Nathan MacKinnon Has Found His Stride

After the Matt Duchene trade, Nathan MacKinnon has found the form that made him a former first overall pick back in 2013.

At the start of this season, the Colorado Avalanche were far from a trendy pick to compete for anything. They were coming off one of their worst seasons in franchise history, head coach Jared Bednar was still virtually unknown, and Matt Duchene wanted to get out of town sooner rather than later.

But with the All-Star game right around the corner, the Avs have put together a respectable half-season of work. Duchene was shipped to Ottawa, Bendar has stabilized the lines, and the team is on a 10-game winning streak that's given them a 27-16-3 record in the tough central division. A great deal of that success, however, is also due to Nathan MacKinnon (24 goals and 36 assists in 47 games) reasserting himself as a premier player in the league.

After being selected first overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Halifax native didn’t waste any time showing the league what he could do. He notched two assists in his Avalanche debut, making him the youngest player to appear for the franchise while later becoming the youngest player in league history to score in back-to-back games. He would break another record in January of 2014 when he recorded at least one point in 13 straight games; Wayne Gretzky held the previous rookie record with a 12-game point streak. When everything was said and done, MacKinnon finished the regular season with 24 goals and 39 assists -- he would add two goals and eight assists in seven playoff games -- on his way to the Calder Trophy.

The next year, however, the Avs came back to earth; Mackinnon’s point production dropped, finishing with 38 points in 64 games. As his team struggled, his offensive production plateaued with 52 in 2015-16 and 53 in 2016-17.

Throughout it all, though, MacKinnon’s underlying numbers have remained generally stable, according to Corsica. His five-on-five points per 60 minutes began at 2.07, before dropping to 2.02, 1.63, and 1.62, while his primary points per 60 started at 1.4, rose to 1.53, dropped to .99, and then stabilized at 1.31. His possession numbers have hovered a little under 50% for his career (46.83%, 48.92%, 46.39%, and 50.43%) and his individual shots per 60 minutes have bounced between 15 and 17. Lastly, his individual expected goals per 60 followed a similar peak and valley -- MacKinnon began his NHL career with 0.7 ixGF/60 and rose to 0.81 before dropping to 0.73 and 0.65.

While those numbers show a talented young player who has experienced some growing pains, MacKinnon has taken his production to the next level this season. His five-on-five points per 60 and primary points per 60 are both career highs of 3.3 and 2.75, respectively. His corsi for is at a career-best 51.15%. His shots per 60 and expected goals per 60 -- 16.12 and 0.79 respectively -- aren’t his bests, but are strong totals given his other stats.

Thinking of NHL players as machines is easy to do, but there is a human element to their play, too. It’s possible that finding success as a rookie prior to the entire club falling off a cliff shortly after took a toll on MacKinnon. After a few seasons, though, his game could be back to where it should be.

“I just think it’s a lot of mental [focus],” MacKinnon told Sportsnet. “The physical tools haven’t really changed. Hopefully I’ve gotten a little bit better every year. I feel like I’ve been sticking with the game longer – I don’t get down on myself as much, I trust my game more than I have in years past and I try to give my full attention to the 60 minutes of hockey.”

There’s also the possibility that chemistry -- something that likely plays a role in success even though we can’t really quantify it -- has changed following Duchene’s departure. MacKinnon even admitted to the Denver Post that the trade had lifted a weight of uncertainty off the team.

“It did [improve the team culture] a lot,” MacKinnon said. “There’s nothing wrong with Dutchy [Duchene] wanting to leave. I think it’s fair. He’s eight, nine years in this league and it wasn’t like a crazy breakup or anything. He went about it really good this season. But obviously we knew he wanted to leave. Now we have everybody here that wants to be here, which is great.”

No matter the cause, Nathan MacKinnon’s game is clicking at the right time. With Matt Duchene gone, he’s one of the two stars responsible for driving the Avs in the right direction. And at this rate, their funk of the past few seasons may be a thing of the past.