With his incredible stickhandling and patience, Nathan MacKinnon put the love affair with Team North America over the top at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when he scored a face-melter against Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist. The Colorado Avalanche star has topped 20 goals twice in his young career, maxing out at 24 in his Calder Trophy-winning rookie campaign.
MacKinnon is actually on pace to beat that career high this season, but if he keeps up his current play, he’s also in line to smash his previous best in assists. With a three-helper outing against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, MacKinnon brought me back to a thought I had earlier in the season: should we be looking at the Avs pivot as more of a premier playmaker than simply a producer?
When you watch the Lundqvist goal and look at the powerful physical tools that MacKinnon possesses, it’s hard not to expect more shooting from him – but that’s not how Nate Dogg is finding success this year.
And the Avalanche has been a lot more successful so far than many of us predicted. Colorado is hanging around the wild card picture in the Western Conference and the squad has gone 6-3-1 in its past 10 games. They’re still getting dragged in the possession game, but the offense is one of the best in the West, led by MacKinnon and linemate Mikko Rantanen.
What stands out the most through 20 games is that MacKinnon is shooting less than he has in previous seasons – he’s on pace for about 217 shots, a downgrade from last year’s 251. But he’s also putting up a lot more primary assists – MacKinnon is on pace to double his total year-over-year at 5-on-5, from 16 to 32, while the numbers go up even further when you count all situations. For whatever reason, that’s been great for Colorado, which doesn’t have a single double-digit goal-scorer on the roster yet, but has been finishing by committee (the rebirth of Nail Yakupov is something we should all take great joy in).
And lest you think the Avs are riding an unsustainable wave, their PDO is 99.9 right now – right in the sweet spot.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see MacKinnon’s playmaking streak. After all, elite players learn how to adapt in the NHL and one of his fellow No. 1 overall draft picks is further proving that theory this season: Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner has become the set-up man to sniper Nikita Kucherov this season and the Lightning is once again one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL because of it.
Now the challenge for MacKinnon and his Avs is to keep pace. Adding captain and left winger Gabriel Landeskog to the line with Rantanen has worked very well so far and the Avs have been dominant at home. While the West is too packed to consider Colorado a safe playoff team just yet, it’s good to see the franchise bounce back from last year’s debacle. Even taking Matt Duchene off the roster hasn’t hurt and with the average age of the MacKinnon line being just under 23 years old, Colorado appears to have a pretty nice top line for both now and the future. And their center's playmaking will play a big role.