Nathan MacKinnon’s Slow Start Is Cause for Concern

Any regular viewer of Colorado Avalanche games will agree there’s something special about watching Nathan MacKinnon skate. His cheetah-like bursts of speed, the almost incomprehensible quick release of his shot, and the deadly one-timer from the left face-off circle create electricity on the ice that stokes the best hopes of fans and strikes fear in the hearts of opponents.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche takes a face-off against Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Beyond the visuals, MacKinnon’s career numbers are solid. He’s averaged a hair under a point a game throughout his career, and ignoring the Covid season of 2020-21, averaged 1.23 points per game over the last three seasons. MacKinnon has earned his reputation as one of the best players in the sport.

Analyzing MacKinnon’s Slow Start

Many fans, including this author, picked MacKinnon as a favorite to win the Hart Trophy (regular season most valuable player), the Art Ross Trophy (regular-season points leader), and/or the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (top goal scorer) this year. But his slow start — he’s scored only one goal in his first eight games and has a plus/minus rating of minus-3 — is cause for reflection. Have we collectively overrated him, or is this an aberration? In this article, we’ll look at how he started each of the eight previous seasons and compare him, statistically, to some of the other stars playing the game today.

Here’s how MacKinnon fared in the first eight games of each NHL season he’s played to date, including this year:

YearGoalsAssistsPointsShots on GoalShot %
Nathan MacKinnon’s First Eight Games for Each Season Played. Source: Hockey Reference

Two things become immediately apparent when looking at this chart. First, MacKinnon is not a stranger to the slow start. In his first five seasons, the Colorado center had more than one goal in his first eight games only once. This by itself is good news for Avalanche fans. The team’s number one star may just need time for his engine to heat up. And given his stint on the Covid protocol list at the end of the preseason and for two games into the regular season, it’s even more understandable this year.

Related: Avalanche Having a Fast Start Is Key to Stanley Cup Hopes

But that optimism needs to be tempered by the tale of two MacKinnons. While he was known for slow starts early in his career, he’s come out of the gate much faster since the 2018-2019 season. He put more than 30 shots on goal in each of the last three seasons and found the net at a much higher rate over his first eight games. He is still averaging more than a point per game this year — something he’s done each year beginning in the 2018-19 season — and all but two of his nine assists were primary assists, so he is productive. Still, it’s hard to reconcile the eight goals and six assists in the first eight games of 2018-19 with what we’ve seen so far in 2021.

Comparing MacKinnon to Other Great Players

Another interesting exercise is to compare MacKinnon’s entire career with some of the other notable stars playing today. This list is meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive, but it does make some things clear:

PlayerPoints Per GameGoals Per GamePlus/MinusShot %
Nathan MacKinnon0.980.36589.9
Connor McDavid1.430.496915.3
Leon Draisaitl1.080.431717.4
Alex Ovechkin1.110.618312.8
Sidney Crosby1.270.4718014.6
Nikita Kucherov1.060.4312814.9
Mikko Rantanen0.940.39416.0
MacKinnon compared to top NHL stars. Source: Hockey Reference

It doesn’t take long to see that MacKinnon is, statistically, half a notch below the best of the best to this point in his career, and that, other than the plus/minus, he’s not much different than his teammate Mikko Rantanen. (Rantanen, not MacKinnon, led the Avalanche with 30 goals in the COVID-shortened campaign last year.)

Mikko Rantanen Colorado Avalanche
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s true that players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been in the league much longer and have accumulated points. But, except for the plus/minus, this chart looks at apportioned stats — points per game, goals per game, and shooting percentage — creating an apples-to-apples comparison. Perhaps the best analog for assessing MacKinnon is Nikita Kucherov. Two years older, the Tampa Bay Lightning forward entered the league the same year as MacKinnon and has a very similar stat line, just barely edging MacKinnon out in most categories. And, of course, Kucherov has a clear edge in the most important stat, two Stanley Cups won to MacKinnon’s zero.

As exciting as MacKinnon is to watch, as good as he’s been, it might be that the fan base is putting too much on his shoulders and that he, in turn, is putting too much pressure on himself.

MacKinnon and his teammates have made it clear that the only acceptable goal for their hockey club this season is to bring the Stanley Cup back to Denver. To do that, he’s going to need to play more like the MacKinnon of recent years than the MacKinnon of old. And while it’s a long season, a team can dig a hole so deep that it’s difficult to climb out of. It’s time for Mackinnon, who is currently listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury, to lead his teammates on a sustained winning streak. The next game for the Avalanche is at home against the Vancouver Canucks this Thursday night.

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