Nathan MacKinnon might be NHL’s most valuable asset

2 Comments

There are few players in the NHL that have been more impressive and noticeable through the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs than Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

He looks like he is shot out of a cannon on every shift and is one of the biggest reasons his team has a 3-1 lead on the Calgary Flames and is on the verge of knocking off the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

MacKinnon may not have the highest point total in the playoffs, but his impact has been massive.

The Avalanche have looked like the better team through the first four games, and one of the biggest reasons for that has been their team speed. They just look faster in every game, and at no time is that more evident than when MacKinnon and his line is on the ice.

There is no answer for him or anything he is doing, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the numbers to see it.

Following Wednesday’s come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win, MacKinnon is leading the league in total shot attempts (44), shots on goals (24), and scoring chances (25) and has been a driving force behind the Avalanche offense, just as he has been over the past two regular seasons where he has emerged as one of the truly elite players in the league.

He has been as dominant as it can possibly get at this level.

He is also one of the biggest current steals in the NHL when it comes to his total value under the salary cap, and from a team perspective has become the most valuable asset on any team in the NHL.

You won’t find anyone arguing that he is the best player in the league, but he is certainly on the very short list of players that stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Definitely top-10 at this point, maybe even starting to push the top-five. Just consider that since the start of the 2017-18 season only two players in the league (Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid) have recorded more points than MacKinnon, while only three have scored more goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He scored 41 goals and 99 total points in 82 games this season, and was at 39 goals and 97 points in only 74 games a year ago (that would have been a 43-goal, 107-point pace over 82 games).

That sort of offensive brilliance is incredibly rare, and MacKinnon is showing no signs of slowing down.

There are two things that make this such a steal for the Avalanche.

The first is that MacKinnon is still only 23 years old, meaning that he still might have his best and most productive days in the NHL sitting in front of him as most scorers hit their peak levels of production between the ages of 22 and 26.

The second is that the Avalanche have him under contract at only $6.3 million per season for four more full seasons after this one.

That means he is under contract for all of his peak years at an astonishingly low rate for the team.

That salary cap hit is only the 62nd largest in the NHL, and putting him right between Keith Yandle and Alexander Radulov on the league’s pay scale.

The Avalanche are going to be getting a bonafide superstar, throughout probably all of his prime years in the NHL, for a price that is probably equivalent to a really good, but not great, first-or second-line player. That is a totally bonkers contract, and it gives the Avalanche an enormous advantage when it comes to building their team around him.

Add in the fact that Gabriel Landeskog makes even less over the next two years, and the Avalanche have only $11 million committed to a pair of top-line stars.

That is one of the biggest reasons you have to be extraordinarily excited about the future of this team, no matter what happens in this series or the remainder of the playoffs.

MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen is as good of a trio as there is anywhere else in the league, and they are probably the biggest reason the Avalanche have made the playoffs the past two years.

Now they are on the verge of getting even more around them.

They have a top-four pick in Cale Makar that has made his arrival in the league and, in just two playoff games, already looks like he belongs. They have a pipeline of young players filled with the potential (some in the NHL already; some on their way) and another top-four pick coming this spring thanks to completion of the Matt Duchene trade. Because MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen are so young (and so cheap) they should all still be a part of the team that pipeline starts to make its biggest impact.

And because their two best players are tied to contracts that are probably for about half of what their market value should be, they have a ton of flexibility to not only keep their other young players (Rantanen, specifically) but also add around them. It is a huge advantage.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

Rantanen leads Avalanche in OT comeback win against Flames

Associated Press
7 Comments

For most of Game 4, it looked like Flames goaltender Mike Smith would be the hero, but just as they did in Game 3, the Colorado Avalanche bombarded him and eventually it worked. Mikko Rantanen played an instrumental role, scoring the game-tying goal late in the third and then the overtime winner in Colorado’s 3-2 victory.

The Calgary Flames were tied for second in the league in goals scored during the regular season, but so far Smith has been their most important player. The 37-year-old goaltender earned Calgary’s only win of the series by posting a 26-save shutout. The Avalanche have made life too difficult for him lately though.

Just one game after the Avalanche managed to blowout Calgary by launching an overwhelming 56 shots at Smith, they sent another 52 shots his way Wednesday night. Smith held firm though for most of the game. His efforts combined with goals from Elias Lindholm and Derek Ryan gave the Flames a 2-0 lead by 6:58 of the third period. That’s despite the Avalanche firing 17 shots in the first period and 15 in the second.

Eventually though, their persistence paid off. Barely a minute after Ryan’s goal, Smith made a great save on Matt Calvert, but J.T. Compher picked up the rebound to finally get Colorado on the board. It was a start, but that might have been as close as Colorado got if not for some late penalty troubles by Calgary. Mikael Backlund took a tripping penalty at 16:39 and Noah Hanifin was penalized for a puck over the glass at 17:23.

The Backlund penalty was the one the Avalanche capitalized on, courtesy of Rantanen shoveling a Nathan MacKinnon centering pass into the net. That pushed the game into an overtime period that lasted 10:23 minutes before Rantanen scored again to complete the comeback.

