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Avalanche top line isn’t just about MacKinnon

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With 85 points in just 62 games played, Nathan MacKinnon isn’t just blowing away any other season he’s enjoyed in the NHL, he’s scoring at a pace that parallels some of Joe Sakic’s best moments in Colorado.

Despite missing time with an injury, MacKinnon ranks fourth with those 85 points, and his 1.37 points-per-game average is better than those of top scorers Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin. It was also clear that the Avalanche struggled with MacKinnon sidelined from Jan. 30 until Feb. 18.

Whether you go shallow or deeper, there are a lot of ways to talk up MacKinnon’s Hart credentials.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

While you can’t ignore that MacKinnon is the speedy, clever catalyst of that wrecking crew of a top line, the other key figures deserve some love, too. So consider this an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and fantastic Finn Mikko Rantanen.

Strong support

Much like MacKinnon only being 22, the youthfulness of this line is the first thing that stands out.

Landeskog has been around the block already, so it might be surprising to realize that the sturdy Swede is only 25. He made an immediate impact in the NHL, going from being the second pick of the 2011 NHL Draft to winning the Calder Trophy in 2011-12. Amusingly enough, Landeskog collected exactly the same goals (22) and points (52) during that rookie campaign as he has so far in 2017-18, although in this case he’s gotten there in 66 instead of 82 games.

Rantanen, 21, is quickly developing into one of the better young scorers in the NHL.

After failing to score a point during a nine-game audition back in 2015-16, Rantanen emerged as one of the lone bright spots for the Avalanche last season, scoring 20 goals and 38 points in 75 games, averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night.

This season, Rantanen’s made another quantum leap. He already has 25 goals and 74 points in 69 contests. Rantanen was especially impressive during last night’s 4-1 win against the Blues, scoring two goals and two assists.

That game also provided a moment that illustrated that they’re dangerous in their own right, as Landeskog sent a tremendous stretch pass to Rantanen, who finished the play with a great backhand goal.

While we’re at it, MacKinnon’s brilliance and an injury absence also pushes Tyson Barrie‘s explosive output under the radar. Consider how big of a gap there is between Barrie, the Avalanche’s top line, and Colorado’s other scorers:

MacKinnon: 85 points, 35 goals
Rantanen: 74 points, 25 goals
Landeskog: 52 points, 22 goals
Barrie: 48 points, 10 goals in 56 games

Alexander Kerfoot: 36 points, 15 goals
Carl Soderberg: 33 points, 15 goals

MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are the only Colorado players with 20+ goals so far in 2017-18. Despite being limited to 56 games, Barrie is tied for 10th place among NHL defensemen in scoring with 48 points. His .86 point-per-game pace is the best among all NHL defensemen who’ve played in at least 20 games.

Now, it’s totally valid to point out that MacKinnon is still the driving force; this post is by no means a way of refuting his MVP argument. Both Landeskog and Rantanen saw their scoring rates slow down with MacKinnon on the shelf for a couple weeks, for example. Instead, the point is that MacKinnon is the leader of a truly impressive trio, with Rantanen in particular standing out as a fantastic “Robin” to his “Batman.”

Contract concern

Actually, the Avalanche may want to find out how Rantanen might operate without MacKinnon, even if they wait until 2018-19 to do so. So far, Rantanen’s been tethered to MacKinnon. According to Natural Stat Trick, only about 96 minutes of MacKinnon’s even-strength ice time has come without Rantanen. The two joined forces for most of 2017-18, too.

The Avs are fighting for playoff positioning, so it would be foolish to gamble on this current chemistry by breaking up lines right now.

But, in 2018-19, it might be wise to see how Rantanen can produce without MacKinnon. The Avalanche already have Landeskog ($5.57 million cap hit through 2020-21) and MacKinnon (ridiculous bargain of $6.3M through 2022-23) locked up to long-term deals, yet Rantanen’s rookie deal runs out after 2018-19.

The risk is that, by chaining him with MacKinnon, Rantanen’s value might be inflated. You could see such a scenario play out with the Oilers, as Leon Draisaitl was able to ramp up his stats during his contract year riding shotgun with Connor McDavid.

