What’s Wrong With Nathan MacKinnon?


Avalanche fans, hockey analysts, and casual observers alike, all can attest that Nathan MacKinnon isn’t playing his best hockey right now. For a guy entering the season with so much hype and expectation, to have no goals and four assists through the first nine games, is alarming. Before we continue, I’d like everyone to remember MacKinnon is still only 19 years old, and only has one season of professional experience under his belt. That being said, something is off, and I’m sure many are curious as to what might be going on with the Mile High boy-wonder.

The Expectation

Nathan MacKinnon is playing with tremendous expectations right now. The sky is blue. The Earth is round. Water is wet. Chipotle is delicious. These are all obvious statements. Few get the privilege of playing professional sports for a living, and even fewer understand the burden of being the next big thing in the sport they play.

MacKinnon was tremendous in his first season of action, capturing the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, thanks to his 24 goal and 39 assist campaign. He compounded his aura and reputation, with 10 points in 7 games during the playoffs, and was the talk of the first round with several of those points being deluxe highlight reel material.

This offseason, MacKinnon worked out with trainer Andy O’Brien, and the likes of Sydney Crosby and Matt Duchene. Reports were that MacKinnon put on at least ten pounds of muscle, and was stronger and more powerful on the ice. A boy’s body had evolved into a man. It was easy for Avalanche fans to have expectations dripping through their brains, of a new and improved MacKinnon ready to take the league by storm.

Right before the season was set to face-off, a video of MacKinnon racing olympic goal medalist speed skater, Charles Hamelin, was released. MacKinnon out accelerated Hamelin, and those expectations that were dripping through the brain, reached the mouths of Avalanche fans to be released as drool. The MacKinnon show was ready for prime time.

What fans forgot, was the fact that although MacKinnon’s physical tools have reached manhood status, he still has the mind of a 19 year old. The burden of being the player on a team with the most eyes focused on you isn’t something to be taken lightly, especially for a teenager.

One thing I noticed about MacKinnon throughout training camp, was a steely focus while he was out on the ice. He seemed in a zone, almost consumed by the pursuit of perfection. Any mistake made on the ice by MacKinnon, and you could see the frustration burning in his eyes, and steaming out from under his equipment. If the mistake was big enough, he would whack his stick on the ice or boards, just to make sure his surroundings were aware of his resentment for the error.

MacKinnon wants to be great, and he knows he is under the microscope. But to me, it is obvious that he hasn’t learned how to channel his motivation and frustration productively. He looks like a player who is being consumed and overwhelmed by his desire to be the best player on the ice. This may be true someday soon, but his mental state needs to catch up to his physical tools first. To state things simply – he still looks like a kid out there.

The Production

Here’s a stat for you. Nathan MacKinnon has scored 4 goals in his last 33 regular season games, and has 6 goals in 40 games including the playoffs. Granted, he has piled up his fair share of assists over that span. 23 over his last 33 regular season games to be exact, and 31 in 40 counting the playoffs. Add it all up, and he is nearly a point per game player over the stretch, with 37 points in his last 40 meaningful NHL games, despite his painfully slow start this season.

Let’s focus on the goal scoring though. MacKinnon has elite goal scoring tools, yet has only scored a half-dozen goals over a stretch of games equivalent to half an NHL season. This translates to a 12 goal pace, which is alarming for such a large sample size. To me, it says that MacKinnon has the talent to go through stretches of play where he has very good point production, but he hasn’t truly learned how to score goals in the NHL yet.

Watching MacKinnon play, he relies so much on just being better than everyone else, he hasn’t seemed to learn the subtle fine points of the game yet. The subtle things that turn talented guys into elite players in the NHL. What I mean is, going to the right spots on the ice at the right time, going to the scoring areas and being ready to make a play once you get there, and having the composure to make it all work. There is a fine line between good and great in the NHL, and until MacKinnon improves on the subtle tricks needed to produce at this level, he won’t make that jump.

Nathan MacKinnon has 4 goals in his last 33 regular season games, and has 6 goals in 40 games including the playoffs

Part of this is just confidence. It is very easy to become tentative, and not aggressively attack the weak areas of the defense when confidence is low. MacKinnon excelled at blowing the lid off defenses last season, by aggressively skating into the attacking zone, with a fervor that bordered on out of control. Now he is quick to pull up and look to pass once he enters the zone, and is failing to utilize his greatest asset while out on the ice – His speed.

