MacKinnon, Avs are frustrated; should they be worried?

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In the late stages of the Avs’ 5-3 loss to the Flames on Wednesday, Nathan MacKinnon lost his cool in a way that felt strangely “on-brand” for one of the NHL’s goofiest superstars.

The elite forward who tends to be the comic foil for Sidney Crosby in Tim Hortons commercials was fuming at Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, with cameras seemingly catching him saying “do your job.” Captain Gabriel Landeskog felt the need to restrain MacKinnon, which provided a moment of comic relief, as MacKinnon briefly fell off the bench.

(I giggle every time I see it.)

Top line remains top-shelf

But that comical moment shouldn’t totally steal the show, as MacKinnon has every right to be frustrated.

Much is made of Connor McDavid seemingly being on an island on an often-incompetently run Oilers team (does his current look lean “disgruntled” or merely “hockey player disheveled?”), but don’t sleep on the situation brewing in Colorado.

When you realize that the Avalanche have only won one of their last nine games (1-6-2), you might assume that there’s not much jelly left in the “asking MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Landeskog to do everything, maybe hope for great goaltending” donut. That was my assumption.

That doesn’t really hold much water, though.

MacKinnon has seven points in four January games. He extended his point streak to eight games with a goal against the Flames, giving him 66 points in 44 games, tying him with Johnny Gaudreau for third in the NHL. Rantanen has even more, as his 68 points trails only Nikita Kucherov‘s ludcrious 71.

Nate is asserting himself in various ways, including firing an Alex Ovechkin-like 4.64 shots on goal per game. He leads all NHL players with a blistering 204 SOG, with Patrick Kane ranking a distant second at 177.

When you remember that MacKinnon’s contract is downright theft ($6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, amazingly), can you really fault him for being frustrated?

Really, maybe Bednar could be “doing his job” by finding more support behind that top line and sneakily-deadly offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie.

As PHT discussed recently, it may not be the worst idea to experiment with ways to spread the wealth. Perhaps such mad science would be deemed “messing with a good thing,” yet while Bednar’s tried Landeskog on a lower line, MacKinnon and Rantanen remain attached at the hip.

There’s a lot to like about the speedy way the Avs play, but maybe some stones remain unturned?

Beyond that, the bigger question might be: is GM Joe Sakic the one who needs to start “doing his job” to get MacKinnon and Rantanen more help?

Some perspective on their struggles

You can essentially break down this season so far into four quadrants. They started off hot at 6-1-2, only to sink to 7-6-3. After that, there was another surge, pushing them to 17-7-5, and inspiring optimism about possibly even pushing for a division title. Now they’re merely hoping to hold onto a playoff spot at 20-16-8 (48 points in 44 games). They definitely have a shot at catching the Stars (50 points in 44 games, 23 regulation/overtime wins) for the third spot in the Central, yet they must at least eye upstarts for their current spot:

Taking a look at Puck on Net’s handy stats, the Avalanche have actually been a bit better possession-wise (middle of the pack, if not top third in the league) during their recent slump than they had been before (roughly bottom third).

The difference is that their goaltending has really plummeted. During the last month, Philipp Grubauer is 2-4-1 with a lousy .876 save percentage, and Semyon Varlamov has struggled even more (1-2-2, .867). On the bright side, it’s unlikely for Colorado’s goaltending to be that bad going forward, yet let’s be honest: the Avs’ defense isn’t threatening the likes of the Predators’ and Lightning’s corps for the title of deepest and best.

Do your job

So, should Sakic consider making investments around trade deadline time?

Via Cap Friendly, you can see that the Avalanche have all of their 2019 NHL Draft picks except their fourth-rounder. The Matt Duchene trade netted them what could be a luxurious first-rounder from Ottawa, and they also have the Senators’ third-rounder.

There’s a lucid argument that maybe Sakic simply views the Avalanche as what they likely are: a work in progress. Why give up futures if you don’t think you really have a chance?

That’s fine, but who knows how often you’ll get truly world-beating work from MacKinnon and Rantanen. Yes, they’re frighteningly young for opponents (MacKinnon’s still just 23, while Rantanen is somehow only 22), but they’re setting a high bar that any duo would struggle to clear.

There’s also some Marner/Matthews logic at play for the Avalanche. Rantanen’s in the last year of his rookie deal, so he won’t be cheap for much longer. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to take advantage of this final bargain year by rolling the dice a bit?

Imagine how scary an Avalanche team could be if they didn’t just have MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog, but also some scoring balance? That’s the sort of thing that could make their opponents’ jobs quite miserable.

