Without question, Nathan MacKinnon is the Colorado Avalanche’s best homegrown player in a generation. He’s the club’s most complete player, leading the Avs in scoring during the past four seasons. He’s a physical power forward at the center position who has missed just eight games since 2016-17 due to injury.
Under contract through the 2022-23 season, MacKinnon has signaled that he’s willing to sign a team-friendly extension if it keeps the club competitive. He’s the player around which the club will build for the rest of his career because he’s a sure-fire future Hall of Famer.
A Team Friendly Superstar
This season, MacKinnon finished fifth in scoring with 93 points in 69 games, and led the league in shots for the second consecutive season. As amazing as MacKinnon is, he knows that he’s not going to win a Cup without great teammates. Taking team-friendly deals shows a great deal of trust by MacKinnon for the Avs’ front office. In a December 2019 interview with Jordan Horrobin of Forbes, MacKinnon discussed why he signed a team-friendly deal in 2016 as a restricted free agent:
We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in. On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.
The Horrobin article explained the downstream effects of that MacKinnon deal several seasons later:
There’s a silver lining for MacKinnon, too. Thanks to his team-friendly deal, the Avalanche were well within their means to sign 30-goal scorer Mikko Rantanen, the final RFA holdout this fall, who signed for six years at $9.25 AAV. Colorado still has over $5 million in cap space, which will help quite a bit next year when RFAs such as Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov are due for contracts.
This season, MacKinnon was the 82nd-highest-paid player in the NHL. One only needs to look at this season to see how well the Avs’ depth compensated for injuries to stars like Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar.
If general manager Joe Sakic keeps the Avs competitive by building the club around MacKinnon, then he’ll play a large role in helping the young star break his own franchise scoring record and getting him inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In his seven seasons in Denver, MacKinnon has scored 538 era-adjusted points in 525 games (1.02 points per game). As exceptional his career to date has been, his past three seasons are when he turned a corner in his development, scoring at least 93 points each season.
Breaking Sakic’s Scoring Record
He averaged 0.68 adjusted points per game (P/GP) during his first four seasons, and 1.29 over his next three. Considering that he just turned 25 in early September, it’s scary to think how good he and the Avs will become in the near future. Assuming he plays 12 more seasons in Colorado, doesn’t have any major injuries, and the club remains competitive throughout, he may end his career ranked in the top-10 on the all-time NHL scoring list. He averaged 1.35 adjusted P/GP this season even with all the injuries that the team accrued.
The table below lists the age at which a player scored at least 109 adjusted points in seasons after 1979-80 during his career (n=76). It’s an attempt to determine at what ages elite NHL forwards peak.
Graph 1. Age Ranges of NHL Forwards Ranked in the Top 135 All-time Single-season Adjusted Points (after 1979-80 season).
The number of players in the age 22-24 and age 25-27 windows are close to equal, so it’s reasonable to expect at least another three seasons of MacKinnon averaging 1.35 adjusted P/GP. Below is a graph from Evolving Hockey that says that NHL players peak in their age-23 season. However, it used the entire NHL population whereas Graph 1 only depicts elite players. Therefore, a reasonable projection of MacKinnon’s scoring over the next three seasons is to at least match his 1.35 adjusted P/GP from 2019-20.
Both graphs indicate that on average, most players do not have their best seasons after turning 27 years old. It’s their age-32 season when their decline seems to increase more rapidly than before. All this suggests that MacKinnon will have great seasons over the next three, good ones during the four subsequent seasons, and then all bets are off.
It’s reasonable to consider that if he plays 80 games a season while scoring at a 1.35 adjusted P/GP pace for three seasons until 2022-23, then he’ll put up 324 adjusted points. Averaging 1.0 P/GP for the next four seasons through 2026-27, he’ll score 320 more. He’ll begin his age-32 season in 2027-28 ranked 33rd on the all-time adjusted points list with 1,282. Scoring over 100 points a season will lock in an All-Star nomination, so expecting five or six All-Star Game appearances is not out of the question.
Five more seasons averaging 0.8 adjusted P/GP (64 points in 80 games) and he’ll move into ninth on the all-time list with 1,622 adjusted points, just 57 points shy of Sakic’s franchise scoring record. With how high MacKinnon keeps his fitness, it’s not out of the question that he’ll approaches his 40th birthday still on the ice.
Also, sports medicine, team strength and conditioning, and player tracking technologies have advanced significantly since stars of the previous generation retired. Today’s NHLers are afforded the opportunity to extend their careers longer because teams take care of them better.
While many expect that MacKinnon will win several awards during his best seasons, winning the most prestigious ones will depend on the quality of his team. This season, the Avs were one of the top teams in the Western Conference and MacKinnon was a finalist for both the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Ted Lindsay awards, which go to the NHL MVP as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association and the NHLPA, respectively. Not since Mario Lemieux in 1987-88 has a player won the Hart Memorial Trophy as NHL MVP without making the playoffs in the same season.
It’s certainly possible that MacKinnon wins at least one Hart and a Ted Lindsay with how well the Avs are set up for the future. The Avalanche will continue challenging for the Stanley Cup over the next several seasons, and may win one during MacKinnon’s prime.
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Had the Avs won the Cup this season, MacKinnon was the easy favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP, having scored 25 points in 15 games. Winning the regular season and playoff MVP in the same season is incredibly rare, having only occurred three times in NHL history, so the Avs may need to win multiple Cups for MacKinnon to win both trophies.
By the end of his storied career, the final prestigious honor that MacKinnon will receive is his Hall of Fame induction. This article presents best-case scenarios that do not include unexpected serious deviations from the path, like injuries, trades, or poor team performance. If everything goes right, MacKinnon will establish himself as the Avalanche’s best player in team history.