often not a forgiving league. And just build from there. I felt like we took big steps in the next year and started to rebuild.

“Obviously the rebuild was a lot easier when there were players like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabe Landeskog to name a few. And since then it’s been a slow build-up. I felt like we’ve had some really good teams here in recent years and we’ve just fallen short. That became more and more difficult for me as a coach because we had such high expectations.”

Those cup-or-bust expectations will hold true next season. And the Avs want to use the same script. Stick to the winning process. Keep believing in trust between players, coaches and management.

“You never thought ahead. They just prepared and focused every day,” Sakic said of the winning process. “It’s been a long year with all the positive sides, but it was worth it. The guys that stuck with it and wanted to be part of the rebuild five years ago: (Erik) Johnson, Landeskog, MacKinnon, Rantanen – those guys. I’m really happy for the boys.

“This group, that was a great group. They believed in each other all year and really stuck together and never let anything get in their way. If they had a bad game, they were ready to do better the next day.”

The property is consistent with the process. Stan Kroenke and his family want to keep the Avs among the best in the league.

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