The Season: Three-Headed Monster

Last season the Avs top line of Gabe Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen was a revelation. This year they consolidated that and eventually built on it. Coach Bednar ultimately has to decide if he wants a top-heavy lineup or something with the talent more spread out on a regular basis but even so, when these three are together in critical situations the magic happens.

Saving the awful power play numbers for a future article, I’m going to break down these 3 fellows individually at 5v5 with an eye towards changes and improvement over 2018. I want to show what drove offensive play, how they competed defensively against teams that now had an idea what to expect and how the staff tried to gain an advantage with this line.

evaluation methods

Before we get started I want to lay out what I look at when evaluating not only these 3 players but all the Avs players in upcoming articles. First off, I’m a big fan of rates rather than straight counts. There’s something to be said for volume of shots or goals or what have you but efficiency is important too. If player X and player Y have similar season totals then you need the rate to discern who’s getting it done better. I also like to look at share, the percentage of an event that a player contributes individually relative to what’s happening on the ice. This helps me parse out who might be driving play or perhaps featured by the staff or system. There are a few things like quality vs quality generation and efficiency I like and on-ice pace is important these days. Here are the main items:

point share (P/GF) – points per on-ice goal for
scoring efficiency (G/ixG) – goals per expected goal (fancy shooting percentage)
quality efficiency (ixG/iCF) – individual expected goals per shot attempt
shot share (iCF/CF) – individual shot attempts per on-ice shot attempts
quality share (ixGF/xGF) – individual expected goals per on-ice xG
game pace (C/60, xG/60) – on-ice shot attempts and expected goals for both teams per hour
defensive quality efficiency (xGA/CA) – amount of on-ice expected goals against per attempt against
defensive scoring efficiency (GA/xGA) – goals per expected goals against (fancy opponent Sh%)

For all the players that have been around for the last 2 seasons I have data for both years so we can compare.

Mack – 82 games, 41G/58A, 99 points

Finally hitting the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career, MacKinnon came up just short of 100 points, although in 8 more games than last year. Once again he will be victim of east-coast bias in Hart Trophy voting and didn’t even make the top 3 this time, which is pathetic. He wasn’t as dominant individually but putting the achievements of Crosby and McDavid ahead of his is baffling. Perhaps late in his career he’ll get the recognition he’s earned.

Mack’s season showed a maturation of his game that despite some major dropoffs in productivity should be appreciated. His individual scoring rates were down about 30% but on-ice scoring only fell by half that. Obliquely you can say that indicates that he was getting his linemates more involved with the play. Shot share and quality share backs this up, he went from taking 31% of on-ice shot attempts and 35% of expected goal generation in 2018 to 25% and 29% respectively. With on-ice Corsi and xG rising slightly that’s actually a good sign.

While he’s probably never going to be a Selke candidate, defensively he took some important steps forward to being able to handle elite 1C status. We know that Captain Gabe does a lot of the heavy lifting in the d-zone but there was individual progress there on his part. The three guys on the top line became solid shot suppressors and their quality against rates are consistent with playing against top competition. The goal is to not allow… goals in the d-zone and Mack went from one of the worst on the team in 2018 at 2.56 per hour to one of the best this year at only 2.02, and that’s with goaltending that wasn’t nearly as good.

Bottom line: played more, scored less, allowed less

This is right in line with what Jared Bednar’s plans dictated. His TOI went up over 2 minutes overall and 53 seconds per game 5v5. JB wants a 1st line that he can ride hard in any situation and that’s what he got. Blame the conservative defense-first approach for the scoring dropoff, we’ll see if that creeps back up now that Mack’s had a season to learn what it takes in all 3 zones to win games.

points per hour – 2.07 (2nd on team)
individual goals per xGF – 1.44 (1st among forwards)
on-ice shot share – 25.1% (1st of regular players)
Corsi pace (C/60) – 118.66 (3rd on team)
goals against per xGA – 0.85 (tops among regular forwards)

Landy – 73 games, 34G/41A, 75 points

The old dog of the line at age 26 found some new tricks, scoring career highs in goals, assists and points and his best production at 5v5 since the miracle year of 2014. Although he’s always been considered a winger he’s really more of a modern hybrid forward. He takes lots of faceoffs, especially on the left side and in the defensive zone, and does a lot of work as the F3 outside of offensive and transition situations. The new trick he learned was to become one of the best in the league at tipping shots in front of the net. He led the team in tipped shots with 23 and tipped goals with 8. He’s got a ways to go to match Anders Lee with 46 tips but only two players had more tipped goals in the NHL.

Like Nate, he found himself playing more this season, a minute more overall and 1:14 more at 5v5 which is explained by far less time killing penalties. While Mack’s shot share decreased, Landy’s moved from meek at 18% of on-ice attempts to a respectable 22% with a similar gain in expected goals. Thanks to his play in front of the net he bucked the general trend on the Avs and had an 8% jump in goals per expected goal along with higher goal and point rates. He finished 2nd on the team in goals, expected goals and on-ice goals per hour and 3rd in points per hour. The take here is that what Gabe was doing seemed to be the direction the coaching staff wished to go in.

