Parade and parties over, Avs focus on Stanley Cup defense

DENVER (AP) — Erik Johnson just didn’t have enough hours in the day for all of the plans he had for his new companion, the Stanley Cup.

The veteran Colorado defenseman made the rounds the best he could this month as he celebrated the Avalanche’s first title since 2001. For starters, there were the brunch-time cocktails ( Bloody Mary’s featuring celery sticks and donut pieces ) out of the Cup, followed by taking the trophy for a Slip ’N Slide ride in the backyard. He showed it off to Colorado fans (the Cup got to hang out of a sunroof) before visiting an animal clinic. Then, he jetted off to California to display it at the Del Mar Racetrack, where it even got to meet the NBA championship trophy.

“By the time I got to my party … I looked and it was 11 (p.m.), and had an hour left with the Cup,” Johnson cracked on the eve of training camp. “I just want to do it again.”

Not an easy assignment, though. The Avalanche return from their fun-loving, Cup-hoisting summer adventures knowing this: Staying at hockey’s mountaintop may prove even more difficult than reaching that summit. There have been two teams to repeat in the cap era that began in 2005 — Tampa Bay (’20, ’21) and Pittsburgh (’16, ’17).

“If you win, you remember the success at the end of the year and it’s easy to forget just how hard it was to get there and all the sacrifices you have to make as a team,” explained coach Jared Bednar, whose team dethroned the Lightning in six games. “It’s a long, tough road and our guys are going to have to be willing to climb the mountain again and do all the right things because we’re starting fresh.”

With some new faces, too.

Like goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers and will step in for Darcy Kuemper ( now in Washington ). There’s also, Evan Rodrigues, who signed a one-year deal to help the team fill the void of losing Nazem Kadri in free agency to Calgary.

But the pillars remain in place with Mikko Rantanen, Stanley Cup playoff MVP Cale Makar, captain Gabriel Landeskog and fast-skating, hard-shooting forward Nathan MacKinnon. Just before camp, the 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year contract worth $100.8 million.

“He’s been the guy driving our team for a long time and couldn’t be happier for him,” Landeskog said. “It’s super well-deserved.”

Johnson quickly added: “Now we can all focus on my extension.”

There was some thought the 34-year-old Johnson might give consideration hanging it up on the high note. After all, this was a tough moment to top: Receiving the Cup from good friend Landeskog on the ice in Tampa. It was the best experience of his life, Johnson said.

“Honestly, I was thinking after we won and some of the dust settled, ‘How am I going to get ready to play this year? How do you do this again?’” said Johnson, a former No. 1 pick traded by St. Louis to Colorado in 2011. “Then as the summer was sort of ramping back up, I was just like, ‘I’m so ready to start again.’ I really haven’t been more excited for a season in maybe forever.”

For the last few seasons, the Avalanche have been driven by second-round exits. In 2020, the Avalanche lost in Game 7 to Dallas. In 2021, there was a bitter loss to a hard-hitting Vegas team. All of that fueled the Avalanche in their run to this title, where they went 16-4 along the way.

The fuel now is different — keeping the Cup.

“It’s the itch and the will to win again,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “We felt what it feels like and it’s a pretty good feeling for sure.”

NOTES: Bednar said Valeri Nichushkin (foot) is back skating, but won’t be a full participant to start training camp. … Darren Helm (lower body), Landeskog (lower body) and Josh Manson (personal) were not expected on the ice to start camp. … Rodrigues will wear jersey No. 9 for Colorado. … Center Alex Galchenyuk is in camp on a professional tryout deal. He has 146 career goals over 643 games. He played last season with Arizona.

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