Has Nathan MacKinnon fallen victim to the sophomore slump?


Is #29 suffering from the “sophomore slump?” Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

When analysts compare someone to Sidney Crosby, expectations immediately rise tenfold for that player. Such is the case for center Nathan MacKinnon. With sky-high expectation, it would have been incredible for the Halifax native to turn into a marquee player after just one season. Although MacKinnon currently is on a downward trajectory, should people attribute his lack of success to a sophomore slump?

What is the sophomore slump?

First, it should be noted that the term slump has a milder connotation in the sports world than its definition – a sudden or severe prolonged fall in value – suggests. Typically, analysts use this label when a player is experiencing a drought in scoring or production, rarely meaning a drop in a player’s value. The term sophomore slump, similarly, refers to a player’s lack of success in his second professional season. With that in mind, does MacKinnon fall under that category or is it, after 29 games, still too early to make a conclusion?

Does it exist?

Of course, the first question should be whether the sophomore slump even exists. In a recent piece, ESPN’s Craig Custance spoke of the subject with an unnamed NHL coach who could not draw the line between myth and reality, saying, “I don’t believe in it,” but then adding, “There’s a history to it … It’s a mystery.”

In 2012, The Hockey Writers performed a study in which they examined recent Calder Trophy winners’ statistics in their rookie and sophomore seasons and concluded that age and maturity often play the most dominant role in a player’s growth between years one and two.

In 2013, ESPN’s Neil Greenberg conducted a similar study and examined all Calder Trophy finalists since 1991. On average, the forwards’ points per game increased from .79 to .87 between their first two seasons. Any evidence of a sophomore slump was only seen in defensemen, who actually dropped significantly in production. Their points per game decreased sharply – from .53 to .44 – and their goals versus threshold (Hockey Prospectus’ measurement of a player’s value compared to that of a replacement) also dropped significantly.

Ultimately, the sophomore slump has no effect on the play of a forward but can often have a significant impact on a defenseman’s growth. To put it mildly, hockey’s sophomore slump does not have much merit in a forward’s production and has far less base than some of sports’ tried and true curses.

Looking at MacKinnon’s play this year

That begs the question, what has caused MacKinnon to underperform this year? After all, if these Calder finalists improve from rookie to sophomore season, then why has MacKinnon’s points per game dropped from .77 to .64? The reasoning for that is fourfold: scoring droughts are common early in the season – especially for second year players; MacKinnon is dealing with plenty of bad luck; he has more pressure but fewer opportunities; and his team has regressed since last year. All of these factors have more base than attributing MacKinnon’s scoring deficiencies to a baseless curse.

First, it is rarely the case that forwards start strong at the beginning of their second season. Remember, too, that MacKinnon just turned 19 on September 1, making him extraordinarily young for a second year player.

With that in mind, I performed a study in which I looked at all players from the past decade who scored 50+ points in their second season. I then excluded all second year players over the age of 20 – to be more representative of MacKinnon’s situation – and looked at how they started their seasons. In their first 21 games, 10 of the 14 subjects fared worse in the first quarter of the season (in PPG) than in the last three quarters of their sophomore season.

Headlining that group is John Tavares, who had 14 points in 25 games (a lower efficiency than Nathan Mackinnon’s 18 points in 28 games), but finished the season with 67 points in 79 contests. In these cases, it wasn’t necessary about a player regressing from rookie to sophomore season, rather, it showed how some can struggle out of the gate. After rookie season, some players need to change their game to be successful, a process that can take an extraordinarily long period of time.

In addition to this study, it is also worth noting that MacKinnon has dealt with extraordinary bad luck thus far. While not necessarily a bulletproof metric, PDO (a combined measurement of on-ice shooting and save percentage) often represents a player’s luck at this point in the season. If a player is not scoring points or dominating defensive play, he will have a minimal effect on his teammates’ shooting percentage or the goalie’s save percentage. If a player has a high PDO, it is often the sign of a player’s – or linemate’s – hot stick or a goalie’s hot streak.

When MacKinnon is on the ice, his goalie (be it Semyon Varlamov, Calvin Pickard, or Reto Berra) is exceptionally cold while his linemates, most commonly Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly, have not shot up to par. But that is not to say that any of the three have regressed, these totals are among the lowest in the league.

Third, pressure has mounted on MacKinnon this season. Towards the beginning of the season, Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater wrote an article about the sky-high expectations for MacKinnon this season. In that piece, MacKinnon was asked to comment on the higher expectations:

"“I don’t mind it. You always want to put pressure on yourself. That’s how the best players are,” he said. “I can say I’m just going to go out and play relaxed, but I’m a pretty fiery, competitive guy and I’m sure I’ll get frustrated at times and I need to channel that. There’s still some extra weight on my shoulders with this team, but now that I’ve been in the league I know a lot better what to expect.”"

Scoring droughts, though frustrating, are common in today’s NHL from all of the best players. The pressure can build up and bring out the worst in some players. Yet, in most of these cases, these players receive ample opportunity to score, with sheltered minutes and favorable zone starts. With that said, how can one expect MacKinnon to improve where his average time on ice is lower this year than last (from 17:22 to 16:55)? Most of his faceoffs take place in the defensive zone. At 49%, he has even less starts in the offensive zone than last year.

Even with that, Nathan MacKinnon has performed admirably. His play on ice succeeds under the eye test and he has been very strong on defense this year. Even with such unsheltered starts, MacKinnon still puts out a positive relative Corsi, making him one of the most valuable two-way forwards on the team, just behind Gabriel Landeskog. He is getting better in the faceoff circle, he is a more conscious player on defense, all of this while playing against other teams’ top lines.

The trio of Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon have played good defense, but have dealt with cold sticks thus far. Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Colorado has not been as successful on the ice this year as opposed to 2013-2014. The team’s Corsi rating is down, they have dealt with numerous injuries. Not to mention, Semyon Varlamov has not played like a Vezina Trophy candidate, and the team is firmly entrenched in the toughest division in hockey.

While the team’s play does not always affect one player, a bad team often means being pinned back, having worse starts, and getting big minutes when the team is trailing.

Varly’s play leaves a lot to be desired. Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports


In sum, MacKinnon has not played that badly. As established, this drought is by no means a sophomore slump. Instead, blame it on: early season scoring woes, a common frustration amongst second year players; bad luck (as evidenced by his low PDO); lack of opportunities; and a poor Avalanche squad. Even though he is on pace to score far less than last year, a lot of the little aspects of his game have improved and there is no reason to believe that he will exit this slump.