Nearly everyone on the Avs made great leaps in shot suppression this season, all regulars but Compher and Bourque were below last year’s team rate. Landy led the top line’s transformation from sieve to stopper, reducing on-ice shot attempts against from 61 to less than 57 per hour. Goals against rose slightly which again has roots in goalie play and some defensive struggles in the middle of the year. If he can sustain these metrics then the Avs are going to do fine against most of the top lines in the league.

Bottom line: played more, shot more & better, same good defense

I think there’s both good and bad in seeing the Cap’s offensive production grow while Mack’s waned. The good is that it’s easier to see an offensive system where a player like Landy has success translate to the rank and file. The bad is that it’s still not easy enough for the depth players to have success in Coach Bednar’s system because he’s still way above just about everyone on the team skill-wise. It’s a small step but it needs to go further. Gabe is a very versatile player that could make anyone or any line better but the team is best served by what he does to make MacKinnon better in all 3 zones.

goals per hour – 0.89 (2nd on team)
individual goals per xGF – 1.24 (2nd among regular forwards)
on-ice quality share (ixGF/xGF) – 30.0% (2nd among regular forwards)
Corsi pace – 118.92 (2nd of forwards)
goals against per xGA – 0.93 (3rd of regular forwards)

Mikko – 74 games, 31G/56A, 87 points

Young Mikko’s growth continued, bettering last year’s campaign by a goal and 2 assists in 7 fewer games. He had the biggest jump of the three in 5v5 minutes at 1:30 and played nearly two minutes more per game than in 2018 overall. He had fairly debilitating core injury down the stretch and ultimately missed the last few weeks of the season. Off and on starting during the mid-season collapse the staff tried him out in a role anchoring a second scoring line which is where practically he can help the team most if they can come up with the proper personnel to supplement his talent.

Mikko is a great young player. He plays with pace, he protects the puck well, he produces points out the wazoo, especially on the power play. What he hasn’t shown yet is individual shot production which is something many young players struggle with. Last season he was behind all but 3 regular forwards in individual shot attempts at 9.34 per hour (for comparison, Gabe Bourque was at 9.57) and only took 15.5% of attempts made when he was on the ice. This year was a little better, taking 11.4 attempts per hour (same as Matt Calvert) and a 17.6% share (same as Sam Girard). The thing is that he’s a 30-goal scorer and hopefully a lot closer to the net than Sam Girard is most of the time so we’d like to see him shoot a lot more. He’s got a really good shot, it should be used more often. One reason I like the idea of Mikko anchoring his own line is to get him away from Mack, who likes to shoot a lot and should. The more his shot share and rate go up, the more goals for us to go nuts about. Everything else about his offensive game, quality share, point production, on-ice rates, etc, is top notch. He’s ready to work without a net and take over his own line.

Individually on defense there are concerns about certain aspects of his game but he’s better than it appears from anecdotal recounts. Positioning and gap control are the biggest flaws but statistically he does fine against top competition. He’s underrated breaking the puck out of the zone and carrying through the NZ. Part of crafting a new 2nd line will be linemates that can carry him a bit like Landy does with Mack. Carl Soderberg can do fine there, if there’s an upgrade available even better but money well spent would be getting an upgrade on Colin Wilson for a grinder/forechecker LW that can keep the play going offensively and help out more in the d-zone.

Bottom line: played more, shot a little more, scored a little more

It’s scary to think that he’s got another gear but it really looks like he does from the shot metrics. The 130 point pace he had early in the season might be more realistic than it sounds. As good as he’s been over the last two seasons he’s still a giant that’s only 22 and about to enter his prime.

points per hour – 2.17 (tops on team)
individual goals per xGF – 1.10 (4th among regular forwards and average on team)
on-ice shot share – 17.6% (10th among forwards)
Corsi pace – 120.38 (tops among regular players)
goals against per GA – 0.91 (just ahead of Landy)

as a whole

The Avs management and coaching staff have many options as far as improving the team’s performance going forward. A trio of forwards like this is something few clubs are able to put together for any length of time and none of these three are going anywhere soon (or ever hopefully). In some ways that makes improving the team more difficult.

The roles of top center, top scoring wing and top defensive forward are filled. Neither the player drafted at #4 next week nor whatever they might acquire in free agency next month will supplant any of these three in their roles in the foreseeable future. The prime forward spots open are for complementary wingers or to supplant Carl Soderberg at 2C either immediately or eventually. It’s a hard sell to get the talent needed when the best the Avs can offer someone is 2nd line minutes and on the flipside it doesn’t make sense from them to shell out top line money for the same thing. It’s going to be a delicate negotiation if there is any top talent left by July 1st and the big worry is that they end up settling for a player that’s going to be over their head in a top 6 role.

All that said, having too much talent in a trio of guys is a problem most clubs would kill to have. We’re lucky and whatever happens in the next few weeks player personnel wise the team will be very competitive.

earl06

Scoring LW, punchy climber for the Ardennes classics, spirit guide

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