Few hockey players fit the superstar archetype as well as Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon. Over the past five seasons, MacKinnon has trailed only the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and no one has beaten him in overall MVP votes. If MacKinnon has been healthy this season, he has produced at a high level so far. Despite missing 10 games between a positive COVID-19 test and a subsequent lower-body injury, MacKinnon leads the NHL in assists per game and is on track to a career-best 1.52 points per competition.
The former No. 1 draft pick’s rise to stardom has also been heavily linked to his team’s changing fortunes, with Colorado rising from worst team in the NHL to probably best as MacKinnon rose to the top tier of players. But despite the star power of their best player, the Avalanche are much more than a one-man show. It may have seemed absurd when Denver Post columnist Matt Schubert rhetorically asked in December if MacKinnon was a “luxury item” for Colorado – but the Avs have so much talent around him that they actually have a better win rate in the Games MacKinnon missed (.800) than games he played (.609). And when they’re at full strength, armed with their best player and his strong support, the Avalanche look like one of the scariest offensive teams the league has seen in a while.
Colorado’s 4.33 goals per game not only leads the league — by a whopping .39 goals over the No. 2 Florida Panthers (who themselves are .25 goals ahead of any other team) — but leaves the Avs mark they are currently the most tracking goals per game by any NHL team as the Pittsburgh Penguins scored 4.41 goals per contest in 1995-96. With a ridiculous collection of three current Hall of Famers (Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Sergei Zubov), another surefire future inductee once he finally retires from professional hockey (Jaromír Jágr, who at the age of 49 is still kind of in his native Czech Republic) and several other inductees for the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, this team remains one of the most feared and explosive offenses in NHL history. And yet the Avalanche are (for now) right next to them in the scoring annals.
Things will get even more impressive for Colorado as we adapt to changing offensive conditions throughout history. Although the chaos of rising COVID-19 cases helped propel the league’s score higher over the past month, the NHL’s average goals per game in the 2021-22 season are more than a tenth of a goal lower than 1995/96 and are a far cry from what it was in the high-flying era of the late 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s. As a result, at +1.29 goals per game compared to the league average, the Avalanche is on track to become the sixth-best offensive performance by a team in NHL history — ahead of the fearsome Penguins of the 1990s and on the cusp of the Wayne Gretzky- Era territory of the Edmonton Oilers.
|season||team||games||Goals||Goals/Gm||vs. NHL Avg.|
There’s no doubt MacKinnon has a lot to contribute to that pace, considering only three players in the league have been directly involved in more goals per game than he has this season. But one of the most incredible things about this Avalanche team is that they score almost as many points (in a 5v5 game) with their best player on the bench as they do with them in the game.
That’s not a blow to MacKinnon — really, it’s just a testament to his teammates. According to the Natural Stat Trick, eight Colorado players were on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than MacKinnon. Three teammates – Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog – have more points overall than MacKinnon, while Cale Makar (who is a point behind MacKinnon) leads all defenders on goals and is fourth overall. According to position-relative game score, Colorado has six of the league’s eight most productive players per game; No other team has had more than two players in the top 13.
|player||team||position||games||Score/Gm||vs. Pos. Avg.|
Some of these performances were more anticipated than others. MacKinnon’s star power is obviously a known quantity; Makar and Rantanen were about as stellar last season too. Toews and Landeskog were already good, but both have improved on last year. And Kadri simply has the contract year to end all contract years. It’s all coming together for the 31-year-old center this season as he’s in the process of setting a new career all-time high in goals, assists, points and saves-per-game, among other stat categories.
|category||Before. career avg||Season 2021-22|
|goals per game||0.29||0.43|
|assists per game||0.35||1.17|
|points per game||0.64||1.60|
|+/- per game||-0.04||+0.47|
|Score vs Average, per game||+0.18||+1.10|
Kadri’s acquisition from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2019 was just one of several deals from general manager (and ex-Avalanche star) Joe Sakic who, along with a string of major draft wins, helped transform the team into his current ones Condition. The resulting list is overflowing with uncanny talents that no trace is safe from. It’s a team that sometimes feels beaten only by chance games like the fabricated penalty for too many men on the ice that cost Colorado an overtime win on Tuesday night.
But hockey is a fun sport, and there’s a lot a scoring powerhouse like this team can bring down before the Stanley Cup is awarded. (There’s a reason our forecasting model only gives the Avalanche a 16 percent chance of winning it all, no matter how good they looked.) Colorado’s goaltender, a strength last year when Philipp Grubauer made the majority of starts, was shaky with Darcy Kuemper and friends online as a backup. For a team that has found ways to lose earlier than it probably should have in recent postseasons, it wouldn’t be surprising if poor goaltending put the ceiling on Colorado’s potential this spring.
As good as Colorado’s offense was, the team also concedes 0.26 more goals per game than the NHL average. In that sense, the 1995-96 Penguins – who also conceded 0.32 more goals per game than average in the regular season – could be a cautionary tale of the pitfalls facing this avalanche down the line. After going through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-3 record, Pittsburgh faced a strong, up-and-coming Florida Panthers who short-circuited their fearsome offense, plugging up the neutral zone and frustrating the Pittsburgh stars. Robbed of their preferred style of play, the Penguins eventually fell short in the final major title fight of Lemieux’s heyday.
MacKinnon is now four years younger than Lemieux was then and he expects to have even more cracks in the Cup in the future. But he may not have a more talented team than the group around him this year. With the rare blend of a top-notch Superstar and an incredible supporting cast, these Avalanche are must-see TV shows whenever they hit the ice. It remains to be seen if this offensive firework can lead to a championship in the playoffs when the bone-crushing hits can slow down even the strongest attacks.
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