Finding two forwards with high-level chemistry is fantastic, yet in a salary cap league, sometimes you want to spread the wealth. If Rantanen ends up costing a lot of money, the Avalanche would be wise to gauge how much offense he could produce as the driving force of his own line.

Again, you can file this under “good problems to have” but it’s something GM Joe Sakic, head coach Jared Bednar, and other Avalanche front office members should at least consider.

***

To reiterate, MacKinnon is “the guy” for the Avs. As he goes, so does Colorado.

Even so, Rantanen and Landeskog deserve a cut of the credit, too, as they’re enjoying fantastic seasons in their own right. This trio could very well make the Avalanche an upset threat in the playoffs as well.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators assistant GM Randy Lee resigns

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It’s been an off-season to forget for Randy Lee. After being charged with two counts of harassment stemming from an incident involving a 19-year-old shuttle bus driver in Buffalo, he decided to resign from his position as assistant GM of the Sens (he also served as their farm team’s general manager) on Tuesday evening.

“My suspension has given me more time to spend with my loved ones than ever before. For the past 23 years, my family has taken a back seat to my career. My focus now is on putting them first,” Lee told the Ottawa Sun.

“At the same time, I have to think about my obligations to the hockey team. They need an assistant general manager who can focus completely on the coming season. Until this matter is behind me, however, I’m not in a position to that.”

The Senators have already announced that they’ll begin their search for Lee’s replacement immediately. Finding someone to step in right away may be easier said than done at this point. Most teams may not be willing to give Ottawa permission to speak to some of their employees. Promoting from within the organization might make the most sense for now.

Lee spent 23 years with the Senators. He spent four years as the team’s assistant general manager. He also served as director of hockey operations, director of player development, conditioning coach and video coach during his time in the organization.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Devils go ‘heritage’ route with 2018-19 third jersey

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It’s third jersey season and on Tuesday the New Jersey Devils were the latest NHL team to unveil an alternate look for the 2018-19 campaign.

They’re going old school and bringing back the white, red and green uniforms that they wore for a 10-year period between 1982 and 1992. The team is calling it a “heritage” jersey and SportsLogos.net pointed out why:

A “heritage uniform” can only be worn a maximum of six times per season and can be scrapped after one year while a third or “alternate” uniform must be worn a dozen times and for at least three seasons. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

How about those gloves?

Devils

The Devils say they will wear this uniform four times at Prudential Center this season, and considering they’re the white jerseys and not the reds from that era, maybe there’s a chance we see them during a few road games.

What do you think? Already have visions of Stephane Richer, John MacLean and Ken Daneyko dancing in your head?

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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.

Three questions facing Ottawa Senators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

1. What happens to Erik Karlsson?

It’s only normal that we mention Karlsson’s name a few times thorughout PHT’s Ottawa Senators Day. After all, he’s the face of the franchise, one of the best players in the league and he and his family have been the victims in a pretty strange scandal involving former teammate Mike Hoffman and his fiancee.

Karlsson has been eligible to sign an extension since July 1st of this year, but he hasn’t done so. Based on everything that’s been reported over the last few months, the Sens came close to trading him to the Vegas Golden Knights minutes before February’s trade deadline. In the end, the deal fell through.

Many expected Karlsson to be dealt before the draft, at the draft or around free agency, but Sens general manager Pierre Dorion obviously hasn’t found a deal he’s willing to accept from another team. Ottawa also reportedly made the Swede a contract offer which was below market value. As you can see, he didn’t accept that, either.

So what happens now? It’s mid-August, and a deal hasn’t been made. Either the Sens continue holding out for the best possible return, or they hope that by trading Hoffman, they’ve given themselves a shot at bringing Karlsson back.

For that to happen, owner Eugene Melnyk is going to have shell out some serious coin over the next few years. And, of course, they have to pray to the 28-year-old is willing to look past all the warts and deficiencies of his current team.

The ending to this story should be interesting.

2. Should they keep Brady Tkachuk for the whole season?

Just a few days ago, Tkachuk announced that he was leaving Boston University after just one season. Many people assumed that this meant he was going to turn pro no matter what, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Sure, he can stick with the Sens all season or he could even spend the year playing in the minors. But his junior hockey rights belong to the OHL’s London Knights, which means he could be heading there if things don’t work out in Ottawa.

