The Colorado Avalanche have won nine of their last 10 games, and 11 in a row on home ice, which is a franchise record. Their recent play — the performance most observers expected out of the Stanley Cup favorites — has moved them into a tie for third place with the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division, with two games in hand.
While Colorado’s recent good fortune may not be surprising, it has unfolded in a way that is perhaps not expected. Nathan MacKinnon, who is scoring a league leading 1.62 points per game played (P/GP), has only five goals on the season, and the highly touted defense has surrendered an average of 3.26 goals per game, tied for 11th worst in the league.
To this point in the season, Colorado has built its success on the back of several players who are having career years. With that in mind, let’s look at three Avalanche forwards who are not only playing above their career averages, they are playing so far above their career averages as to be truly remarkable.
Any talk of players having career years — on the Avalanche or any other team — has to start with Nazem Kadri. The 31-year old native of London, Ontario has been in the league since 2009, and has proven himself to be a reliable, if occasionally controversial, center.
But this year, Kadri is punching so far above his weight, it’s hard to believe:
|Seasons Played||Games Played||Goals/Games Played (G/GP)||Assists/Games Played (A/GP)||Points/Games Played (P/GP)|
If this was baseball, there would no doubt be rumors of performance enhancing drugs, but this isn’t baseball. As I see it, there are three reasons to explain the stratospheric increase in Kadri’s performance.
First is the team around him. In six of the 10 seasons Kadri spent in Toronto, the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs, and had a losing record four times. While this Avalanche squad has failed to make a deep playoff run, they have been in the postseason for each of the three years Kadri has been on the team, winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season. With players like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar around him, it’s not a big surprise that Kadri’s level of play is elevated.
Second is discipline. Over the course of his career prior to this season, he gave the puck away an average of 34.67 times/year. If he stays healthy for the rest of the campaign, he projects to give the puck away 19.75 times. Kadri’s plus/minus is also plus-11 this season, one of the best marks of his career. On last year’s President’s Trophy-winning team, he was minus-7. In other words, he’s doing more to take care of the puck in the current campaign.
Finally, Kadri has been a less selfish player this season, opting to set up his teammates for goals more often than in the past. Prior to this year, he averaged 1.39 assists for each goal he scored. This season, he’s nearly doubled that average to 2.67 assists per goal.
Landeskog, Colorado’s team captain, is playing his first season of an eight-year contract extension, giving Avalanche fans hope the native of Stockholm, Sweden will play his entire career in burgundy and blue. Like Kadri, his numbers this year, compared to his career averages, are eye-popping.
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Where Kadri’s numbers are in another arena compared to any of his previous seasons, Landeskog’s history shows more of a progression leading up to his performance this year. His P/GP in his last three seasons, starting with the most recent and working backwards, were 0.96, 081. and 1.03 respectively.
Another area of Landeskog’s game that has been steadily improving is his effectiveness on face offs.
While he’s shown a very slight regression this year, the overall trendline is moving in the right direction. This is important on a team that has trouble winning face offs. In Colorado’s most recent game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they won only 35 percent of the face-offs. In the overtime period, where puck possession has added importance, Landeskog won both face-offs he took.
What we’re seeing with Landeskog is a player who continues to mature and grow, both as a captain and a skater. Unlike Kadri, his level of improvement isn’t as much of a surprise.
Nichushkin, a big, defensive-minded wing that skates on Colorado’s number two line, has missed some time this year with injuries, so we’re working with a much smaller sample size. He’s played only 18 games and is currently sidelined, though expected back soon. Even with that, compared to his career numbers, Nichushkin is playing out of his mind.
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Like both Kadri and Landeskog, Nichushkin was a first round draft pick. Unlike his teammates, and until this year, he has played far below expectations. So it might be that Nichushkin, who, for whatever reason, languished in the Dallas Stars organization, is flourishing now that he’s settled into Colorado. Most impressive is the increase in his goal production. With 10 goals through eight games, he’s only four shy of his career water mark, which came in his rookie season. If he plays another 45 games (there are 51 games left on the Avalanche’s schedule), he projects to score 25 goals, which is nearly double his previous best.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar has rewarded Nichushkin’s productivity with more playing time. His average time on ice (ATOI) this year is 18:07, 4:20 better than his career average of 13:47. The Chelyabinsk, Russia native is also a mainstay on the Avalanche’s penalty killing unit, a role in which he has excelled. Nichushkin has four short-handed goals (SH) in his three seasons with Colorado, two of those coming this year, tying him for the league lead with 13 other players, and hitting that mark in far fewer games than the other players on the list. (11 of the league leaders for SH have played a minimum of 30 games each, compared to Nichushkin’s 18.)
Sustaining the High Level of Play
The question is, can these three forwards sustain this level of play for this balance of this season and beyond? Landeskog’s career seems to have been leading to a season like this, and as mentioned above, it appears that Nichushkin might simply be hitting his stride and playing to his potential.
The biggest question is Kadri. He has always been a good player. This year he’s a great player. Can Avalanche fans expect that to continue? This is hard to answer. First, some of Kadri’s most brilliant games came when Nathan MacKinnon was out of the lineup, giving Kadri more opportunities and more room to shine. But even if he’s able to continue this level of play for the 2021-22 season, it’s hard to imagine he’ll repeat this level of play next year. Water tends to find its level. He may still perform above his career numbers, just not this far above.
JT Compher and Logan O’Connor are both playing better than they have in years past. Compher’s increased production is relatively small, and O’Connor hasn’t played enough games in previous seasons to provide a large enough sample, but both are exceeding expectations.
While this article focuses on Colorado’s offense, there are three defensive players having outstanding years compared to the past. Devon Toews is having the best season of his career by far; Cale Makar is on pace to beat his average of one point per game from last year; and Erik Johnson is matching point totals from his career best years.
For the Avalanche to fulfill their Stanley Cup aspirations, they’re going to need all of these skaters to continue their elite level of play.