Back in 2013-14 the Colorado Avalanche came out of nowhere to win 52 games and, somewhat shockingly, make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It came just one year after they finished with the second-worst record in the league and with a first-year coach (Patrick Roy) behind the bench. As exciting as they were at times there was still a lot of evidence to suggest their success was a one-year mirage driven by incredible goaltending and some insane shooting luck, all of which was almost certain to regress the next season.
That, of course, was exactly what happened and over the next three years as the team steadily regressed before completely bottoming out again this past season with a 48-point season that was the worst single season (excluding the lockout season) performance of any team in the league since the introduction of the three-point game in 2005-06.
(Yes, they were even worse than the Buffalo Sabres teams that were tanking in an effort to get Connor McDavid.)
For as bleak as things looked in the standings, the one glimmer of hope the Avalanche always had was that they did have some young individual talent on the roster that could have (perhaps even should have) been the foundation of a really good team.
At the top of that list has always been Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 and one of the driving forces behind Colorado’s surprising one-year turnaround in 2013-14.
But like the rest of the Avalanche players around him, MacKinnon also saw his performance regress in recent years. He still produced like a solid top-six forward, but wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard the way you like, or even expect, a No. 1 pick and franchise cornerstone to light up the scoreboard.
That is starting to change this season.
Entering play on Thursday MacKinnon, who is still only 22 years old, is the fifth-leading scorer in the NHL and is on pace to to shatter pretty much all of his previous career highs.
He is also playing like a one-man human highlight reel on many nights, literally doing it all on his own at times.
Just half way through the season he is only five points away from matching his point total from the entire 2016-17 season.
There have been a couple of changes for him this season when it comes to his results.
The big one — and this is probably oversimplifying it a bit — the puck is actually going in the net for him.
After scoring 24 goals in his rookie season, MacKinnon came back the past three seasons and had one of the worst shooting percentages of any top-player in the league. Of the 145 forwards that recorded at least 400 shots on goal between 2014-15 and 2016-17, MacKinnon’s 7.4 shooting percentage during that stretch was better than only six players — Dustin Brown, Trevor Lewis, Jason Pominville, Carl Soderberg, Colton Sceviour and Patrick Sharp. Not really the group of players you would expect a player of his ability to be lumped in with in any context.
In 2016-17 alone his 6.4 mark was the fourth-worst among 135 forwards that recorded at least 150 shots on goal.
Because he still averaged more than three shots on goal per game during that stretch he was still able to, at times, put up some respectable goal-scoring numbers. Whatever the cause of that decline, whether it was just an unfortunate run of bad luck over several seasons, a change to his game or shot locations, or a combination of all of those factors, it put a significant dent in his production. So far this season that has changed in a big way as his shooting percentage has climbed back up over 10 percent and he has already topped his goal total from all of last season.
But it’s not just MacKinnon’s goal-scoring that has taken a step forward this season. His playmaking has also improved, and it’s not just in terms of the total number of assists.
So far this season 24 of MacKinnon’s 31 assists have been the primary assist on an Avalanche goal, which is more than 77 percent of his total assists. A year ago he only had 26 primary assists all season (out of 37 assists … 70 percent) and he only had 15 (out of 31 total assists … 48 percent) in 2015-16.
Combine all of that with a 51.8 Corsi percentage (second on the team) and you have a player that is driving the Colorado offense in every way possible. He’s pushing the pace, he’s scoring goals, and he’s the primary playmaker. He is doing everything you want a franchise player to do. Along with Mikko Rantenen and Gabriel Landeskog — two players he has seen significant time with this season, and especially lately — and rookie center Alexander Kerfoot and the Avalanche once again have an intriguing group of forwards they not only should be able to build around, but also have them in contention for a playoff spot this season.
Considering where the Avalanche were a season ago, along with the fact they did not really make many changes to the roster during the offseason, then traded Matt Duchene during the season, it is a pretty significant turnaround.
As of Thursday the Avalanche have won more games than they have lost this season and are three points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with two games in hand. Between the Dallas Stars, Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Avalanche there are five teams fighting for the two Wild Card spots in the west that are all currently on pace for between 90 and 93 points.
Whether or not the Avalanche have enough to get there remains to be seen, especially given their continued problems when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. But they are still right in the thick of that playoff race and MacKinnon’s emergence as one of the top offensive players in the league and the franchise cornerstone they expected him to be when they made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 is a big reason why.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.