Do the Sens really want to expose Tkachuk to what’s happening in their locker room right now? Do they want place him in a situation where he’s part of a team that loses more than it wins? We’ll find out in the fall. But in the end, if they feel he’s good enough to play a regular role in an NHL lineup right away, they should keep him.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Pierre Dorion | Breakthrough: Thomas Chabot]

The key will be to see what kind of role Guy Boucher is willing to give him in his first season. Boucher doesn’t tend to trust rookies very easily, so if he doesn’t plan on utilizing him in a top-nine role and giving him some time on the man-advantage, there’s really no point in keeping him in the NHL.

3. Do they have to make a strong push for a playoff spot just because they don’t own their first-round pick in 2019?

The simple answer is no. There’s no point in sacrificing future assets just to make sure the Colorado Avalanche don’t get the first, second or third overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. If the Sens happen to be competitive (against all odds) that’s one thing, but they can’t move youngsters for veterans or hold on to some of their potential unrestricted free agents instead of trading them for pieces.

The fact that they dealt their first-round pick away stinks for them. They just have to live with it now. There’s nothing they can do about. If they’re out of the playoff hunt early and they realize they can’t re-sign Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and/or Erik Karlsson, they have to unload them.

Even if they’re in the chase for a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose all those guys for nothing. It’s a really delicate situation Dorion and Melnyk are in right now because the organization appears to in shambles and a lot of their key players aren’t locked in to long-term deals.

Sens management can enter the season with a plan, but the players have all the cards right now. There’s no need to do something drastic right now. If they happen to get back on track with this group of players, that’s great. More power to them. That just appears to be unlikely at this point.

They can’t get sucked into chatter about not having their own pick. That’s not a reason to go all in. They have to live with the consequences of making a trade that simply didn’t work out. No one could have predicted that the Duchene deal would have turned out like this. They Sens felt like they had a shot to go for it, so Dorion pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal early on the season. Often, we find out that certain trades or moves don’t work. That’s what happened here. Don’t make it worse by trying to get short-term results.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Building off a breakthrough: Thomas Chabot

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around the Ottawa Senators over the last year. After being one goal away from making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Sens totally fell apart after they made an aggressive trade for Matt Duchene last year.

Finding positives in a lost season isn’t always easy, but Thomas Chabot certainly took a positive step in his development. The 21-year-old got his first extended look in the NHL and he managed to put up a respectable nine goals and 25 points in 63 games.

He averaged 17:31 of ice time during the regular season, but he finished the year by playing over 20 minutes in 10 of his final 12 contests. Even though he’s far from being a finished product, Chabot has shown that he has all the necessary tools to become an impact blueliner at the highest level.

Sens head coach Guy Boucher trusted Chabot enough to pair him with Erik Karlsson last season (the two played almost 400 minutes together). Having one of the best defensemen in the NHL by his side definitely helped the youngster grow. Without Karlsson by his side, Chabot had a CF% of 44.82 percent. With Karlsson, that number jumped up to 52.93 percent. That’s a significant difference.

“I’ve been following the (Karlsson) situation closely,” Chabot said, per NHL.com. “And I’d obviously like for him to stay with us. I had the chance to play with him last season and I learned so much from watching him work. He’s talented at everything he does. Even his own teammates, we sometimes can’t believe the plays that he makes.

“He’s a mentor to me, I’m trying to model my playing style after his. He’s also a really cool guy outside the rink.”

Losing Karlsson would hurt Chabot and the Senators, but it looks like he’ll eventually be playing for a different organization, so they’ll have to face reality sooner or later. But losing Karlsson will also mean that this blue line will become Chabot’s. He’s the one who has the most upside, which means they’ll need him to take charge.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Pierre Dorion | Three Questions]

Parting ways with a franchise player like Karlsson is never ideal for any organization. In this case, at least the Senators can say that they have a potential stud waiting in the wings. Is he ready for that kind of responsibility right now? Probably not. But at least they can rest a little easier knowing that they have a potential number one defenseman coming.

No matter what moves are made, they’ll need Chabot to take another positive step forward in a hurry. He’ll have to find a way to avoid that sophomore slump that many second-year players go through when they get to the NHL.

As bad as things look in Ottawa, at least they can say they have a young building block on defense.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.