Colorado Avalanche: Preseason Homework for Nathan MacKinnon


August slowly drudges onward, and Colorado Avalanche fans patiently await the start of training camp. Over the past two weeks I’ve assigned preseason homework for two Avalanche players — Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Rantanen — whose destiny with the team is currently unknown. However, this week I’ll be taking a different approach, and I’ll be analyzing Nathan MacKinnon.

It’s quite obvious already what MacKinnon is capable of offering to the Avalanche, yet there are still many questions concerning the style of his game. The main question is whether or not he is better suited to the wing or center position. Especially, whether or not playing one or the other position will have a permanent impact on the type of player he will be over his career.

I am inclined to believe that he should move to the center position sooner rather than later, or become a full time winger and start playing his game as such. However, he is suited particularly well to a center position, and it should be his goal to seek this position as an Avalanche player, and his ultimate career goal.

What Position Should Nathan MacKinnon Sport on the Roster?

It’s obvious to anyone who follows the Avalanche that Nathan MacKinnon will be in the top-6 when the puck drops against Minnesota for game number 1 in October. It’s also pretty clear that he will be on the second line with Carl Soderberg and Gabe Landeskog, according to Joe Sakic.

However, training camp has yet to run its course, and many ideas about the opening night roster may take some sudden and unforeseen changes due to player performance during training camp and the preseason. Nathan MacKinnon’s natural position is center, and although he plays very well on the wing, his skill-level would be better suited to the second-line center role.

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Furthermore, it is not clear whether or not Soderberg is prepared to shoulder the weight of the second-line center role, and it may be discovered that he is better suited to a scoring third-line role. Honestly, having Soderberg on the third-line would make for a very dangerous third-line, especially if John Mitchell inherits a wing position on that line.

Nathan MacKinnon centering the second-line would also open opportunities for Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Rantanen to earn a roster spot on the second line with MacKinnon and Landeskog. It is quite obvious what MacKinnon’s best attribute is: his speed. Not only does his speed help offensively, but it would be a great attribute to his defensive game, which — along with faceoffs — is his greatest need of improvement if he hopes to take the second-line center role during training camp or during the season.

What can Nathan MacKinnon Improve?

Being a center — especially on the second-line — comes with a lot of responsibility. This responsibility applies to an all-around game, which culminates in trust from the coach that the player is capable of playing in all situations. Nathan MacKinnon has yet to prove that he is worthy of this honor; however, he previously had to battle with Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly for a second-line center role, now his greatest competition is Carl Soderberg.

Nathan MacKinnon already sports a more-than-capable offensive skill-level, but his defensive play is probably what is keeping him from the second-line center role to this point. Unfortunately, MacKinnon has yet to realize his defensive potential. Nonetheless, this season may be his time to show that he realizes it is there, and also use it to his advantage.

If Nathan MacKinnon only showed more desire to use his speed in defense as he does on offense, he would already have the second-line center role.

Nathan MacKinnon is fast, that’s really easy to see any time you are watching an Avalanche game. But, my mind struggles to think of a time when MacKinnon used his speed in back-checking. This is one of the greatest flaws in Nathan MacKinnon’s game, and if he only showed more desire to use his speed in defense as he does on offense, he would already have the second-line center role.

Unfortunately, there is another pivotal aspect of being a center, and that’s face-off percentage. MacKinnon has only been in the NHL for two seasons, but his face-off numbers are not the greatest. In his rookie campaign MacKinnon took 31 more face-offs than he did last season, which is not really that much of a difference. However, last year his face-off percentage was 5% better on average, proving he is taking steps to becoming a more consistent face-off player.

Nonetheless, that 5% improvement only culminated in a 47% total in the face-off dot, and elite centers generally sport a percentage at or above 50%. Carl Soderberg’s face-off percentage was only 48% last season. So, face-off percentage should not play much of a role when determining who centers the second-line, unless of course either one improves their percentage to around 50%.

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The determining factor should instead be defensive play, and Carl Soderberg certainly has the advantage in that category as his play-style over his short NHL career certainly points more to his two-way play than his offensive ability. But, Nathan MacKinnon definitely has a chance to greatly improve his defensive game, especially if he works on positioning in his own end, and starts to employ his speed more on the back-check.

Most Likely Scenario

Well, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy seem pretty clear that Soderberg is meant to play on the second-line with center Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog. So it’s more than likely that Nathan MacKinnon will be playing the right wing again this season. However, as mentioned before, there a few things that could change this outcome.

If Carl Soderberg does not seem up to the responsibility of centering the second-line, then MacKinnon will probably take his spot during the season at some point. Also, Nathan MacKinnon could show that he is the better option for the center role during training camp and the preseason ensuring his spot before the season starts.

It will be fun to watch what happens during training camp, and no matter the outcome, the competition should prove to result in the right roster assignment for all the players on the roster.

What do you think Nathan MacKinnon’s likely roster spot will be next season? Do you think he’s better suited to a wing or center role? Let us know in the comments!

Next: Nathan MacKinnon Center or Wing?

Next: Predicting Top Scorers for Colorado Avalanche Next Season

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