When Nathan MacKinnon broke out last season, it wasn’t a huge surprise.
The Colorado Avalanche star is one of the most naturally talented players in the league, and his underlying production and performances in years past suggested that it was only a matter of time before he put an MVP season like last year’s.
As good as he is on his own, though, it’s not a coincidence that MacKinnon’s play took off right after the Avalanche coaching staff decided to load up their three best forwards on one line.
Prior to the formation of the team’s current top-notch first line, MacKinnon had spent most of his time playing with Mikko Rantanen on his right side — but the left wing was not nearly as stable, often seeing Sven Andrighetto in the role.
Then, immediately following the Matt Duchene trade, head coach Jared Bednar moved Gabriel Landeskog up to the line with MacKinnon and Rantanen — and the rest is history.
For nearly 13 months now, the Avalanche trio has been arguably the most dangerous line in hockey. But how do they compare to the all-time greats?
On an Altitude TV broadcast earlier this week, the big-3 were compared to the most productive line in the modern era.
The best line in hockey pic.twitter.com/54Ocw38nse— Mile High Hockey (@MileHighHockey) November 28, 2018
In the 2005-06 season, the Ottawa Senators top line of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza tore the league apart to start the season. The trio then finished with 103, 103 and 90 points respectively, continuing to sit in a class all their own — but through the first quarter of the season, they were on pace for a whole lot more.
Through the first 25 games that year, Spezza (43), Heatley (41), and Alfredsson (41) were the top-3 scorers in the NHL, combining for an otherworldly 125 points. For reference, that’s 14 more that the Avalanche top-3 currently has.
But as many will be quick to remind you, points aren’t everything. With that in mind, which trio was more dangerous?
With another eight points against the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night, Colorado’s top line is up to 111 points and counting on the season.
Rantanen and MacKinnon, who are both currently riding a six game point streak, are the only two NHLers to hit 40 points this so far this season. And although he’s a tier below them, Landeskog’s 28 points are enough to put him in a tie for 13th in scoring league-wide, sitting pretty alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak, Mark Stone and Morgan Rielly. The threesome has been absolutely unstoppable this season, and they’re the main reason why the Avalanche currently sit second in the Western Conference.
They aren’t producing total points at the same rate as the Ottawa group, to be sure. But Mikko, Nate and Landy also aren’t relying on the power play nearly as much as their dominant predecessors. As dangerous as they can be on the man advantage — the Avs’ PP is ranked first in the league — it’s the even strength pay that makes Colorado’s top line so awe-inspiring.
2018-19 Avalanche vs 2005-06 Senators
With 77 of their 111 points coming at even strength, it’s not hard to argue that the Avalanche top line has been more dangerous than the Ottawa trio — who saw just 71 of their own 125 point tear come at even strength — back in 2005.
After last night, Colorado leads the league with 95 goals scored — and Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Landeskog make up 45.26 % of that total. And while it’s believed by some that teams are better off spreading out their talent through the lineup — as we see with Crosby, Kessel and Malkin in Pittsburgh — the 2018-19 Avalanche are certainly serving as a prime argument against that. It doesn’t matter if you only have one above-average line, after all, if that one line is this dominant.
When you compare their start to some of the more dominant lines since the 2004-05 lockout, no one else gets close:
Heatley, Spezza, Alfredsson - 2005 - 25 GP, 51 goals, 125 points (71 ES points)
MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog - 2018 - 25 GP, 43 goals, 111 points (77 ES points)
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin - 2010 - 25 GP, 37 goals, 89 points (49 ES points)
Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan - 2010 - 25 GP, 30 goals, 73 points (52 ES points)
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp - 2011 - 25 GP, 31 goals, 72 points (56 ES points)
Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom - 2005 - 25 GP, 26 goals, 70 points (41 ES points)
Then, going back a little further, this Avalanche trio even stands up against the best lines in hockey since the 1967 expansion:
The Triple Crown (Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer) - 1980 - 25 GP, 61 goals, 136 points (75 ES points)
The Stastnys (Marian, Peter and Anton) - 1982 - 25 GP, 50 goals, 123 points (93 ES points)
Mario Lemiux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis - 1992 - 25 GP, 41 goals, 114 points (65 ES points)
The Trio Grande (Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy) - 1980 - 25 GP, 43 goals, 104 points (59 ES points)
The French Connection (Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert) - 1974 - 25GP, 46 goals, 101 points (53 ES points)
Marcus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison - 2002 - GP 25, 36 goals, 82 points (43 ES points)
The JAM Line (Sakic, Tanguay and Hejduk) - 2000 - 25 GP, 32 goals, 81 points (53 ES points)
Vaclav Prospal, Martin St. Louis & Vincent Lecavalier - 2002 - 25 GP, 32 goals, 75 points (53 ES points)
Legion of Doom (Lindros, LeClair, Renberg) - 1995 - 25 GP, 44 goals, 75 points (47 ES points)
The Red Army (Fedorov, Kozlov, Larionov) - 1995 - 25 GP, 32 goals, 74 points (44 ES points)
**The 1983 Edmonton Oilers have been excluded from this group because it’s simply unfair to compare anyone to Wayne Gretzky. The Great One alone had 74 points through his first 25 games in the 1983-84 season. He was a one man wrecking crew, and while he played a ton with Jari Kurri, I’m not sure we should anything he did as “line production”
Since 1967, only Marian, Peter, and Anton Stastny were able to produce more even-strength goals in their first 25 games than the Avalanche top line has this season — an incredible feat when you consider how high scoring was in the 1980s.
They’ll never build the kind of chemistry the fans in Quebec saw from the Stastny Brothers, but the Avs big-3 are perfect complements for each other in today’s NHL. Landy creates space, Mikko has the all-word vision, and MacKinnon is one of the most electrifying players in the game when his teammates get him the puck.
In a league where depth is key, you don’t like see a team relying so heavily on one line. Still — when the line is this good, you can live with it. This trio are a heck of a lot of fun to watch, and anyone not paying attention to the Avalanche are missing out.
MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are on pace for 138, 134 and 92 points respectively — and while we shouldn’t expect them to keep producing at this level, it’s not hard to picture the 2019 Art Ross Trophy coming back to Denver.