Under Pressure: Nathan MacKinnon

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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 Colorado Avalanche.

Usually when we look at players that are “under pressure” heading into a season we focus on players coming off of a down year, or a coach on the hot seat, or a goalie that needs to prove themselves and carry a team, or a player going for a new contract.

It is not usually a player coming off of an MVP-caliber season the way Nathan MacKinnon is in Colorado. Even so, we are still going to take a look at him for this section because it seems like now that he had the season he had in 2017-18 the level of expectation for him going forward is going to be at an entirely new level.

That, too, is a form of pressure.

Especially when the Avalanche’s success and turnaround this past season was largely dependent on MacKinnon’s performance.

[Avalanche Day: Looking back at 2017-18 | Building Off Breakthrough]

This past season he finished fifth in the scoring race with 97 points. His 1.31 points per game were second best in the NHL. He recorded at least three points in a game 13 different times, the second highest total in the league (behind only Connor McDavid). He had a direct in hand 38 percent of the team’s goals during the regular season and then he was great in their first-round playoff race with six points (including three goals) against the Nashville Predators. The difference in the Avalanche’s performance with him on the ice versus when he was not on the ice was striking. As he went, so went the team.

MacKinnon’s career has followed an interesting path to this point. He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2013-14 and put together a sensational rookie year that saw him finish with 24 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old, playing a significant role in what had been a bad Avalanche team the year before return to the playoffs. His play didn’t really regress after that season, but he also didn’t take the significant leap that was expected, instead settling in as a 20-goal, 50-point player. Very good, but not quite a superstar level. That leap finally happened this past season and ended with him finishing second in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall.

The question now becomes can he do it — or at least something close to that — again, because that might be what the Avalanche need to get back in the playoffs.

The Avalanche a nice trio of impact forwards in MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog up front, as well as some intriguing young players on this roster (Tyson Jost, Alexander Kerfoot, Samuel Girard). Even with that core in place it is still a team with very suspect depth and question marks on the blue line and in goal. Their success or failure will depend largely on how the players at the top (specifically MacKinnon and Rantanen) perform. It is not entirely fair to those players to expect them to carry that much of the load, but that is the situation the current roster probably puts them in.

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.

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