A look at Nathan MacKinnon, this year’s NHL superstar breakout player

Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar on HC at Noon to discuss why this year is different in Colorado, and how the Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen line has become very consistently dynamic.

The Colorado Avalanche are one of 15 NHL teams currently enjoying some time off on its league-mandated bye week.

When they finally get back to action this weekend, they won’t have to wait long to start checking off some milestones. The next point they secure will be their 48th of the season, matching their total from all of last year. Their next win will be their 23rd, surpassing the pitiful sum they were able to muster in 2016-17.

The transformation from one year to the next has been nothing short of staggering. By essentially going from being an historical footnote for all of the wrong reasons to a team hanging around the Western Conference playoff picture, no team has improved by a greater margin from one season to the next than the Avalanche.

Team 2016-2017 Points 2017-2018 Pace Difference
COL 48 94 +46
NJD 70 104 +34
TBL 94 121.1 +27.1
WPG 87 110 +23
DAL 79 97.3 +18.3
LAK 86 103.5 +17.5
NSH 94 109.3 +15.3
BOS 95 108.7 +13.7
CAR 87 91.5 +4.5
VAN 69 72.5 +3.5
DET 79 82 +3
PHI 88 89.8 +1.8
TOR 95 96.6 +1.6
CGY 94 95.3 +1.3
FLA 81 82 +1
SJS 99 98.4 -0.6
STL 99 98 -1
NYR 102 95.7 -6.3
NYI 94 87.7 -6.3
CBJ 108 96.6 -11.4
WSH 118 106.2 -11.8
MIN 106 93.2 -12.8
ANA 105 89.6 -15.4
CHI 109 91.5 -17.5
BUF 78 57.8 -20.2
ARI 70 49.6 -20.4
OTT 98 76.1 -21.9
PIT 111 87.6 -23.4
MTL 103 78.1 -24.9
EDM 103 72.7 -30.3

Whenever a team improves as dramatically as this, it’s never due to just one thing in isolation. Pretty much everything that could’ve gone wrong for them last year did, including things that were out of their own control.

The biggest is that they were likely never as bad as their win-loss record and goal differential would’ve indicated in the first place. From a talent perspective, they were already fighting an uphill battle to begin with, but the percentages – their combined save and shooting percentage (i.e. PDO) at five-on-five was 96.94, the only instance of a team dipping below 97 since we started keeping track of it in 2006 – were ultimately what buried them under a mountain of losses.

The goaltending has gone from absolutely abhorrent to at least passably average. To put the improvement into perspective, the combination of Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier is stopping a higher percentage of shots overall in all situations this season (90.7 per cent) than the four goalies the team trotted out last year did at five-on-five (90.6 per cent).

The team has spiked in save percentage from 30th at five-on-five and 29th overall last season to 13th and 21st respectively this season. Part of the reason for that is they haven’t had to dip into the AHL like last year, when there was a 13-game stretch in which they fed poor Jeremy Smith and Spencer Martin to the wolves.

And yet as big of a jump as they’ve made on that end, it pales in comparison to the strides they’ve made on the other end of the ice. Thanks to some combination of embracing the youth movement by handing the keys to their next generation of talent, and getting more favourable bounces as their shooting percentage rebounds, they’ve been a top-10 offensive team by any measure. They’re eighth in goals per hour at five-on-five, fifth in goals per hour on the power play, and fifth in overall goals on a per-game basis.

The main driving force behind that success has been Nathan MacKinnon, who will have a chance to smash some personal records when the Avalanche resumes play. The next time he registers a point, MacKinnon will match his output for all of last season. Assuming he gets 10 more after that, he’ll match his career high for a single season, which he set all the way back in his 2013-14 rookie campaign when he was still just a fresh-faced teenager.

He’s been nothing short of a revelation this season, finally ascending to the heights many of us had been stubbornly waiting for him to reach ever since he took the league by storm in his rookie season.

The raw talent was never in question. If you sat down someone new to the game and allowed them to watch MacKinnon play without any additional context, you’d have a tough time convincing them that he wasn’t widely considered one of the best or most productive players in the sport. Connor McDavid may be faster and Blake Wheeler may be more powerful, but no one in the league holds a greater abundance of both traits than MacKinnon.

After years of tantalizing us with those god-given physical tools, the on-results have finally started to come. At five-on-five, only Nikita Kucherov has more total points than MacKinnon, and only Jaden Schwartz and Brad Marchand have generated more offence on a per-minute basis. In all situations, only Kucherov and Claude Giroux have accumulated a higher point total (but MacKinnon has been more efficient than the latter in terms of not relying on secondary assists as much, and doing it in fewer minutes).

