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In this edition of NHL Talk, the Colorado Avalanche climb to the top of the NHL after a rocky start to the season, and one of the team stars is making major strides in his career.
Avalanche Turn Season in Right Direction After a Slow, Injury-Ridden Start
After a shaky start, hovering around the bottom half of the NHL standings early in the season, the Avalanche are now first place in the NHL with a 29-8-3 record. They also have the league’s best goal differential at plus-49. Riding a seven-game win streak and going 9-0-1 in its last 10 games, the Avalanche are suddenly the hottest team in the NHL.
“I think the slow start was potentially blown out of proportion a little because injuries played a massive, massive part in that,” says THW’s Craig Jones. “[Devon Toews] missed the start of the season, Val Nichuskin was out for three weeks after an injury in the first game. Usually that’s tough enough to get by, but then the Avs got numerous players who weren’t badly injured but were missing two or three games here and there. Nathan MacKinnon missed a little bit of time. Gabe Landeskog went out into COVID protocol really early compared to when most people went out. So, it was just no time to get any sort of rhythm going.”
As the Avalanche became healthier, its play continued to improve. In particular, Colorado is finding a ton of success from its blue line this season.
“Without a doubt, the number one thing for the Avs [turning things around] is the way that their defense jumps into the play, creates things, gets involved, obviously led by Cale Makar, but [also] Devon Toews, who sort of lives in Makar’s shadow a little, to a certain extent,” says Jones. “If you take away the players who have played single-figure games, Toews leads the league in points per game (1.1).”
Makar leads Avalanche defensemen with 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists) in 36 games. Not far behind, his defensive partner Toews has 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 29 games, good for second among Colorado defensemen.
“What they’re also doing is playing Makar and Toews with the bottom-six (forward group),” says Jones. “So, teams think they’re getting a bit of a breather and they’ve got rid of MacKinnon for a few minutes and Nazem Kadri has been and gone, but the Avs throw their third and fourth lines on… with Makar and Toews as well, so they’re jumping into the play, and they’re actually creating quite an offensive bottom-six by having those players on.”
MacKinnon Is Taking His Game to New Heights
MacKinnon is another key player to the Avalanche’s success, with 43 points (nine goals, 34 assists) in 30 games this season. The 26-year-old reached the 600-game mark for his NHL career in a 2-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks last Wednesday.
“I don’t think anyone else compares to him in terms of the strength and speed that he’s got combined,” says Jones. “There are quicker players in the league, there are stronger players in the league, but I don’t think anyone who’s got his speed has also got his strength.”
Now in his ninth NHL season, MacKinnon is scoring at a perfect point-per-game rate, with 603 points (219 goals, 384 assists) in 603 games. His unique combination of abilities gives him an incredible skill set and advantage over many opponents.
“Sometimes you see the very, very quick players get bullied or pushed into corners by defensemen, and it’s something that defensemen just can’t do with Nathan MacKinnon,” says Jones. “They can try, but very, very rarely do you see MacKinnon bullied off a puck.”
MacKinnon is in his prime years, in hot pursuit of his first Stanley Cup championship. With the Avalanche sitting atop the NHL standings, he continues to elevate his game and reach new heights in his gameplay.
“In the past, he played maybe a slightly simpler game, was just purely a point-scorer,” says Jones. “I think he’s added a little bit of intelligence to his game recently, and he’s found areas where he can exploit because the likes of Makar is moving down and moving into play further down the ice, and they’re taking players with them, leaving a gap behind.”
Thank you for reading this edition of NHL Talk, and make sure to listen to THW Podcast every weekday (Monday to Friday) to hear everything your favourite hockey writers have to say about the hottest topics around the league.
Tom Pepper is a columnist at The Hockey Writers since June 2020. He is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.