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October 2, 2019

Plan the parade,

Mayor Hancock:

Avs will win Stanley Cup


 This is not a "per sources" news flash, nor was it leaked to me by, oh, I don't know, NHL Central Registry. 


One of the beauties of the NHL is that any of the 16 teams making the playoffs could win the Stanley Cup.


It's not just rhetoric.


It's not marketing department propaganda.


It happens, thanks to hot goaltending and other variables in the most physically and mentally testing postseason in professional sports. The Blues were the worst team in the NHL for a significant part of the 2018-19 season before starting the run that culminated in an unlikely.championship  


The Avalanche has gotten that good. It usually takes good fortune and a few good bounces, not flukish good luck, to make it through and end up taking turns holding aloft Lord Stanley's lovely parting gift to the Dominion of Canada. But now, the planets don't even need to be completely aligned for the Avalanche to claim the franchise's third NHL championship -- and its first in 19 years.


It may well turn out  might turn out that the Avs are a year (or more) away, or that we're all overrating them, but on the eve of the regular-season opener at home against Calgary, I'll get this on the record. I'm a contrarian, and in 24 years of covering the franchise, I've been accused of bending over backwards to avoid being labeled a homer, but I honestly believe this. Coming out of the challenging Central Division, the Avs can -- and will -- pull it off.   


If you're reading this, I probably don't have to rattle off the reasons, or the potential pitfalls.


This mainly assumes Philipp Grubauer's work in goal during the regular season stretch run and postseason was a harbinger, not an aberration. 


I might be the only person on the planet still wondering if Colorado's defense, with the unquestionably electric and talented Cale Makar and Samuel Girard still possibly paired, could be too small for the 82-game grind -- even after the departure of Tyson Barrie. Joe Sakic's offseason acquisitions -- some of which he discussed at his Wednesday news conference (pictured) -- seem to have addressed the issue of secondary scoring, and Nazem Kadri's sharp-edged emotion could be beneficial for this team ... if he finally knows when not to step over the line to counterproductive and selfish.


Nathan MacKinnon's progress from underachieving and disappointing, to being the sort of generational talent he wasn't even billed to be when he went first overall in the 2013 draft, has been enjoyable to watch. There no reason to expect his improvement to slow, and part of that is his attitude: He has remained hungry, he is in superb condition as a leader of offseason work in Vail, in addition to with Sidney Crosby in their native Halifax, and he won't be affected by the weirdness of his contract situation.


He was wide-eyed and awed when he signed a seven-year, $44.1 million extension that runs through 2022-23. He initially was overpaid. For the past couple of seasons, his deal was about "right." And now, in part because Mikko Rantanen's cap hit will be $9.25 million for the next six seasons, MacKinnon will be "underpaid." But that's the NHL's hard cap -- I still hear folks saying the Avalanche should do right by McKinnon and give him a new deal -- and renegotiation is impossible. 


The most underplayed aspect of the Avalanche's return is that Colorado is only a little over two years removed from the worst bang-for-the buck season in NHL history, when it had 48 points in a hideous 2016-17 as it scraped the salary cap ceiling. (That's really hard to do.) In that context, the turnaround -- which led to No. 8 seeds the past two seasons and a first-round upset of the Flames last season -- has been stunning.


Now comes the bigger challenge. This hasn't gone unnoticed. The Avalanche won't sneak up on anyone. Colorado is a fashionable choice to make additional waves this season. I hate going along with the crowd, caving in to fashion.


But count me in.


"We expect to make the playoffs and make a run at the Stanley Cup," Sakic said Wednesday. "Pretty much every GM at the start of the year is going to say the same thing. Tht's our expectation, get off to a good start, play consistent. We like our group internally. We want to win and that's our goal. . . I believe in this group. I believe that we have a chance. It's not going to be easy. It never is. But we're confident in this group and we know the type of character we have in there. They have one goal. That's to win. And we believe in them."