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Nathan MacKinnon’s resurgence has Avalanche in surprising fight for playoff spot

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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.

Some examples:

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sharks finally starting to turn things around

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just four wins in their first 15 games it was easy to have some very valid concerns about the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks.

They not only still had what was probably the least productive goaltending duo in the league, but the team in front of those goalies looked to be a fraction of the one that had been a Stanley Cup contender in previous years. They were getting dominated territorially, their best players were not producing, and it seemed like a team that was inching its way toward a coaching change — or some other massive change — in an effort to shake things up. Especially since they already tried one roster move to try and turn things around by bringing back veteran forward Patrick Marleau long after it seemed like that was no longer going to be an option.

Things have rapidly started to change for the better in San Jose.

They enter Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers riding a six-game winning streak and are gaining ground on the teams around them in the Pacific Division.

[COVERAGE OF OILERS-SHARKS BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

They will have an opportunity to keep gaining that ground over the next few weeks with five of their next seven games –including Tuesday’s — coming against Pacific Division foes.

What has changed for the Sharks over the current winning streak?

How about everything.

Well, almost everything.

As a team, the Sharks are finally starting to dictate the pace of play, carrying the possession, and out-chancing teams, all of which is massive shift from earlier in the season. That is also starting to turn into goals, which is turning into ones.

Their top forwards have gone on a tear offensively starting with Logan Couture who has 11 points during the current winning streak. Beyond him, Tomas Hertl is pacing the team with six goals while Timo Meier has nine points.

On defense, Erik Karlsson has started to play like a true impact player and the Norris Trophy contender he should be every year. He has played 25 minutes per night during the streak, is rolling along at a 55 percent Corsi, has six points, and the Sharks are outscoring teams 11-3 when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

They are also winning the special teams battle, and especially on the penalty kill. Since Nov. 4 (the day before the winning streak started) the Sharks have successfully killed 18 out of 19 penalties. That is good enough for the second best success rate in the league during that stretch, behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins who have been a perfect 12-for-12.

The only big question that exists right now is still the goaltending.

Even with all of their improved play overall the Sharks have still allowed 17 goals in six games, while starting goalie Martin Jones — who has appeared in all six games — still somehow has a save percentage of .891 during the streak, one of the worst marks in the league. It is absolutely amazing the Sharks have been able to turn their season around while Jones still struggles that much, and it is very reminiscent of how the team had to win a year ago.

It still seems like it is going to be a long-term issue that needs to be corrected if this team is going to get back to a championship level.

For now, though, the team in front of him is doing enough to dominate and take goaltending out of the equation and start getting the Sharks back on track.

Randy Hahn, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Bret Hedican will call the Oilers-Sharks contest from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals’ Hathaway faces potential suspension for spitting

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WASHINGTON — Getting thrown out of the game probably won’t be the end of Garnet Hathaway’s punishment for spitting on an opponent.

The Washington Capitals forward could be suspended, or at the very least fined, for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson toward the end of a brawl Monday night. Officials gave Hathaway a match penalty that carries with it an ejection and an automatic suspension pending review by the NHL office.

Asked after the Capitals’ 5-2 victory if he expected further discipline, Hathaway said, “I think time will tell with that.” He added he regretted spitting on Gudbranson.

The Ducks were angry at Hathaway for what they called disrespectful behavior but didn’t want to speculate what might happen next. They’re off to the next stop on their road trip, and the Capitals don’t know if they’ll have Hathaway for their next game Wednesday at the New York Rangers.

Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins called it above his pay grade. Gudbranson said: “I have no idea. I’ll trust the league with that.”

Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand was warned during the playoffs for licking opponents but was not suspended. There’s little precedent for Hathaway’s actions, other than the part of the rulebook that deems it worthy of an ejection and the league’s process of having its hockey operations department review each match penalty.

Washington is already up against the salary cap with the minimum 12 forwards and six defensemen healthy. If Hathaway is suspended, it could wreak havoc on the Capitals’ roster.

“It seems like it’s been a constant equation for us the last little while here,” coach Todd Reirden said. “(We’ll) see where we’re at in terms of injured players and potential situation here with whatever the league does. It’s out of my hands now.”

MORE: Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson