DENVER (AP) — Nazem Kadri will be jubilantly waving to the fans at the parade Thursday through the streets of Denver.
Possibly waving goodbye, too.
Some tough decisions loom for the Colorado Avalanche after dethroning the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final.
As the players party and mingle with the fans in the Mile High City to celebrate the franchise’s third Stanley Cup title, there’s this difficult reality: Quite a few of them may not get the opportunity to return and defend the crown. This could be their farewell.
The list of unrestricted free agent players includes big-time contributors such as Kadri, Darcy Kuemper, Andrew Cogliano, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson and Valeri Nichushkin. There are also several restricted free agents like Artturi Lehkonen and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
It will be a tall task for general manager Joe Sakic to bring back everyone.
So they’ll soak up the good times on the parade route — one final memory in what’s been an epic season.
“Surreal,” defenseman Cale Makar said after his team beat the Lightning in Game 6 on Sunday night to secure the title. “I’m not too worried about the sentimental stuff but just the celebrating is the main thing with the boys.”
The core group led the way: Makar, Mikko Rantanen, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson. With the exception of Makar, they were around for the dismal 48-point season in 2016-17, when this title seemed like nothing more than a pipedream.
“I didn’t know if I was even going to be in Colorado after that,” the 34-year-old Johnson said. “I sat down with Joe (Sakic) and said, ‘Listen, I want to do this here. I want to get this done in Colorado. Keep me a part of it.’ And we did it. Amazing. So proud of everyone.”
Down the road, there could be two Makars on the ice for the Avalanche. Cale’s younger brother, Taylor, was picked in the seventh round by Colorado in 2021. Taylor, a forward, was on hand to watch his brother not only win the Stanley Cup but earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the postseason. This on top of Cale capturing the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
“It’s insane for me to watch,” Taylor said. “He’s the hardest working person I’ve ever known. He’s so dedicated. It’s so funny to see us grow up together, have those sibling fights, battle playing fake Stanley Cup and mini-sticks. To see him finally be able to lift that, I know he’s always wanted that.”
It was a memorable postseason for Kadri, too. There was the controversy against St. Louis. Then he needed thumb surgery after being hurt in the Western Conference Final against Edmonton, only to make it back in time for Game 4 at Tampa, where he scored the overtime winner.
“You work your whole life for this and now it’s here,” Kadri said of winning the Cup. “Incredible feeling.”
Sakic is the first in league history to win the Stanley Cup as a captain and later a general manager for the same franchise, according to NHL Stats. This one, though, was much more stressful.
“When you have to sit upstairs and watch the last five minutes of the game, your heart was probably beating more than it was as a player,” said Sakic, the Hall of Fame forward who led the Avalanche to titles in 1996 and 2001.
ALL THE SMALL THINGS
The band blink-182 gave a shoutout to the Avalanche for their Stanley Cup title. Their hit song “All The Small Things” has been adopted by the crowd as fans sing along in the third period.
The Twitter account belonging to “ The Stanley Cup ” even posted the song lyrics, “turn the lights off, carry me home,” after Colorado won.
OUT OF THE BLUE LINE
Led by Makar, the Avalanche received 69 points from their defensemen during their playoff run. That was second-most in a postseason, trailing only the 1985 Edmonton Oilers (77 points).
Colorado’s blueline set franchise records in goals (64) and points (238) during the regular season.
Makar became the youngest defenseman to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy since Bobby Orr in 1970. Makar finished with eight goals and 21 assists in the postseason.
“I would’ve said a few months ago this guy’s never going to surprise me anymore,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “But he continued to do that through the playoffs for me.”
RUN FOR THE AGES
The Avalanche went 16-4 on their way to the Cup, including sweeps of Nashville and Edmonton. The only Stanley Cup winner with fewer losses since all rounds went to a best-of-seven format in 1987 was Edmonton, which lost only twice in ’88.
Colorado also broke club marks for wins (56) and points (119) in the regular season.
“If they had a bad game, they got right up the next day ready to be better,” Sakic said.
Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke commended the work of Sakic.
“Joe is awesome,” said Kroenke, who also owns the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams and whose Colorado Mammoth win the National Lacrosse League title this month. “The hardest thing is to stay good all the time. Of course, the minute I came down here, the players were coming up to me saying, ‘This is amazing. Let’s do it again.’ That’s hard to do.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports