It was his Hart Trophy to win last season. He was the best player in the league, and had he been healthy all year, he likely would have come away with the honor. Now, a year later, Nathan MacKinnon has been even better for the Colorado Avalanche. After a handful of down years, the 2017-18 season became the breakout everyone had been waiting for, and now he’s building on that success.
We all knew how naturally talented MacKinnon was, but some were starting to wonder if the first overall selection in the 2013 draft was ever going to live up to the hype. That all changed last year when he put up 39 goals and 97 points in only 74 games while finishing second in MVP voting behind Taylor Hall. One season removed from the Avs being the worst team in modern history, it was a magical year for MacKinnon personally, but more importantly it was one in which he led the Colorado Avalanche back to the playoffs.
Now, as the team looks to take the next step in their build towards contention, MacKinnon might be playing even better. On pace to break the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, MacKinnon has been playing great hockey as of late and is a big reason why the Avs have been able to turn the season around and make a push towards a playoff spot.
His point total is impressive. It puts him tied for fifth in league scoring as of the end of February. But he’s doing a whole lot more than the stats you see on HockeyDB.
Nathan MacKinnon is the heartbeat that drives the Colorado offense. From breakouts, to shot generation, whenever he’s on the ice, it’s MacKinnon that is driving the play. Statistically he’s one of the best possession drivers in the league — something that makes everyone around him better.
Currently, MacKinnon ranks behind only Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid, and Patrick Kane when it comes to controlled zone entries.
That means he’s the one who transitions the game into the offensive zone. His attempt rate is the highest on the team, when it comes to carrying the puck into the opposition end, no one else on the Avalanche is particularly close.
As teams learn and adapt with the speed of the game, it’s become apparent that puck possession does a lot more for a team’s offense than the old “dump and chance” strategy. Some teams still employ that game play and suffer as a result. In the long run, it’s better to attempt to carry the puck in — even if you fail — than it is to dump the puck in and give up possession. Players like MacKinnon know this and have more success as a result.
A team’s offense starts with the zone entry. The next step is the offensive zone possession - another statistical category in which MacKinnon sits top-five in the the entire league. When the Avs have the puck in the opposing end, it’s on Nathan MacKinnon’s stick. When playing at even strength, he is the playmaker on his line, regardless of who he’s playing with.
The offensive-zone possession points to a player that likes to have the puck on his stick. They like to distribute, but also look to create scoring chances for themselves. Possessing the puck is one thing, but to be successful, it’s advantageous to be able to crest high-percentage scoring chances - something MacKinnon does better than anyone in the league.
So far this season, MacKinnon leads the NHL in shots from the slot. A high-danger attempt that has has a much higher rate of scoring than shots from the perimeter. What makes MacKinnon’s led in this category so impressive is that he’s the only one in the top-five that is also at the top of the league in offensive-zone possession.
The two players who immediately follow MacKinnon in terms of shots from the point are John Tavares and Sean Monahan. Both are offensive superstars, but also both are more of a trigger man playing with elite playmaking wingers. Monahan has Gaudreau and Tavares has Mitch Marner. It’s the wingers that drive the possession and the centers who finish off the play.
Nathan MacKinnon is doing both. With Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog creating space, MacKinnon is able to keep offensive possession and generate shots for himself — to the tune of a 42 goals season pace. He knows how to get into the high-percentage areas and takes the majority of his shots from there.
He is a elite offensive forward — the counting stats show that — but what MacKinnon does by creating possession for his team is just as important from a defensive perspective. The star center has taken some heat for the way he plays in the defensive zone, of a perceived lack of a strong back check, but the fact that MacKinnon has the puck on his stick for so long is a strength defensively.
When it comes to giving up shot attempts against at even strength, Alex Kerfoot is the only Avalanche forward that ranks better than MacKinnon. It’s not hitting hard and winning puck battles. It’s not what many hockey fans would describe as “defensive” play - but at the end of the day, the goal on defense is to limit the scoring chance your opposition gets. As long as you have the puck on your stick, you know the other team isn’t going to get a shot towards the net. Possession is a very key part of the modern defensive game and MacKinnon is the best on the team.
Avalanche fans know MacKinnon is good. But these numbers show that he is better than many might think. It’s inarguable that he is one of the top offensive talents in the league, but what’s just as important is that his play as a possession driver means he’s got just as much an impact on the ‘defensive’ side of the game — whether you like the way he back-checks or not.
A year removed from his breakout, MacKinnon continues to grow his game to the level the Colorado Avalanche were looking for when they made him the face for the franchise. This season he might be getting overshadowed somewhat by Mikko Rantanen who is having a coming out party of his own and while Mikko’s offensive production has been incredible, MacKinnon is still the one through which the offense works — whether the two are playing on the same line or not.
He’s proven that last year wasn’t a one-off, the next step is to show he’s got the ability to sustain this level of play long enough for the team to grow into a unit around him that is capable of taking the next step towards contention.