Truth By Numbers: Where Nathan MacKinnon fits in world’s best player debate

Nathan MacKinnon fires a pass through traffic right onto the tape of Mikko Rantanen to double up the Colorado Avalanche's lead on the Philadelphia Flyers.

After the 2017-18 season when Taylor Hall took home the Hart Trophy, some voters decided Connor McDavid wasn’t worthy of it because his team missed the playoffs. But in giving it to Hall, voters also had to overlook another player: Nathan MacKinnon.

Overall, MacKinnon had slightly bigger overall impacts than Hall did that year, and like Hall his team made the playoffs. Without canvasing the voters, the prevailing thought at the time was that Hall had to carry the Devils to the post-season because they were a supremely underwhelming team, whereas MacKinnon was able to work with good-to-great linemates in Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.

Two years later, MacKinnon has had to carry the Avalanche through a stretch where both his regular linemates were hurt, so just as you would expect his production went up…

Wait, what?

That’s right, MacKinnon managed to be even better without his talented linemates. It probably wasn’t sustainable, but as of right now MacKinnon is on pace for easily the best season of his career. He trails only the dynamic duo in Edmonton that’s struggling to keep their team afloat after their great start.

SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Over the past three seasons, the only NHL players with more points than MacKinnon’s 244 are Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov, while the only players with more than MacKinnon’s 99 goals are McDavid and the king of lighting the lamp: Alex Ovechkin.

MacKinnon’s 797 shots on goal over that time trail only Ovechkin as well, so offensively I think it’s fair to say MacKinnon is among the league’s most elite, but how close is MacKinnon to being the best player in the world right now? It’s clearly McDavid, but how far behind is MacKinnon this year?

McDavid plays more often, but luckily both players get a similar proportion of ice time; barely any shorthanded time, but tons at even strength and with the man advantage. So let’s do this rough and compare the two players in all situations on a per-20-minute basis.

In terms of shooting, MacKinnon generates more shots and more scoring chances overall, but McDavid’s shots come from in tighter and they’re off the rush slightly more often. MacKinnon gets more chances off the cycle, which is probably more a function of his team being slightly better than McDavid’s. That would allow the Avalanche to create more offensive zone time, supplying MacKinnon’s superior linemates with more chances to find him in the slot while cycling.

Both players are phenomenal shooters, but despite MacKinnon’s advantage in volume, I’d have a hard time saying he’s the better shooter.

Moving to playmaking, McDavid blows MacKinnon out of the water, ranking first league-wide in rush passes and second in slot passes after Evgeni Malkin. Once again MacKinnon’s numbers are excellent, but McDavid is on another level.

Switching to on-ice numbers to see how each player controls high quality plays, once again MacKinnon is dominant. While he’s on the ice the Avalanche control 62.2 per cent of the inner slot shots and 65.7 per cent of the slot passes. Those are incredible numbers, but McDavid’s are even crazier.

Despite playing on a team that is much worse overall, McDavid’s Oilers control 61.7 per cent of the inner slot shots while he’s on the ice, and a ridiculous 71.9 per cent of the slot passes.

As great as MacKinnon is — and he might be the second-best player in the world right now — the level of play McDavid achieves remains the NHL’s gold standard.

THE QUESTION

Steve Dangle kept things simple this week and got right to it:

“The Detroit Red Wings are having a disaster season, which is probably part of the plan, but is there anything good to talk about with them this year? Is there anything salvageable on that roster?”

The poor Red Wings are having one of those seasons where incredibly bad play is combining with disastrously bad luck, so it’s not all quite as terrible as it looks.

But, oh man, is it ever bad anyway.

There is one bright spot though. It all comes together on one line, which unfortunately is currently not intact because Anthony Mantha is injured.

The top line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, and Anthony Mantha isn’t just the only trio of Red Wings this season who have managed to stay above 50 per cent across all differentials, they’ve been absolutely dominant while grouped together.

It’s a difficult proposition to be positive right now if you’re a Red Wings fan or probably even if you’re in the organization as a whole, but this line has the makings of an excellent top unit, which is arguably the most difficult thing to put together, and a key component to building a contender.

Even better news for the Red Wings is that this isn’t a line carried by an older player who will age out of their good play by the time the younger prospects are ready. Mantha is the elder statesman of the line at just 25 years old, while Larkin is the key player in the group and also the youngest at 23.

Building a solid team to complement your top line is far from a given (just ask the Edmonton Oilers) but this is one glowing positive for the Wings to go forward with.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

BUY OR SELL

• Kris Letang had a rough game this week and faced some criticism for it, but one game doesn’t tell the story. Since Nov. 1, when Letang is on the ice at 5-on-5 the Penguins are controlling 75 per cent of the inner slot shots (a league-high for any player), 62 per cent of the shot attempts, and 68.3 per cent of the slot passes. Absurd.

• Speaking of Letang, guess who has the best puck battle win rate of any player this season? That’s right, Letang. He’s won 45.2 per cent of his attempted puck battles, two per cent better than anyone else.

• Take a wild guess at which player has been on the ice for the most inner slot shots for his team at 5-on-5 in total this season. Somehow, it’s Ben Chiarot. He’s having a great year and no one has seen more high danger chances for their team than his 91.

• The player who has been on the ice for the most inner slot shots against is Mark Scheifele with 83, tied with Dmitry Orlov who has played more minutes.

• The two players who have iced the puck more than anyone this season: Morgan Rielly and Brent Burns. Last season? Morgan Rielly and Brent Burns. The season before that? Brent Burns and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The season before that? Brent Seabrook and Brent Burns. Burns really likes to ice the puck, and as he ages, I wonder if that’s taking a toll on the team this year.

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