To say the least, this past weekend presented a lot of stunning events, making a pretty strong argument that the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs’ opening round won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Despite some other pretty big stories - most being negative, sadly - I couldn’t help but be drawn to a discussion of Nathan MacKinnon’s breakthrough wrapped in a breakthrough stuffed inside a deep-fried breakthrough. I’ll touch on other issues like Brent Seabrook’s suspension, yet it seems more fun to talk about MacKinnon’s great first moments in the spotlight in greater detail.
(Don’t expect me to pump MacKinnon’s tires the highest, however; Jeremy Roenick covered those bases in a way few could imagine on Saturday, comparing MacKinnon’s outstanding rookie season to Sidney Crosby’s 102-point rookie season.)
In case you missed it, MacKinnon remarkably topped his three-assist output from Game 1 for the Colorado Avalanche by scoring his first career playoff goal in jaw-dropping fashion and adding another trio of helpers in Game 2. (Not too surprisingly, the Avalanche won both games.)
Considering his strong regular season, it’s just about certain that people were already aware of MacKinnon as someone to target fairly early in drafts. My guess is generating such awe-inspiring work in two high-profile games will only raise that profile … but the question is: is the speedy 18-year-old already elite or should you consider pumping the brakes on that classification for a bit (even if JR is already throwing the “Hall of Fame” label around).
With 63 points in 82 games played, MacKinnon tied another rising star (Columbus Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen) for 34th in point scoring during the 2013-14 season. For all the hype that MacKinnon is generating, it might be wise to note that a) that +20 rating could plummet if people are correct in predicting a downfall for the Avs next season and b) that he avoided injuries in playing a full season. A lot went right for MacKinnon that could swing the other way next season.
That being said, any shackles placed on the rookie are likely to be removed in 2014-15, especially if the Avalanche part ways with one or more of their key free agent centers Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly.
One big pro in MacKinnon's corner could be a nice ace up your sleeve when identifying sleepers: he finished noticeably stronger (although to be honest, I thought it was even more pronounced) than he started. A good way to split things up is by New Year's.
October: 11 games played, one goal, seven points
November: 14 GP, 4G, 9P
December: 14 GP, 5G, 8P
January: 14 GP, 9G, 13GP
February: 7 GP, 3G, 10P
March: 14 GP, 1G, 9P
April: 8GP, 1G, 7P
Pretty impressive stuff. Even so, there are some telltale signs that a player might have been playing over his head; my favorite is an easy one: an unusually high shooting percentage.
I’m pleased to say that MacKinnon’s is pretty much perfect: he’s at 10 percent, which is almost the Mason-Dixon Line for forward shooting percentages. That makes it easier to argue that he can replicate his success and it makes the argument for growth that much more credible.
Even as a rookie, he hasn’t been shy about firing pucks at the net, as he generated 241 SOG in 82 GP, close to three per game. He's not really a power forward-type so hits and PIMs won't be a great resource, but that aggressive shooting tendency strikes me as promising. Again, that's especially true if Colorado leans on him more and more.
PONDERING VALUE PROPOSITIONS
With any player this young (and thus, with such a tiny track record), I'd be wary of jumping too early on this guy, but he's clearly primed for special things. Your mileage may vary, but I'd probably want to wait until at least the third round to jump on MacKinnon.
One thing to keep in mind is that it might actually be safer to go with a likely linemate of his who would 1) be cheaper and 2) easier to forecast. Despite being Colorado's captain, Gabriel Landeskog might fall under the radar ever so slightly, yet if Patrick Roy keeps him with MacKinnon after showing this initial chemistry, the two could make great music together (and that could be that much more true if Stastny's back as well). You know a little bit more about what you're getting with Landeskog - including an added physical element - and he'd likely come cheaper and the idea is that he could generate comparable results.
Still, the biggest good news is that if you're the type who simply gives in to the excitement of situations like these and takes that sexy pick, this is one of those times when you'd likely avoid looking too foolish. He strikes me as the real deal.
Again, though, I’d really recommend considering context, but not just the positives. For instance: MacKinnon’s run seems pretty legitimate. On the other hand, I’d hesitate to draft Gustav Nyquist too highly; the Red Wings may bump him down the totem pole with a healthy Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. He also rode a high shooting percentage … so, just caution there.
Soooo, the NHL basically is allowing open season on spears to the groin. That’s right, the worst you really have to worry about is a fine when it comes to spearing someone in the junk; Milan Lucic only lost $5K, there was no suspension for Corey Perry and the league’s hands might be tied with Mike Richards’ own infraction on Logan Couture from Sunday. Lovely … Brent Seabrook received a three-game suspension for his hit on David Backes. We’ll see if Backes misses similar amounts of time thanks to the impact of that hit. One thing I’ll say here: Seabrook’s had a sneaky-strong fantasy season, including strong playoff work. Also, he apparently got word of the suspension on his birthday. Wild … At this point, the Los Angeles Kings have to sit Jonathan Quick for at least Game 3, right? You never know how long your window of opportunity to contend might be and there are more than a few people who wonder if Quick will ever truly regain his Conn Smythe form … The Tampa Bay Lightning can’t seem to buy a break, but Steve Stamkos showed a lot on Sunday. He shook off (or at least temporarily fought through) a head injury to finish Game 3 with two assists. The Bolts are now down 0-3, though, bottom line … Mike Brown is making a strong argument that Dustin Brown isn’t even the most obnoxious Brown in the Kings - Sharks series … Ray Emery made a nice argument for getting the Flyers’ next start, even if Steve Mason ends up being healthy. We’ll see … Matt Duchene could start skating again on Monday. Because the Avalanche needed some good news.