With that, the Colorado Avalanche have a 3-1 series lead despite dropping their playoff opener. At this point, the Flames would have to make franchise history to advance as they’re 0-8 when trailing a series 3-1.

In a Round 1 that’s already featured some major surprises, the Avalanche seem on course to deliver yet another. Of course, hope isn’t lost for the Flames yet, but if they are to bounce back, they’ll need to rely on Smith less. He’s already had to face 173 shots in this series, which is 28 more than any other goaltender.

Avalanche-Flames Game 5 from Scotiabank Saddledome will be Friday night at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Mike Smith unlikely hero as Flames shutout Avalanche in Game 1

Getty Images

Mike Smith certainly didn’t start this season on a positive note and while he did improve as the campaign went on, goaltending was still a big question mark for Calgary going into the series. Few would have predicted that Smith would end up being the standout in this battle between two high-powered offenses, but that was the case in the Flames’ 4-0 victory over the Avalanche.

Philipp Grubauer, who also had a poor start to the season before bouncing back, did hold up for most of the game. He couldn’t save the Avalanche Thursday night, but he kept them in this one despite the lopsided final score. It wasn’t until late in the second period that the Flames first solved him.

Continuing with the theme of Game 1 defying expectations, rather than one of the Flames’ many offensive stars netting the goal, it was Andrew Mangiapane, who has just eight career goals and was making his postseason debut. For a moment, he looked like an elite forward, weaving through the Avalanche and outmaneuvering Grubauer before finishing him with a backhand.

Late in the second period, Matthew Tkachuk capitalized on a power-play opportunity to score his first career playoff goal. That 2-0 edge would hold for most of what remained until the floodgates opened late. Mikael Backlund added another power-play goal at 17:01 of the third period then just 14 seconds later, Tkachuk scored again to make it 4-0.

Colorado was the clear underdog going into this series, so from that perspective this outcome wasn’t surprising even if how we got to it did deviate from the script. At the same time, the Avalanche couldn’t be discounted and still shouldn’t be. Any team headlined by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen has the potential to be very dangerous and the Flames know full well that their work is far from done.

Avalanche-Flames Game 2 from Scotiabank Saddledome will be Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

Getty Images
6 Comments

Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.

What will Rantanen’s next contract look like?

3 Comments

Despite the fact that he’s leading the NHL in scoring, it still feels like Mikko Rantanen is an underrated superstar. Maybe that’s because he plays in Colorado, maybe that’s because he’s on the same team as Nathan MacKinnon, but it just feels like he doesn’t get the love he deserves.

He’ll probably get more attention if he wins the Art Ross Trophy, or if the Avs pay him huge money on his next contract. Rantanen is in the final year of his entry-level deal, which means the two sides will be taking care of business in the near future.

The line of Rantanen, MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog has arguably become the best in the NHL. Rantanen and MacKinnon are first and second in the league in scoring, while Landeskog is also running at a point-per-game pace this year. The Avs may be top-heavy, but it’s totally fine if you have three players that can produce at this rate.

When it comes to contracts, Colorado has already taken care of MacKinnon (four years remaining at $6.3 million) and Landeskog (two years remaining at $5.571 million).

So what should the Avs expect to pay Rantanen starting next season?

First, no matter what the number is, expect him to become the highest paid player on the team by a wide margin.

In 2017-18, the 22-year-old had 29 goals and 84 points in 81 games, which means he was tied for 16th in scoring last season. This year, he’s already up to 42 points in just 25 contests. That puts him on pace for 138 points. There’s no way he comes close to 140 points, is there? Regardless, he’ll be getting a significant raise before the start of the 2019-20 campaign.

To figure out how much he’ll make, let’s take a look at some of the recent major extensions that have been signed by elite wingers.

Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, who was one of three players to hit the 100-point mark last season, inked an eight-year, $76 million deal ($9.5 million AAV) with Tampa last summer. That’s a decent comparable. Last year was really Kucherov’s second big year. He also had a pair of 60-point seasons before that, but he’s three years older than Rantanen, which means he’s had more time to prove himself. This feels like a strong comparable.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who is 10 years older than Rantanen, just signed a five-year, $41.25 million deal ($8.25 million AAV) with Winnipeg. The 32-year-old is coming off a 91-point season in 2017-18, and he’s on pace to surpass that number this year, as he has 32 points in 24 contests. He out-produced the Avs forward by a few points last year, but there’s a huge difference in age here. Given the difference in age, you’d have to think that Rantanen’s AAV will be higher than Wheeler’s.

Sharks forward Logan Couture and Stars forward Tyler Seguin are both part-time wingers, who also play down the middle at times. Couture signed an eight-year, $64 million deal last summer, while Seguin inked an eight-year, $78.8 million extension in September. Both players are older than Rantanen and neither of them had more points than him last year.

Keeping all of the above numbers in mind, it sure looks like Rantanen is heading for an eight-year deal worth north of $80 million total. Kucherov out-performed him last year, but the fact that the Avs forward is only 22 years old makes him that much more valuable. That’s not to say that Kucherov is old or anything, but wasn’t as productive as Rantanen is when he was 22.

If the Finn keeps producing at a similar clip, it’s not unreasonable to think that he could earn somewhere around $11 million per season on a long-term deal.

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.