Sports

The Colorado Avalanche Are The Greatest Show On Ice

Few hockey players fit the superstar archetype as well as Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon. Over the past five seasons, MacKinnon trails only the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in scoring, and no one has him beat in total MVP votes. When healthy this season, MacKinnon has kept producing at a high level so far. Though he has missed 10 games between a positive COVID-19 test and a subsequent lower-body injury, MacKinnon leads the NHL in assists per game and is on pace for a career-best 1.52 points per contest

The former No. 1 overall draft pick’s rise to stardom has also been strongly associated with his team’s changing fortunes, with Colorado ascending from the NHL’s worst team to quite possibly its best as MacKinnon soared into the game’s top echelon of players. But despite their best player’s star power, the Avalanche are much more than a one-man show. It may have seemed absurd when Denver Post columnist Matt Schubert rhetorically asked in December if MacKinnon was a “luxury item” for Colorado — yet the Avs have such a wealth of talent around him that they actually own a better winning percentage in the games MacKinnon has missed (.800) than the games he’s played (.609). And when they are at full strength, armed with their best player and his deep supporting cast, the Avalanche look like one of the scariest offensive teams the league has seen in a while.

Colorado’s 4.33 goals per game not only leads the league — by a whopping margin of 0.39 goals over the No. 2 Florida Panthers (who are themselves 0.25 goals clear of any other team) — but the Avs’ mark currently has them tracking for the most goals per game by an NHL team since the Pittsburgh Penguins scored 4.41 times per contest in 1995-96. With a ridiculous collection of three current Hall of Famers (Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Sergei Zubov), another surefire future member once he finally retires from pro hockey (Jaromír Jágr, who is still somehow playing in his native Czech Republic at age 49) and several more Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players candidates, that team remains one of the most feared and explosive offenses in NHL history. And yet, here the Avalanche are, standing right next to them in the scoring annals (for now).

Things get even more impressive for Colorado when we adjust for changing offensive conditions throughout history. Although the chaos of rising COVID-19 cases has helped drive league scoring upward over the past month, the NHL’s average goals per game on the 2021-22 season is over a tenth of a goal lower than it was in 1995-96, and is a far cry from what it was in the high-flying era of the late 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. As a result, the Avalanche’s +1.29 goals per game relative to league average is on track to be the sixth-best offensive performance by any team in NHL history — ahead of even those scary Penguins of the 1990s, and verging into Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers territory.

The Avalanche are scoring up a storm

Most goals per game (relative to leaguewide season average) in NHL history, 1917-2022

Season Team Games Goals Goals/Gm vs. NHL Avg.
1970-71 Boston Bruins 78 399 5.12 +1.99
1983-84 Edmonton Oilers 80 446 5.58 +1.63
1976-77 Montreal Canadiens 80 387 4.84 +1.52
1982-83 Edmonton Oilers 80 424 5.30 +1.44
1985-86 Edmonton Oilers 80 426 5.33 +1.36
2021-22 Colorado Avalanche* 33 143 4.33 +1.29
1973-74 Boston Bruins 78 349 4.47 +1.28
1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins 82 362 4.41 +1.27
1987-88 Calgary Flames 80 397 4.96 +1.25
1974-75 Montreal Canadiens 80 374 4.68 +1.25

*2021-22 stats through Jan. 12.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

There’s no doubt MacKinnon is contributing a lot to that pace, given that only three players in the league this season have been directly involved in more scoring per game than him. But one of the most incredible things about this Avalanche team is that it scores nearly as much (at 5-on-5) when its best player sits on the bench as it does with him in the game.

That’s no knock on MacKinnon — really, it’s just a testament to his teammates. According to Natural Stat Trick, eight Colorado players have been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than MacKinnon has. Three teammates — Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog — have more total points than MacKinnon, while Cale Makar (who sits 1 point behind MacKinnon) leads all defensemen in goals and is fourth at the position in overall scoring. According to position-relative Game Score, Colorado has six of the eight most productive players in the league on a per-game basis; no other team has landed more than two players in the top 13.

A silly number of the league’s best play in Colorado

Highest Game Score per game relative to leaguewide position average among 2021-22 NHL skaters

Player Team Pos Games Game Score/Gm vs. Pos Avg.
Connor McDavid EDM C 33 1.67 +1.16
Nazem Kadri COL C 30 1.61 +1.10
Brad Marchand BOS LW 28 1.59 +1.08
Nathan MacKinnon COL C 23 1.54 +1.03
Cale Makar COL D 29 1.43 +1.02
Mikko Rantanen COL RW 30 1.51 +1.00
Devon Toews COL D 22 1.40 +1.00
Gabriel Landeskog COL LW 26 1.50 +0.99
Auston Matthews TOR C 32 1.50 +0.99
Alex Ovechkin WSH LW 37 1.47 +0.96

Among players with at least 15 games played, through Jan. 12.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Some of these performances have been more expected than others. MacKinnon’s star power is obviously a well-known quantity; Makar and Rantanen were roughly this stellar last season as well. Toews and Landeskog were already good, but both have improved from a year ago. And Kadri is simply having the contract year to end all contract years. Everything has come together for the 31-year-old center this season, as he is in the midst of setting a new career-high pace in goals, assists, points and Game Score per game, among other statistical categories.

Kadri is blowing his previous career norms away

Rate statistics for Nazem Kadri before and during the 2021-22 NHL season

Category Prev. Career avg. 2021-22 Season
Goals per game 0.29 0.43
Assists per game 0.35 1.17
Points per game 0.64 1.60
Shooting percentage 11.2% 13.1%
+/- per game -0.04 +0.47
Game Score vs. average, per game +0.18 +1.10

2021-22 stats are through Jan. 12.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Kadri’s acquisition from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2019 was just one of several deals swung by general manager (and ex-Avalanche star) Joe Sakic that, along with a series of big hits in the draft, helped transform the team into its current state. The resulting roster is overflowing with scary talent against which no lead is safe. It’s a team that sometimes feels like it can only be beaten by fluke plays like the bogus too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty that cost Colorado a win in overtime Tuesday night.

But hockey is a funny sport, and there’s a lot that can trip up a high-scoring powerhouse like this team before the Stanley Cup gets awarded. (There’s a reason our forecast model gives the Avalanche only a 16 percent chance of winning it all, no matter how good they’ve looked.) Colorado’s goaltending, a strength last year with Philipp Grubauer making the majority of the starts, has been shaky with Darcy Kuemper and friends in net as replacements. For a team that has found ways to lose earlier than it probably should have in recent postseasons, it would not be surprising if weak goaltending is the ceiling on Colorado’s potential this spring.

As historically good as Colorado’s offense has been, the team is also allowing 0.26 more goals per game than the NHL average. In that sense, the 1995-96 Penguins — who also allowed 0.32 more goals per game than average during the regular season — could be a cautionary tale for the pitfalls facing these Avalanche down the line. After cruising through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-3 record, Pittsburgh ran into a tough, upstart Florida Panthers team that short-circuited its fearsome offense by clogging up the neutral zone and frustrating Pittsburgh’s stars. Robbed of their preferred playing style, the Penguins ultimately fell short of their goal in what was the last major title push of Lemieux’s prime.

MacKinnon is four years younger now than Lemieux was then, and he figures to have more cracks at the Cup in his future. But he may not have a more talented team than the group around him this year. With the rare mix of both a cream-of-the-crop superstar and an incredible supporting cast, these Avalanche are must-watch TV whenever they take the ice. All that remains to be seen is whether those offensive fireworks can translate to a championship in the playoffs, when the bone-crunching hits can slow down even the most potent of attacks.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

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