Three Big Questions: Who is the most valuable NHLer to his team?

Watch as Nathan MacKinnon skates behind Duncan Keith and then goes top corner to score on a fantastic play.

Every Sunday, Sportsnet NHL contributors will answer three questions around developing news and storylines, or other generalities around the game.

This week, we discuss where Chris Kreider will end the season, who the most valuable player to his team is, and which team currently outside of the playoffs is in the best place to become this year’s St. Louis Blues — leading a second half surge that perhaps even leads to a prolonged post-season run?

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Sonny Sachdeva, Staff Writer: I’ll go with Nathan MacKinnon, who’s held down the fort in Colorado while injuries threatened to sink them early. He’s been on an absolute tear for the past two years, posting back-to-back seasons hovering just below the 100-point mark while forming one of the game’s most dominant lines with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. But for much of this season, No. 29’s had to carry the load on his own with both linemates knocked out of the lineup for a stretch. And he’s still dominated.

MacKinnon’s helped propel the club to a sterling 22-11-3 record — good for second-best in the West — and he hasn’t just treaded water. He’s somehow upped his production to a career-best points-per-game rate. When Rantanen and Landeskog’s absences overlapped for nearly all of November, MacKinnon racked up 24 points in those 14 games, the third-most in the league over that span, bested only (and just barely) by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Overall, MacKinnon’s 53 points through 36 games so far put him on track for 120 by the season’s end. For context, the next highest scorers on the roster are rookie defender Cale Makar and depth forward Joonas Donskoi, who’ve been nearly doubled by MacKinnon so far.

Emily Sadler, Staff Writer: There are so many strong candidates (it’s taking a lot of strength for me not to pick Nathan MacKinnon), but in terms of who’s doing the most heavy-lifting at this point, I’m going with Jack Eichel.

Eichel has 17 more points than the second-place Sabre. What’s he’s done over the past month with Buffalo is insane: Over the course of his 18-game point streak, Eichel scored 16 goals and 32 points, with four multi-goal and nine multi-point matchups.

He’s the reason Buffalo’s playoff hopes are alive, and you get the sense he’s ready to single-handedly drag them into the post-season if he has to.

Rory Boylen, NHL Editor: Where would the Edmonton Oilers be without Connor McDavid? Take either he or Leon Draisaitl from the club and the Oilers would be in a world of hurt, but McDavid is no doubt the lead engine and now the NHL’s leading scorer. Where MacKinnon gets credit as MVP for continuing to score after his linemates went down to injury, McDavid should get the same no for continuing to produce when he and Draisaitl were split up. Not only is McDavid the best offensive player in the game today, he’s also the literal definition of the player most valuable to his team.


SS: Looking at the clubs ranked among each conference’s basement, only one seems to have the pieces needed to get themselves out of the hole they’ve dug early on this season. The San Jose Sharks sit two tied for Worst in the West honours, the central reasons for their horrid start seeming to be exceptionally underwhelming goaltending, the loss of Joe Pavelski’s offence, and far too many trips to the box. The last of those seems pretty fixable. Even the second is doable, given the club houses two of the best offensive blue-liners in the game and enough weapons up front to get hot if things start clicking.

It’s the first and most pressing issue that will be the determining factor here, and it’s not a new problem for the club. You’d have to imagine GM Doug Wilson is looking for a solution, and if there’s a deal to be had or some other change to be made that sparks the team’s performance in net — as was the case with the Blues handing the reins over to Jordan Binnington — there’s enough talent in the room for the Sharks to claw (swim?) their way back to playoff relevancy.

ES: My vote is San Jose. The Sharks are a frustrating case: they’ve got a stable of veteran playmakers and one of the strongest blue lines in the game and yet they cannot seem to harness much of anything resembling momentum.

Hmm, sounds familiar… last year’s Blues weren’t a bad team that went on a magical run – they were a well-built roster grossly underperforming before finally connecting all the dots in front of a red-hot goalie (and yeah, OK, there was probably a little magic involved too).

The firing of Peter DeBoer is still fresh, and a complete turnaround in the aftermath of a coaching change is an unfair expectation to put on a club – St. Louis still struggled after Craig Berube took over before finding their footing.

The biggest key will be in the crease. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell simply isn’t cutting it. Finding another Binnington in your own organization probably isn’t likely to happen, but making a trade for a starter – or a stop-gap at the very least – might be.

RB: Unfortunately we’re all settling on San Jose here because they’re the only team four or more points out with any realistic shot at bouncing all the way back as a contender with that roster makeup. But, yes, they’ve got to do something about that goaltending, which was already league-worst last season so it shouldn’t surprise anyone a similar performance is happening right now.

But Tampa Bay would also be one to consider here, though they’re just three points out of a playoff spot with games in hand. I think most will agree that’s a team due for a second half recovery. The Lightning are 17th in the NHL in points percentage and still house the league’s fifth-best offence. The defence needs to be better, which will in turn lead to better numbers for Andrei Vasilevskiy.

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SS: How about the Calgary Flames? They’ve turned it on since the coaching change that put Geoff Ward at the helm. Three of the team’s central offensive stars up front — Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk — have turned it on and led the way during that stretch, but the secondary scoring’s been interesting. Young gun Dillon Dube’s the highest scorer over those past nine games after the Big Three, followed by Derek Ryan. There are obviously some strong depth pieces in Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund who seem certain to turn it on at some point, but given the type of sustained success the club needs to remain in the playoff mix, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Brad Treliving add some more weapons to this roster.

Kreider would bring some consistent goal-scoring ability, the option for some interesting different top-six looks, and some size to off-set the complexion of the rest of the forward corps. Essentially, he could be a far better version of what the team envisioned when they brought in Milan Lucic. We know Treliving is looking to add, as Elliotte Friedman reported in his latest 31 Thoughts column that the Flames GM was in on Taylor Hall. Kreider’s no Hall, but he seems to be the next-best option, and fitting him in salary-wise wouldn’t be too tricky given the number of impending UFAs on the Flames roster with similar cap hits.

ES: I’m curious to see if there would be a fit in Edmonton. If the team has any hopes of splitting the magical McDavid-Draisaitl duo and spread the wealth through the lineup a little, I wonder if Kreider might slot into the left side normally inhabited by Draisaitl and allow the star to suit up at his original position at centre.

If not there, Kreider could also prove to be a strong presence on the second line or even a depth role to add another dimension to Edmonton’s forward group for a playoff push. The club is in good standing now to get to the playoffs, but without more depth it feels like they won’t last long once there – no matter how star-studded that top line is.

RB: I’ll go with the Nashville Predators. They’re battling for a playoff spot, currently one point out, but with Pekka Rinne nearing the end of his career GM David Poile may have some urgency to gear his team up. And he’s never been a stranger to the trade market. Last season Poile added a big-bodied winger at the deadline by acquiring Wayne Simmonds, but given Simmonds was then lost to free agency, that spot remains a hole in this year’s lineup.


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