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.

Capitals cruise by flailing Flyers

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At this rate, the Philadelphia Flyers might need to go through more than seven starting goalies. By the end of this week.

Mike McKenna presents a great story, but he’s still just one (journey)man, and the Capitals made it a tough first night for the 35-year-old. Actually, at times, you could just as easily say that the Flyers made things difficult for their new goalie.

Ultimately, Washington ended up winning 5-3, strengthening their Metropolitan Division lead while handing the Flyers their eighth consecutive loss.

While Tom Wilson stayed hot, Jakub Vrana was the standout Capital on Tuesday. He set the table for Wilson’s goal with a great assist, then added two goals of his own for a three-point night, showing fantastic speed. This shorthanded goal joined that nice pass as the standout moments of Vrana’s strong output.

Things started well enough for the Flyers, as Jakub Voracek responded to Wilson’s opening goal to send the game into the first intermission tied 1-1. The Capitals really only needed a hot second period on the strength of their Jakub, along with T.J. Oshie‘s goal, as Washington scored three times in the middle frame.

The Capitals remained up 4-1 for much of the third, until some late goals warped the score a bit. Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux scored to save some face for Philly, while Oshie’s second goal of the game (and 200th of his career) came on an empty-netter. (Tom Wilson appeared to get an ENG of his own, but it was ruled offside.)

Pheonix Copley‘s hot streak is no typo, as he looked strong in making 37 saves. He’s now 10-2-2 on the season and hasn’t been dinged for a loss since Nov. 14. Copley’s quickly alleviating any concerns about Washington having a dependable backup behind Braden Holtby after Philipp Grubauer left for Colorado heading into 2018-19.

McKenna ended his Flyers debut making 20 out of 24 stops.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Trading Zuccarello; importance of Pacific for Flames

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.

• It’s time for the New York Rangers to move Mats Zuccarello and continue their rebuild. [NY Post]

• “Making the case against the red-hot New York Islanders” [Yahoo]

• A deep playoff run for the Calgary Flames would be helped by them winning the Pacific Division. [TSN]

Elias Pettersson is one reason why the Vancouver Canucks are fun to watch again. [Featurd]

• “When Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson body-slammed Pettersson in October and knocked him out of the lineup for six games with a concussion, the Canucks were livid, as they should have been. But it’s pretty clear the Canucks have come to the realization that their star player is going to have to get used to being abused. And Pettersson is probably coming to that realization, too.” [The Hockey News]

• Looking at the second half schedule, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be challenged every night. [Raw Charge]

• On Alex Ovechkin and why he shouldn’t be punished for skipping the 2019 NHL All-Star Game. [USA Today]

• It’s time for the Ottawa Senators to sell, sell, sell. [Faceoff Circle]

• Despite a down season for the team, Carter Hart is showing a potential bright future for the Philadelphia Flyers. [EP Rinkside]

Philipp Grubauer or Semyon Varlamov? Which Colorado Avalanche netminder should Jared Bednar stick with? [Mile High Hockey]

• Marc Bergevin isn’t planning any short-term moves with his Montreal Canadiens roster. [Canadiens]

Justin Abdelkader talks about the Detroit Red Wings’ rebuild and the children’s book he’s writing. [SI.com]

• The Minnesota Wild need to solve their inconsistency problem in the second half. [Star Tribune]

• Look back at Michel Therrien’s famous 2006 rant that called out the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defensive woes. [Pensburgh]

• The losing needs to stop for the Florida Panthers. [The Rat Trick]

• Finally, always be aware of Gritty:

————

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit Avalanche on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks and Avalanche meet for the first time this season in a matchup of teams that would each be in the playoffs if the season ended today but enter the new year on very different paths. San Jose won nine of 15 games in December (9-4-2) including a 7-2-2 stretch in its last 11. Colorado, on the other hand, is mired in a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and has lost nine of its last 11 games (2-6-3).

San Jose has been streaky over the last five weeks or so, losing four straight at the end of November into December followed by winning seven of eight and then losing three straight prior to Christmas before winning two in-a-row ahead of Monday’s loss.

Sharks captain Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 23 goals. The 34-year-old finished with 22 goals last season in a full 82 games. Pavelski picked a good time to be on a career pace (on track for 46 goals – career high is 41 from 2013-14), since he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

The Avs are led by their trio – what was known as the MGM line – of Landeskog, last year’s Hart Trophy runner-up in MacKinnon and rising star Rantanen. Like the team, the three of them have come a long way since Colorado’s disastrous 2016-17 season when they finished last in the NHL.

