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.

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.

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.

Laugh and cringe at best bloopers of 2018 (PHT Year in Review)

PHT

Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and more as we remember 2018.

Hockey players can make the amazing look mundane, to the point that you sometimes forget that they’re doing it all on ice, wearing razor-sharp blades. It can be downright overwhelming for us mere mortals.

With all of that in mind, bloopers provide comic relief, and reminder that we’re watching humans, and as athletic and courageous as they are, they’re also fallible.

The NHL’s never seen more skill than what was on display in 2018, yet there were a ton of great/humiliating bloopers during this calendar year. In fact, there’s a strong chance that some memorable ones slipped under the cracks, so feel free to share any other standouts in the comments.

Masks and mascots

Can something be a blooper when it’s a resounding success, one that transcends hockey and mere sports to dominate mainstream “best of 2018” lists, such as from The New Yorker and The Onion’s AV Club?

*Nods head yes, while googly-eyes shake frantically*

Gritty owned 2018, and the mascot’s staying power only gets more profound when you realize that the odd-looking pseudo-creature debuted in September. Sure, there’s some “Gritty fatigue” setting in for many – 2019 might not be as kind to the mascot and his jiggling belly – but the hits heavily outweigh the misses.

Maybe 2019 can open the door for Jittery?

[The year in Gritty: “Tonight Show” appearance, Gritty Claus, Gritty’s grand entrance]

If you need a specific Gritty blooper, this probably captured the essence of the phenomenon more than hitting half-court basketball shots:

Back when the Predators were red-hot on the road instead of ice-cold, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and donned the bull head:

While Gritty fits the “is this really happening or am I dreaming?” feel of the year 2018, the single most unthinkable mascot moment involved Tommy Hawk of the Blackhawks.

Maybe it’s too grim to be a true blooper, maybe not, but this bout is legitimately surreal:

Own-goals, miscues, and other flubs

The Hurricanes have been the masters of bad puck luck in recent seasons, but one of the last goals Cam Ward allowed in Carolina was one of the strangest. Alex Goligoski was credited with this one, as a puck got stuck in Ward’s skate and ended up behind the goal line, counting as a goal. Find out more about that odd moment here.

Mikhail Vorobyev of the Flyers isn’t the only person who will find his first NHL goal tough to forget. Mark Barberio and Semyon Varlamov collided, and Philly got an easy goal against Colorado early this season:

Panthers star Aleksander Barkov is one of those players who seems to do everything well, but even he has moments he’d like to forget, like this shootout mishap:

Goalies must hate long-range goals, but if it’s any comfort, they seem to happen to just about all of them. There were several funny ones in 2018, but Keith Yandle tricking Pekka Rinne was especially cheeky:

Tristan Jarry stumbling and falling on this goal pretty much never fails to make me laugh. Jarry got the last/more recent laugh, as he scored a goal in the AHL in November.

Sometimes, it’s not the players who are bloopering(?), as you can see from an official landing an errant elbow on Oliver Ekman-Larsson:

What was your favorite blooper from 2018?

More PHT Year in Review:
Moments

Saves
Goals
Players

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.

Patric Hornqvist scores Penguins’ fastest hat trick on hat night

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PITTSBURGH — Patric Hornqvist had a pretty simple explanation for how he was able to score three goals in just 2:47 during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 6-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night, setting a franchise record for fastest hat trick.

Just shoot the puck.

Even if you do not know exactly where it’s going.

“The two last ones, they were lucky ones,” said Hornqvist when talking about his record-setting night, which also happened to come on free hat night at PPG Paints Arena.

“You Just have one of those days sometimes when the puck is just coming right on your stick and you don’t think, you just shoot it. If you don’t know where it’s going I don’t think the goalie does either.”

Just read that last sentence again and marvel at it. “If you don’t know where it’s going I don’t think the goalie does either.” It may not be you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” but it is still pretty good.

It also worked for Hornqvist and the Penguins and helped lift them to a much-needed win just when it once again looked like things were going to start slipping away from them.

Entering the night having lost back-to-back games, with one of them coming against this same Avalanche team less than a week ago, they allowed an early three-goal lead to evaporate in less than five minutes during a sloppy second period where they gave up their league-worst seventh shorthanded goal of the season.

Based on what we have seen from the Penguins this season it would have been easy to conclude the game was going to get away from them at that point to continue what has been one of their worst starts to a season in more than a decade.

That was when Hornqvist took over.

The same power play unit that contributed to the blown lead in the second period, came through and regained the lead at the 6:11 mark of the third period when Hornqvist scored his first goal of the night. It came on a very Hornqvist-like play as he banged in a loose puck from right in front of the net in one of those “garbage” areas he is known for always being in.

His last two — the lucky ones — came on lower percentage, long distance shots that managed to sneak through Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov.

His hat trick broke a team record that was previously owned by, of all people, Nils Ekman.

Only 20 players in NHL history have recorded a faster hat trick.

Hornqvist, who was wearing one of the giveaway hats in his post-game media session, said the win could be a “turning point” in the Penguins’ season. If that turns out to be the case it would be pretty fitting that he was the player at the center of it. Just a couple of weeks ago after one of their early losses he was the one that said it could only take just “one shift” to turn the season around.

Maybe this was it, and maybe it wasn’t, but no matter how tough things have been for the Penguins at different times this season, or how bad they have looked in certain games, Hornqvist has always been one of the players they know is going to be bringing an A-plus effort on every shift of every game. He is a constant thorn in the side of opposing defenders and goalies around the net, and has been one of the team’s most important players since he was acquired before the start of the 2014-15 season.

“I’m just thrilled for him,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan after the game. “He’s just a terrific person and a great teammate, and his positive energy is just so evident when he is around our group. On a night like tonight we’re thrilled for him. He plays the game so hard, he takes so many cross-checks, he goes to the dirty areas, he competes and battles, he just wants to win and he’s such a competitive guy and I thought tonight he had a great night for us. We are thrilled he got the hat trick.”

With Tuesday’s win the Penguins are still two points out of a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division with a few teams ahead of them, but they are 4-2-2 in their past eight games, having collected 10 out of a possible 16 points during that stretch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.