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NHL - US Sports: Five teams that can challenge for Stanley Cup glory

After the Colorado Avalanche were recently crowned Stanley Cup champions for the first time in over two decades, attention now turns to the 2022/23 season with several teams expected to challenge for glory. 

We look at five of the most likely.

Colorado Avalanche

The reigning champions have been instilled as early favourites at +400 to regain their crown in 2022/23 and with a settled core of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and Conn Smythe Trophy holder Cale Makar, they willl certainly take some beating.  

Confidence will be high for the Avalanche, who went 16-4 in the recent playoffs to banish all past demons of three straight second-round exits. Impressively, they lost just once on the road (9-1) and managed to close out each series on their opponent's ice. 

Like all successful teams, the reigning champions will need to do some manoeuvring in the off-season to replace key parts of their line-up.

Departures may include Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichuskin and Andre Burakovsky, who all require new and better deals, which is likely to prove difficult for the Avalanche to fit within their cap.

Colorado may also need to seek reinforcements further down their line-up as well with depth players such as Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano set to become unrestricted free agents. 

The turnover shouldn't be a huge concern for Colorado, though, with Sakic proving more than capable of finding adequate support to the Avalanche's impressive star cast. 

Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite not managing to advance past the first round of a playoff round since 2004, the Leafs' latest defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning felt different and left them with plenty of room for optimism. 

The Leafs matched the two-time Stanley Cup winners throughout most of the recent first round series and at times had the Lightning on the ropes before narrowly losing out 2-1 in a Game 7. 

Toronto, who are +700 for Stanley Cup glory next season, enjoyed a franchise-best 115 point (54-21-7) regular season, led by 24-year-old Auston Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player after becoming the first in a decade to score 60 goals.

Florida Panthers

Another team who enjoyed an historical best regular season was the Florida Panthers, who won the Presidents' Trophy with 122 points and a 58-18-6 record.

They also took a step forward in their playoff journey, winning a series for the first time since 1996, defeating the Washington Capitals in six games.  

Disappointingly, the Panthers were swept by the Lightning at the second-round stage as their potent offense stuttered and their powerplay, which was so effective in the regular season, got shut down. 

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Florida led the NHL by averaging 4.11 goals per-game during the regular season but scored just three goals in the four games against the Lightning. 

With a new coach in Paul Maurice (formerly of Winnipeg Jets), the Panthers will no doubt learn from the bitter experience and if they can translate their regular season form into the playoffs, there may be little stopping them. 

They are +800 to lift the Stanley Cup in 2022-23. 

Tampa Bay Lightning

Coach Jon Cooper and Captain Steven Stamkos vowed that the Tampa Bay Lightning would be back after their three-peat dream was dashed by the Avalanche this year. 

With a core of the likes of Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy - widely regarded as the best goalie in the world - all frustrated and motivated more than ever to regain their crown, it's hard not to consider them a serious contender, as their odds of +1000 also suggest.

General Manager Julien BriseBois did an excellent job of overcoming the challenge Colorado find themselves in now, replenishing Tampa's depth in the 2021 off-season after Barclay Goodgrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman sought pastures new.

Veteran Corey Perry, Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul all performed well in the recent playoffs, and there's little reason to think the Tampa group won't be able to reach a fourth consecutive Final. 

After all, they have proven to be perennial playoff performers before their defeat in the Final, winning 11 consecutive series', which was the third most in NHL history. 

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights, who are +1400 for the Stanley Cup, might appear a surprise addition on the list of top five contenders after missing out on the playoffs completely last season. But ever since making the Stanley Cup Final in their 2017/18 inaugural season, the franchise has been in 'go for it' mode.

Any superstar that becomes available, Vegas show interest and only last season they acquired Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres. 

Vegas suffered terrible injury trouble in the recent campaign, and not least to players who they depend on the most. Overall, 478-man games were lost to injury, and they were the most affected team in the NHL when considering lost players' point share (39.7). 

Captain Mark Stone was a particular key absentee, requiring back surgery which kept him out for the remainder of the campaign from February onwards.  

With him and other key components back to full strength, expect the Golden Knights to come back reinvigorated, guided by new coach Bruce Cassidy who made the playoffs six consecutive times with the Boston Bruins before surprisingly being fired.

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