What do advanced stats folks say about small sample sizes?
Through 10 games, Colorado Avalanche center and 2014 Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon was still without his first goal of the season, but last night against the New York Islanders he potted two – and I expect more to come now.
Debate all you want about the realities or fiction of the "sophomore slump," but there was no way a player as powerful and skilled as MacKinnon was going to be held off the scoresheet for much longer. Players of all styles go through skids – just look at Vancouver's Alex Burrows last season – but a young talent such as MacKinnon was going to break through eventually.
Perhaps one of the things holding MacKinnon back at the start was the way he was deployed by coach Patrick Roy. Earlier in the season – in the overtime loss to Toronto, for example – MacKinnon was essentially centering the third line with veterans Alex Tanguay and Daniel Briere. Matt Duchene was the top center with Jarome Iginla and Jamie McGinn, while Ryan O'Reilly was anchoring a trio with captain Gabriel Landeskog and Dennis Everberg on the wings. That O'Reilly line was matched up against the Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel line most of the night, making it a sort of shutdown line with outsized responsibilities.
At the end of the night, Duchene and O'Reilly had played about 20 minutes apiece, while MacKinnon was in the 13-minute range.
Contrast that with the lineup against the Islanders, where O'Reilly played wing on a top line with Duchene and Landeskog. That super-sized trio allowed MacKinnon to play on a more traditional second scoring line with McGinn and Iginla and wouldn't you know it? The minutes for Duchene and MacKinnon were closer (15 each) and the sophomore nailed his first two goals of the season.
As a quick sidebar, McGinn has made a living shepherding young Avs talent lately – he played with Duchene early on and now MacKinnon for parts of his two seasons in Colorado. But I digress.
The most impressive part of MacKinnon's breakout last night came on his first goal, when he showed great patience when the puck squirted out to him in the slot, while a mass of bodies flailed about in the crease. If I hadn't scored all year, I would have fired that puck right away – but I'm also terrible at hockey. MacKinnon cradled the biscuit until daylight yawned in the cage and wristed one home. The Schneid was officially defeated.
Colorado is still one of the worst possession teams in the NHL (only Buffalo is worse, in fact) and amazingly, even last night's 5-0 whitewashing of the Isles didn't result in a good Corsi rating, but Roy has never cared about that and I suspect he really doesn't care today – two points in the standings is two points.
As for MacKinnon, I'm sure the car stereo was bumping just a little bit louder on the way home last night.