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Nathan MacKinnon is better than you think

Andi Duroux Avatar
November 7, 2017

A little over four years ago, a recently hired Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, Joe Sakic, took to the draft stage to make the Colorado Avalanche’s only first overall selection since moving to Denver. It was a big moment for the franchise – after floundering for four years under the tutelage of Greg Sherman, this pick represented a fresh start for the Avalanche’s struggling rebuild.

Unsurprisingly, Nathan MacKinnon was selected.  The young center was fresh off a Memorial Cup victory with the Halifax Mooseheads, and his combination of speed, vision, hands, defense, and shooting made him the natural choice as the franchise’s next cornerstone player.

Fast forward to today. Apart from a miracle playoff run in ’13-14, both the Avs and MacKinnon have struggled. The team has missed the postseason for three consecutive seasons, and MacKinnon has failed to break 55 points in that time.

It’s unfair to lay that all at MacKinnon’s feet; hockey is a team sport, and the Avs’ rosters have been decisively underwhelming for years. However, MacKinnon has consistently fallen short of the elite numbers expected of him since he first donned an Avalanche uniform.

In order for the Avalanche to finally wrap up this decade-long rebuild, they need a true number one center. While MacKinnon’s still young (he’s entering his 22-year-old season, and a forward’s prime usually starts around age 23), after 4 years in the league, it’s hard not to wonder if he’ll ever reach that ceiling.

Despite his youth, is it time to start worrying about Nathan MacKinnon?

Cohort Analysis

One of the ways to determine if MacKinnon’s development is still on track is to compare him to a set of similar players at a similar age. Since he just wrapped up his 21-year-old season, that will serve as the cutoff for this analysis.

I started with Ryan Stimson’s Playing Types to identify skaters with similar on-ice tendencies.  MacKinnon is listed as one of 58 “playmakers”, and of that set, 38 are centers. I then eliminated individuals who played before the 2004-05 lockout and anyone younger than MacKinnon (28 left), then nixed skaters with less than 150 games before the end of their 21-year-old year.

In the end, MacKinnon was one of 15 individuals* that met the criteria.

*Scheifele played 11 games in 2011-2013, bringing him to 156 GP by the end of his 21 year. However, since such a small sum would throw off his team impact numbers, only his 20 & 21 yr-old seasons were considered.  

One of the first numbers that stands out is the sheer amount of games MacKinnon has played as a youngster. His four seasons and 300 games ranked behind only Steven Stamkos‘s 325.

As a September birthday, MacKinnon barely missed the cutoff for the 2014 draft and entered as one of the youngest NHL players in history. Even though he’s been around for a while at this point, it’s often easy to forget just how rushed his development has been and just how young he still is.

Even so, his average time on ice is fairly middling in comparison to his cohort, as is his rate of scoring. Like most playmakers, his assists rate is slightly higher than his goal scoring, and his 2.2 points per hour rank him in the same neighborhood as Tyler Seguin, Alex Galchenyuk, and Sean Monahan.

However, MacKinnon has had the misfortune of playing on a number of pretty poor teams. The last column of the scoring category shows the percent of team goals in which the player contributed either a goal or an assist. Over his four seasons, MacKinnon played a part in 24.5% of all Avalanche goals scored, which is significantly higher than Seguin and Galchenyuk. Interestingly, his closest comparable is actually Jonathan Toews at 25.3%.

This means that even though MacKinnon’s raw numbers are a bit low, he’s still doing a respectable job when it comes to pulling his team’s offensive weight. He’s no Sidney Crosby, but these numbers are far from concerning.

One number that is a bit alarming is MacKinnon’s 8.1% shooting percentage, which is the lowest on his list. Even Ryan O’Reilly, who wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut during his first four years in Colorado, posted a higher number.

However, it should be mentioned that MacKinnon took 9.9% of all Avalanche shots during this time period, which puts him behind only Evgeni Malkin, Stamkos, and Crosby in the team rank category. Even MacKinnon’s raw 929 shots in 300 games are impressive, especially when his closest comp in this category is Crosby with 10 more shots in 10 fewer games.

