(Denver) Cale Makar sat in uniform in front of his locker — his skate laces still tied — for long periods after the Colorado Avalanche were eliminated.

The star defender was not ready to move on after a rollercoaster season marred by injuries and other odd situations.

Reality was just beginning to form in his mind: the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup title defense ended after just seven games and in the first round against the Seattle Kraken, now in their second season. in the NHL. As much as the summer was short in 2022, it will be long in 2023.

Many difficult decisions will have to be made and questions may remain unanswered for a long time.

Questions like: will captain Gabriel Landeskog be able to return after missing the entire season due to knee surgery? What will happen with striker Valeri Nichushkin, who missed the last five games against Kraken for personal reasons? Will management be able to offer better offensive support staff to stars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen?

“You want to win every year and you know how hard it is to get there,” Makar said. Unfortunately, we lacked consistency and sometimes we couldn’t work on our game. But I’m proud of the group. »

The Avalanche were out of the playoff picture at the start of 2023. By mid-January, the defending champions were 14 points behind first place in the Central Division. Despite the injuries, they regrouped and went 31-7-4 down the stretch to win the section title.

“A lot of people thought we were dead and buried in January or February,” noted veteran defenseman Erik Johnson, whose contract is about to expire. We have found a way to turn the tide. I hate moral victories, but if you insist on finding a positive, we can say that the team never gave up. »

Landeskog’s absence seemed to hurt. He attempted a return to the game, but announced just before the playoffs that he was not ready yet. He doesn’t know when he will be ready.

Then Nichushkin found himself sidelined. He provided 17 goals and 30 assists in 53 regular season games. The Avalanche signed him to an eight-year, $49 million contract extension last summer.

In all, the Avalanche used 43 different players during the regular season, a record since the team arrived in Denver before the 1995-96 season.

“Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you hoped it would,” philosophized head coach Jared Bednar. You have to keep working and you will overcome these obstacles. You have to show character.

“When you experience the ecstasy of victory, you want to relive that every year. But when you win, a lot happens. »

Many Avalanche players could take advantage of free agency over the summer, including forwards J.T. Compher, Lars Eller, Evans Rodrigues, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm and Matt Nieto, as well as defenseman Jack Johnson.

In terms of good news, Rantanen and MacKinnon have had other standout seasons.

Rantanen scored a total of 62 goals, becoming only the third player in team history to reach that milestone including the season and playoffs. He is part of a select club along with Joe Sakic (69 in 1995-96, 67 in 2000-01) and Michel Goulet (66 in 1984-85).

For his part, MacKinnon provided three goals and four assists in the playoffs despite being the focus of the Kraken’s defensive strategy, having tallied 42 goals and 69 assists in the regular season. MacKinnon reached 100 career playoff points, becoming the third player in team history to do so after Sakic (188) and Peter Forsberg (159).