People have started to take note, vaulting him into the (super-duper premature) discussion for Hart Trophy consideration. Because of the nature of the award, whether that buzz lasts is ultimately dependant on the team’s ability to keep winning games, but it’s tough to argue he’s not deserving right now. Only Jack Eichel has been responsible for a higher percentage of his team’s total offence (by either scoring or directly assisting on any goal scored), and he benefits in a statistic like this because of how incomparably miserable the rest of the team around him is.

Player Team Primary Points Team Goals % Contribution
Jack Eichel BUF 36 99 36.36
Nathan MacKinnon COL 44 135 32.59
Johnny Gaudreau CGY 38 123 30.89
Phil Kessel PIT 37 126 29.37
Sean Couturier PHI 36 123 29.27
Jonathan Huberdeau FLA 35 120 29.17
Mark Stone OTT 34 117 29.06
Nikita Kucherov TBL 46 161 28.57
Connor McDavid EDM 34 119 28.57
Jakub Voracek PHI 35 123 28.46
Alex Ovechkin WSH 38 136 27.94
Brock Boeser VAN 31 111 27.93
Tyler Seguin DAL 36 132 27.27
Blake Wheeler WPG 41 151 27.15
Claude Giroux PHI 33 123 26.83
John Tavares NYI 39 146 26.71
Taylor Hall NJD 34 130 26.15
Patrick Kane CHI 35 134 26.12
Brad Marchand BOS 34 131 25.95
Vlad Tarasenko STL 34 134 25.37

One of the most fun subplots of the season has been watching MacKinnon come into his own and figure out how to best maximize his physical abilities.

Where he used to just have the one gear, he’s now figured out that he can be even more effective if he mixes things up by occasionally easing up on the throttle and changing speeds.

Rather than trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by skating as hard as he can until he’s either taken himself out of a position to be dangerous with the puck or simply run into a wall and lose possession, he’s now processing the game at a higher level, which makes him that much tougher to defend.

Watch how he uses his speed on the rush to push the defence back on its heels, before wisely stopping up short and using that extra breathing room he’s created to survey the playing field and hit a teammate on the fly.

 

Here he charges through the neutral zone with a full head of steam, similarly pushing the defence back, before flipping the puck across the royal road for a dangerous scoring opportunity.

 

The Avalanche don’t score on that initial chance, but they do recover the rebound, and because everyone is now below the hashmarks, MacKinnon is able to tee up Patrik Nemeth for a bomb from the point. With everyone scrambling around, Devan Dubnyk and the Wild defenders are unable to get set in time, and the Avalanche make them pay.

 

Defensively, it’s a precarious ‘you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t’ situation, because if you do maintain a more aggressive gap on MacKinnon to try and prevent that type of play from materializing, he’s still capable of planting his foot in the ground and turning the corner on you.

Exhibit A: Jaccob Slavin is one of the best true defenders in the game. If people around the league somehow don’t know about him yet because he’s young, doesn’t put up points, and plays in Carolina, they will soon enough. He’s excellent in his own zone, but part of the reason why he’s so successful – and why the Hurricanes control the puck as much as they do when he’s out there – is because he’s especially excellent at defending his blue line.

Here he reaches for the puck in an attempt to prevent the entry, and misses. MacKinnon doesn’t waste any time making him pay for it.

 

Exhibit B: Aaron Ekblad is a big boy. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds. Part of the reason why he went first overall in his draft class, and why he’s still so highly regarded around league circles as a franchise cornerstone on the blue line, is because he moves well with his size. He’s the complete package.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much even he can do here as MacKinnon a) burns him to the outside, and b) swats his attempt at a check away like a fly before muscling the puck past James Reimer and into the net.

 

It surely won’t continue to be smooth sledding for the Avalanche. They’ve been racking up a lot of these recent wins at home, and after a few more games at Mile High coming out of the break, they’ll hit the road for a more challenging six-game trip. Nine of their total 13 games in the month of February will be away from home. And regardless of where they’re playing, the underlying numbers suggest they’ve been performing above their heads as a team anyways.

But none of that really matters. After last year’s season from hell, the sheer fact that they’re this competitive, relevant, and entertaining has to be welcomed with open arms. Their young players are playing well, and providing hope for the future.

Most importantly, MacKinnon looks like he’s finally arrived as the superstar we expected him to be coming into the league. Now that the Avs can breath easily knowing they have a legitimate 22-year-old cornerstone to build around, everything else is easier. Whatever happens in the second half is just gravy.

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