In short, MacKinnon is shooting like an elite forward; he’s just not scoring like one.

This trend of shooting but not scoring continues into his fancy stats. At even strength, he comes in second in individual Corsi per hour behind Tyler Seguin. However, Seguin played for the possession-strong Boston Bruins at the time and had a 57.6% Corsi overall. MacKinnon, despite this individual offensive effort, still finished at 48.1%.

In fact, when MacKinnon was on the ice, he generated 28% of his team’s Corsi. This is the highest of any player on the list. Unfortunately, his rate of 60.9 Corsi Against per hour was also the highest. Despite that ugly number, he still finished  4th among Avalanche forwards in relative Corsi during that time.

This means that even though the entire Avalanche team was dreadful defensively, MacKinnon was one of the few players that was still was able to get the puck into the offensive zone and put it on the net. While he deserves his share of blame for the overall state of the team, he also deserves credit as an elite transition and offensive possession player.

So why is his goal total so low? Is he taking low-quality shots?

The answer is surprisingly no.  If you look at his xG/60 rate, he’s creating 0.72 expected goals per hour. Even though only one of Malkin’s season had advanced data available, it’s still telling that his 0.73 sits right next to MacKinnon’s. Stamkos is also at a 0.73, and Toews is at 0.68.

The difference is MacKinnon’s goal total is 6 below his expected goal total, whereas Stamkos, Malkin, and Toews all scored above theirs. And that’s only at even strength.  If you look at all situations, MacKinnon has 75 goals with an expected goals of 82. Seven missing goals over four seasons is not a large amount, but it would bring his shooting up to a slightly better 8.8%.

The last column is Gamescore, a good stuff/bad stuff rating that looks at scoring, shots, blocks, penalties, faceoffs, and Corsi. It was designed to indicate which player had the best game across the league last night, but it also is a very useful for quickly analyzing the season-to-season impact of players.

MacKinnon’s gamescore per hour puts him right in the middle of the pack. Despite playing on some questionable teams, he still ranks higher than Kopitar and Tavares, among others. Considering the talent of these peers and the situations he’s faced, MacKinnon has done surprisingly well for himself at generating positive impact.


So, what does all of this say about MacKinnon?

1. He’s a great set-up man. Assists are his bread and butter when it comes to point scoring, and he ranks very high among all NHL players in making passes that lead to shots.

2. His transition game is also extremely strong. If you dig into the numbers from 2015-2017 that influenced his designation as a “playmaker”, MacKinnon ranked 22 among all forwards in the “Transition” category. He is phenomenal at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive one.

3. It’s entirely possible he’s below average in shot accuracy. He generates a ton of chances, but he struggles to finish. Perhaps one of these years he’ll catch fire and sink 11-13% of his shots like the rest of his cohort, but he’s going to generate juicy rebounds regardless. Having linemates who can muck up this garbage would also boost his point production.

In the end, MacKinnon is doing just about everything he can individually to make this team better. His one weak area is finishing his shots. Maybe his accuracy will improve; maybe it won’t, but it’s certainly not from a lack of trying. As long as he keeps up the shotgun approach to generating chances, he’ll continue to post around 20-25 goals a year.

As the quality of his teammates improves, MacKinnon’s overall numbers will rise. Based on how he’s generated passes and rebounds, 50+ assists certainly not out of the question. Unfortunately, he can’t control his linemates’ goal-scoring abilities. With the Avs crop of talented youngsters, this is an issue that will hopefully remedy itself within the next couple years and allow MacKinnon to hit the 70 point threshold.

In the end, MacKinnon is doing his job. His numbers on the surface might not reflect it, but he’s performing quite well as a top playmaking center, particularly considering his age. He’s certainly not a generational player, but overall, his development into a top-flight center is right on (or perhaps even a bit ahead) of schedule.

The Avalanche still have plenty of areas to worry about. Luckily, Nathan MacKinnon and the 1C position are not among them.

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