It’s hard not to miss hockey right now - and for myself in particular, specifically Avalanche hockey.
While it was a lot of fun to root for Ovechkin to win his first Stanley Cup (as well as watching the overall awesomeness of playoff hockey), there’s nothing like watching the Colorado Avalanche for me. By that I mean the heart-wrenching, pain-inducing, euphoria-laced phenomenon that I undergo 82 times (and hopefully more) a year.
The majority of the playoffs were missing this. They also missed perhaps the most exciting player to watch right now in the NHL— Nathan MacKinnon. His unparalleled speed and acceleration, wicked puck handling (that leaves everyone wondering how his stick doesn’t break), ability to change direction on a dime, and - of course - hard shot and league-best playmaking. The only player that is this good (and fun to watch) is maybe Connor McDavid*.
(*Okay, I’m probably biased here).
Which, of course, leads us to the entire point of this article: MacKinnon’s bid for the Hart Memorial Trophy. He’s already a finalist, and to be perfectly blunt, he should totally win this thing. Here’s why:
The Case for MVP
As many of you know, the Hart Memorial is given to the “player judged most valuable to his team.” There’s also a sort of unwritten rule that the player’s team must make the playoffs, which arguably makes a lot of sense (because if your team doesn’t make the postseason, can your relative value be as high?).
As far as the pure numbers go, MacKinnon scored 39 goals and 58 assists for a total of 97 points. He did this all in 74 games, coming out to 1.31 points per game. If that is extrapolated to 82 games, then MacKinnon would come out with 107 points, one shy of the aforementioned Art Ross winner, Connor McDavid (not bad company, eh?). To further drive home the point, MacKinnon also walked away with 77 primary points. This accomplished second in the league, being a mere two behind McDavid. All of this was done playing 74 games, well short of McDavid’s 82.
Not only that, but MacKinnon also led the league in game-winning goals with a whopping 12. That alone should tell you he would perform at the most critical times.
Aside from his sheer numbers, which are impressive enough, taking a look at the Avalanche without their star center is a worthwhile task. After leaving the January 30th Vancouver Canucks game with an upper-body injury, Colorado had to gear up for life without him for eight long games. The results were not pretty.
Throughout the season, the Avalanche have had to deal with injuries to important players. Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov, Tyson Barrie, and Jonathan Bernier all missed significant chunks of time, yet the Avs managed to deal pretty well with all of these. Not MacKinnon. During those eight games, the offense produced a putrid 2.1 goals per game, well below their season average of 3.1.
Don’t forget the team record too: 4-4-0, which was actually better than it probably should’ve been, considering the aforementioned low offense and hemorrhaging defense (3.25 goals against per game). The final team stat was the powerplay: it fell to a horrific 7% during that stretch. At the end of the season, the conversion rate of the man advantage was at 22%; even if you account for sample size variance and performance on the second PP unit, MacKinnon’s presence and power-play performance suggests that the majority of the 15% jump over the full season was significantly influenced by his health.
Then we get to individual stat lines during those eight games, particularly Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
Both players looked absolutely lost on the ice, each putting up just four points in the eight-game span. That’s down from .79 points per game on the season for Landeskog, and over a point per game for Rantanen over his 81-game campaign.
On the season, Landeskog did marginally better in the scoring department without MacKinnon than MacKinnon did without him. Together, they absolutely dominated - but when only Landeskog was on the ice, 43% of goals scored were for the Avalanche and 58% were for the opposition. In comparison, MacKinnon alone saw just 39% of goals scored during his shifts without Landeskog go in for his team, while the opposition managed to score 61% of the goals during those stretches.
Part of that, though, could have been talent discrepancy. Aside from Mikko Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon spent more time together than with anyone else - but when they were apart for 223 minutes of even-strength ice time, Landeskog got to skate with Alex Kerfoot and JT Compher, while MacKinnon skated with Tyson Jost or Sven Andrighetto. And when you look at relative shot differentials, MacKinnon pushes possession into favor for the Avalanche far more than his captain and linemate; MacKinnon’s Corsi For percentage without Landeskog at even strength was 47.45, while Landeskog’s own CF% fell to a mere 43% when he had to play without MacKinnon.
What “life without MacKinnon” teaches us is the primary thing about the player: he brings up those around him. He fuels their offense, drives the powerplay almost single-handedly, and fosters the success of his line mates. Given that this is an offensive team that heavily relies on the man advantage, MacKinnon is clearly proven to be its lifeblood.
Why MacKinnon beats the competition
Hello, Anze Kopitar and Taylor Hall. Fantastic candidates in their own right, Kopitar is a strong two-way presence while also turning in a stellar 92 point season - while the winger Taylor Hall brings 93 points and a Grand Canyon-sized gap between himself and his teammates.
First, Anze Kopitar needs a look. In my mind, he can easily be ruled out and be placed firmly in third place. The reason? Two actually, and they go by the names of Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty. Jonathan Quick accomplished a .921 save percentage as well as winning the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals surrendered. Even more troubling to Kopitar’s bid is Doughty’s stellar season. He’s currently a finalist, once again, for the James Norris trophy for best defensemen.
The point is that if you remove any one of these three players, you end up with a bottom feeding team. Kopitar seems like he’s probably the best of them, but admittedly not by much. For those reasons alone he can’t be the “player judged most valuable to his team.”
Taylor Hall is a different beast. The main argument I always hear when his Hart Trophy case is pretty much this: “He finished with 41 points more than the next best guy on his team.” I admit that this is a good point; however, I don’t think it is the whole story.
Truth be told, MacKinnon still makes a case for being the more valuable player, even with linemates of superior stature. While they were both tied in goals with 39, MacKinnon had 12 game-winning goals compared to Hall’s seven - so from a relative value standpoint, he gets the edge there. He also had four more assists than Hall with 58, which of course put him at four more points with 97. What’s more, MacKinnon had 77 primary points compared to Hall’s 68. This was all done in two less games as well.
In the grand scheme of things, though, MacKinnon’s position as a center gives him a slight advantage over Hall; he’s in a position where his scoring numbers run the risk of being influenced by weaker finishers on the wing, while Hall himself is the finisher on each line he plays with.
Just taking a look, MacKinnon’s ability to drive the play and set up his teammates to find the back of the net makes it clear that he provides immense value to those skating around him:
MacKinnon could probably take any top 6 forward and turn him into a 50, 60, 70 point scorer, and I’m not exaggerating. Could Taylor Hall do the same? I think not, ironically demonstrated by the point gap.
So, simply for the reasons of a.) Nathan MacKinnon is better than Taylor Hall by nearly every noteworthy offensive measure and b.) Nathan MacKinnon improves his teammates by a larger margin than Taylor Hall, as well as being the sole reason for Colorado having a good offense and powerplay.
So there you have it, folks. I think Nathan MacKinnon should win the Hart Memorial. And before I get mauled by New Jersey Devils fans, I’d like to say this takes nothing away from Taylor Hall’s incredible season. It’s more of just a testament to what MacKinnon’s done.