Looking at other comparable players, you expect them to take that jump to the next level somewhere between their second and third season in the league. Fellow Cole Harbour bred superstar, Sydney Crosby, saw his point total jump from 102 to 120 from his rookie to sophomore year. Crosby is an anomaly in many ways, but is often the guy MacKinnon is compared to. Crosby’s point total increase was 20% from year-one to year-two.

John Tavares was the first overall selection in Matt Duchene’s draft year. Tavares scored 54 points his rookie year, 67 the following year, and 81 in his third year. A 24% and 21% increase in production, respectively. Matt Duchene had a very similar progression to Tavares through his first two years in the league, with 55 and 67 points in his rookie and sophomore seasons. However, year three saw Duchene go through some growing pains. He had an injury marred season, and his production dropped to 28 points through 58 games. This was over a 40% decrease in his point per game average from the season before. Duchene has since rebounded nicely with 120 points over his last 127 games.

Steven Stamkos was highly touted during his draft year, but had his ups and downs during his rookie season. Stamkos finished with 23 goals and 46 points in his debut campaign, but after getting his feet wet, he exploded. Stamkos suppressed sophomore slump storylines with a 51 goal and 95 point outburst during his second season, more than doubling his rookie year production. Stamkos quickly reached his peak production threshold with 146 goals in 246 games during years two through four in the league. Chart popping numbers in today’s NHL.

Based on comparable players in recent history, it was a pretty safe prediction to assume MacKinnon would eclipse his 63 point total from his rookie year. Many top end prospects have seen ~20% increases in point production from season to season early in their careers. This trajectory puts MacKinnon at a projected 76 points this year. With guys like Stamkos and Crosby breaking the mold in recent history, and all the hype MacKinnon was receiving, breaking the point-per-game barrier was something Avs fans could realistically hope for at the start of the season.

The truth of the matter is, that even through growing pains, forwards who become elite in the NHL, generally continue to increase their production each season early in their careers. There aren’t too many instances of an elite NHL forward having a sophomore slump. However, Matt Duchene showed us, sometimes a significant slump can hit. One thing Duchene said he had to learn, was to not be so hard on himself, and to not live-and-die with every mistake he made. MacKinnon is being defined by his mistakes, and it’s affecting his mental state on the ice, which in my estimation is the root cause of his poor production to start the season.

The Reality

So, back to the original question – what’s wrong with Nathan MacKinnon? Big picture – nothing. I think MacKinnon is experiencing the learning curve that any professional athlete can expect to go through, even one with as much raw skill as Nathan possesses.

MacKinnon has been plagued by a lot of turnovers and shoddy puck handling so far this season. Do I think he suddenly forgot how to play hockey and control the puck? No. It is far more likely he is just gripping the stick way too tight, and trying to do too much when he has the puck.

Do I think MacKinnon is going to have a miserable goal scoring total this season? No. He has the third highest shot total on the team, at 24, through the first two weeks of the season. Eventually he is going to start finding the net. This is going to get the confidence boiling again for Nate.

MacKinnon looks like a guy who is constantly worrying about how good he is supposed to be. He doesn’t have confidence, is tentative about attacking defenders, and isn’t getting to the goal scoring areas. Great athletes are able to almost play the game at an instinctual level, allowing their natural talent take over. Sometimes the worst thing a player can do, is think too much while they are on the ice, which sounds like MacKinnon in a nutshell right now.

What can Avalanche fans expect for the rest of the season? I would say you can expect MacKinnon to break out soon. So many of the issues he is facing right now seem mental. Seeing a few pucks go in the net, is going to do wonders for the kid.

The prodigal young hockey player Avs fans grew to love last season is still in there. He just needs to shake of this layer of muck deposited on him by external and internal pressures of becoming an elite player in the NHL. Once MacKinnon realizes he is just a hockey player, out there having fun while playing a game he loves, everything else will take care of itself. If Nathan MacKinnon does those things, he will turn into the elite player he so desperately craves to be.