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Are we witnessing Nathan MacKinnon’s breakout season?

A deeper look at the forward’s stellar start to the season

NHL: Dallas Stars at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has looked absolutely fantastic lately, as he currently sits at 26 points through his first 22 games. That’s good enough to be tied for 11th in the league. This performance has many wondering if this is his long-awaited breakout season--some are even proclaiming already that this is the year. So is it? By delving into some of the more advanced statistics, hopefully, an answer to this question can be found.

Goal Scoring

MacKinnon isn’t exactly a prolific goal-scorer; his previous best shooting percentage sat right around 10% during his rookie season. However, he takes shots fairly often, so he is generally able to convert on a decent amount of chances regardless. Prior to this season, MacKinnon scored 75 times on 929 shots, good for a shooting percentage of 8.1% (the league average is about 9%). This season he knocked a total of 7 goals home on 61 shots, with his shooting percentage jumping to an impressive 11.5%.

On the surface, this seems to be a nice leap and bound above his earlier career totals. At his current rate of scoring, he should hit 30 goals on the season.

However, a 3.4% jump in shooting percentage seems a bit suspect, even for a “breakout” season. Even more suspect is his shots-on-net totals. Before this season, MacKinnon averaged 3 shots on goal per game. He is currently averaging 2.8. Since his shooting percentage is bound to regress, the 30 goal mark starts to feel a bit more unreasonable. However, he is still on track for a good number of goals.

If his percentage drops below 11% for the remainder of the season and he maintains his current shots per game, he could still hit right around 25 goals, which is nothing to sneeze at. Keep in mind that this is if he doesn’t increase his shots per game. If he knocks that number back up to his career average at 3 per game, he could hit 28 goals. And as we know, Nathan MacKinnon isn’t known for his sniping. He’s known for his playmaking ability, and that’s what will be looked at next.

Assists

MacKinnon has accumulated an excellent number of assists, with 19 thus far. A mere three of them were secondary assists, meaning by this statistic alone he is absolutely killing it in setting up teammates. Now, as everyone knows, some assists are kind of flukey and often are the results of sheer luck (e.g. a whiffed shot that is picked up and scored). When the first 13 primary assists are examined individually, the full story is told: 8 of them were nice opportune passes, 2 were shots that were rebounded in, one was a tipped in shot, and the other 2 were mainly due to some amount of luck. This right here is very encouraging and shows that MacKinnon is constantly putting his teammates in great positions to score, whether by great passes or putting the puck on net.

Assuming that he continues to set up his teammates at this same rate, he could very well rack up 71 assists on the season. Even removing the secondary assists and both ‘luck’ assists from the calculations, MacKinnon could still collect 60 assists, which is still 21 more than his previous personal record of 39.

Linemates

Earlier in the season, there was a lot of concern surrounding MacKinnon as he had only scored 1 goal and 4 assists in the first ten games. Then he blew up with 6 goals and 15 assists in the last twelve games. The difference? Gabe Landeskog. Those last dozen games were all played with Landy on the left wing, and the Swede has played a huge hand in MacKinnon’s hot streak. Landeskog has assisted on 4 of MacKinnon’s 6 goals since then, and not only that, but 5 of MacKinnon’s assists were on goals by Landeskog.

Obviously, the first line was sparked by the insertion of Landy, and since then they have been lighting up the scoresheet. Having quality linemates is crucial to a developing player, and MacKinnon seems to be getting just that.

So is this the season?

Even with getting rid of ‘lucky’ situations, secondary assists, and lowering his shooting percentage, MacKinnon is going to best his rookie season by 22 points, with 25 goals and 60 assists (rookie totals were 24 goals and 39 assists). Of course, players are going to catch breaks and assuming that MacKinnon won’t is absurd, so numbers like 28 goals and 70 assists could be what we might end up seeing. The upper limit could be set at 95-100 points, but those totals seem to be absurdly high for a player who has never scored 65 points in a season. The kind of production we are seeing from MacKinnon right now will likely cool off - but who knows, maybe it won’t.

In any case, the worst case scenario with 72 points could probably be considered a “breakout season,” and at worst it’s a significant improvement. This is incredibly promising, seeing as his “floor” is so high (unless he falls off a cliff production-wise). It may be too early to call it, but it’s safe to say that if MacKinnon can keep any semblance of this production up, then we are witnessing the breakout of a new NHL star.