From being labelled a bust and a wasted first-overall pick in his early years, to becoming one of the most consistent and dominant NHL players in recent years, a lot has been made of Nathan MacKinnon’s career. MacKinnon, now 24, played his 500th regular season game on Jan. 7, 2020, a milestone that presents us with an opportunity to reflect on his career, drawing insights from the data provided by Natural Stat Trick.
MacKinnon’s Formative Years: 2013-2017
Selected first overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 after a dominant season for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (scoring 32 goals and 75 points in 44 games, 1.70 points per game), MacKinnon looked poised to be one of the NHL’s next superstars. He didn’t disappoint in his rookie campaign of 2013-14, scoring 24 goals and 63 points (0.77 points per game) to earn the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. Beyond the base stat line, though, how well did he play? Here are some advanced metrics to answer that question.
To determine the number of scoring chances MacKinnon created, we’ll use expected goals (xG), a metric that estimates how many goals a certain player (or team) should score based on the quality of their (unblocked) shot attempts. For example, a shot from the slot could be calculated to have a 0.25 xG value (i.e., a 25% chance of becoming a goal), while a shot from the blue line could be calculated to have a 0.02 xG value (2% chance of becoming a goal). It is not a perfect metric, but it is a good predictor of future goal scoring.
In his rookie season, MacKinnon generated (in all situations) 21.65 xG in 82 games. He scored 24 goals, so he performed roughly as expected. He slightly outperformed his xG evaluations, which usually happens with players of elite skill level and shooting talent. Here is a list of veteran players who had similar xG numbers in the same season:
- Claude Giroux: 28 goals on 21.24 xG, 82 games played
- Taylor Hall: 27 goals on 21.82 xG, 75 games played
- Daniel Sedin: 16 goals on 21.90 xG, 73 games played
- Gabriel Landeskog: 26 goals on 22.08 xG, 81 games played
These are all very good players, and MacKinnon showed that, in his rookie year, he could already produce similar results. For the next three seasons, however, he failed to exceed or even match the numbers set in his rookie year:
- 2014-15: 14 goals (15.92 xG), 24 assists in 64 games played (0.59 points/game)
- 2015-16: 21 goals (21.86 xG), 31 assists in 72 games played (0.72 points/game)
- 2016-17: 16 goals (22.18), 37 assists in 82 games played (0.64 points/game)
Injuries and consistency were a problem, so was shooting luck. At this point, many weren’t sure what to make of MacKinnon. He was a great player, who deserved his $6.3 million contract (average annual value for seven years signed at the end of the 2015-16 season), but it felt like there should have been another level to his game, something that would make him stand out as a first overall pick, instead of just a highly skilled top-six forward.
One of the most promising signs of his play was that MacKinnon was regularly underscoring based on the chances he was getting. Often, when players of his skill level do this, they regress and start meeting (or exceeding) expectations set by these metrics. I’m not sure many people were prepared for what would come the following season.
The Breakout Years: 2017-Present
If there was any doubt that MacKinnon wouldn’t live up to his potential, it was put to rest in the 2017-18 season. After a slow start, with 1 goal and 4 assists in his first 10 games, he found his stride, registering 38 goals and 54 assists in the final 72 games of the season (1.28 points/game in that stretch). New-found chemistry with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog was part for his offensive explosion (they spent 55% of even strength ice time together), as well as MacKinnon’s improved shooting ability (scoring 39 goals in spite of a 24.36 xG).
In the playoffs that year, the Avalanche’s first appearance since he was a rookie, MacKinnon maintained his pace, scoring 3 goals and 3 assists in 6 games en route to a first-round exit. His performance in the regular season earned him a nomination for the Hart Trophy, ultimately finishing second to Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils.
In the years since, MacKinnon has continued his dominance, registering 41 goals (32.5 xG, fourth best in the NHL) and 99 points in 82 games (1.21 points/game) in the 2018-19 season. He followed that up with 6 goals and 7 assists in 12 games in the playoffs that season, en route to their second-round exit against the San Jose Sharks. In 2019-20, he has 26 goals (15.63 xG, ranked 9th in the league) and 39 assists in 44 games (1.48 points/game).
That pace would give him 48 goals and 67 assists at season’s end, blowing past his previous career highs. What is even more impressive, though, is that a chunk of his scoring this season was done without his usual linemates, Landeskog and Rantanen were both sidelined for 16 games with injuries, showing that he doesn’t depend on other players to help him produce at an elite level.
MacKinnon has evolved into one of the league’s most dynamic and consistent forwards, helping propel the Avalanche from the bottom of the NHL to Stanley Cup contenders in just three seasons. He is poised to take his game to even further heights this season, and it’ll be exciting to see how much further he pushes his game in the next 500 games of his career. Congratulations to Nathan on 500 games and a great career thus far!