Rantanen ranks second in the NHL in points and MacKinnon sits third. Not since Evgeni Malkin (1st) and Sidney Crosby (3rd) in 2008-09 has a pair of teammates finished in the top three in scoring in the same season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Evander KaneTomas HertlJoonas Donskoi
Kevin LabancBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

AVALANCHE
Tyson JostNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Gabriel LandeskogAlex KerfootJ.T. Compher
Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert
Gabriel Bourque – Sheldon Dries – Logan O’Connor

Sam GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeTyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth – Ryan Graves

Starting goaliePhilipp Grubauer

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Sharks-Avalanche from Pepsi Center.

Avalanche search for answers during slump

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Asking just a few top players to carry you through an 82-game season might make sense to, say, the CEO of the Dallas Stars, but such a strategy rarely works out over the long haul in the NHL.

Even so, for much of 2018-19, the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog seemed like they might just carry the Colorado Avalanche to greatness, or some place close to that.

At one point, the Avs were hot enough to be in the running for the Central Division crown, firing off to a 15-6-4 start by late November. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Sharks, they’re now in a soul-searching period, as a five-game losing streak pushed them to 19-13-8, good for third in the Central.

Let’s ponder some of the questions Colorado is facing as they get ready to host the Sharks on Wednesday.

[Sharks – Avs preview]

Loading up versus finding balance

Amid these struggles, the Avalanche have chosen to break up that vaunted top line, at least briefly.

Tyson Jost now finds himself with MacKinnon and Rantanen, while Landeskog slides to the second line with Alexander Kerfoot and J.T. Compher.

The ideal scenario would be that such splendid linemates might unlock Jost’s potential as the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, while Landeskog could conceivably give a so-so second-line a big boost of skill and snarl.

Most realistically, this tweak provides another test run in the debate about loading up a top line versus spreading the wealth.

Speaking of wealth, it actually brings some alternate experimentation to mind: would the Avalanche be wiser to see how Rantanen and MacKinnon might operate running their own lines?

Beyond potentially giving Colorado greater balance, they’d maybe get a better idea of Rantanen’s true value. The 22-year-old will see his rookie contract expire after this season, and while a big payday is basically inevitable, the Avs might want to know a little bit more about what Rantanen can accomplish on his own.

Consider that, since his breakthrough 2017-18 season, Rantanen’s lined up for more than 1,500 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and only about 150 without him, via Natural Stat Trick. His ice time is nearly the same with Landeskog, and those trends carry over to the power play, too.

None of this is to say that Rantanen owes his production to MacKinnon. It’s most likely akin to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin: two dangerous scorers who become even more dangerous together.

It behooves the Avalanche to get a better idea of their optimal lineup options. Would Landeskog work better with Rantanen or MacKinnon, or totally separate? Is it better just to load up? Would having the last change make a difference in home versus away situations?

A bad cold streak is tough to spin, yet if they gather some useful intel, there could be quite the upside. Especially if they get an impact player from the 2019 NHL Draft thanks to Ottawa’s pick, thus opening the door for even greater things.

(Sorry, Senators fans.)

Questions in net

Heading into 2018-19, signs pointed to (traded for and extended) goalie Philipp Grubauer transitioning to a starting job, while Semyon Varlamov and his expiring deal being phased out. Instead, Grubauer has struggled, while Varlamov’s snared a greater share of the starts (25 to 15).

Varlamov is injured, so Grubauer gets a chance to get back on track against the Sharks on Wednesday.

There are worse goalie situations around the NHL, but Colorado’s remains hazy.

Somewhere in between

It’s possible that the Avalanche were playing over their heads, and gravity is starting to take over.

By many measures, they’ve been a bottom-third team from a possession standpoint, but they haven’t really been under water to a totally disastrous level. In a way, it’s fitting that their PDO is an even 1.00, basically the indicator of flat-average luck. At the moment, they might simply fall into the middle of the pack, and finding better balance really could be crucial.

Beyond all that, this is a young team, with its best players in their prime years. Those fresh legs could pay off, particularly at high elevation, and those young players could pay greater dividends as they learn the ropes and become more confident.

Getting things going early in 2019 could be a great help, by the way. After two home games including Wednesday’s match with the Sharks, the Avalanche will face a five-game road trip.

While failing to get back on track could make for a damaging stretch, the Avalanche could learn a lot about themselves as they try to earn a second straight playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.