NHL Players Poised For A Breakout 2017-18 Season

By Satchel Price

Nathan MacKinnon didn’t want to waste any time putting the Colorado Avalanche’s rough season behind him. “I’ll try to forget it, honestly,” the former No. 1 overall pick told the Denver Post in early April as the final games came and went.

You can see why he felt that way. The Avalanche stumbled badly out of the gates after the surprise departure of coach Patrick Roy in August, shopped star players Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog before the trade deadline, and finished the season with six fewer wins than any other team. Colorado was the NHL’s worst team from start to finish in what was supposed to be a playoff season.

MacKinnon got mired in those struggles during his fourth NHL campaign. The star forward is now 21 years old, which should be the beginning of his prime years, yet his career-highs in points and goals remain from 2013-14, when he was an 18-year-old rookie. The three seasons since then have seen the Avalanche trip up as an organization, and it’s taken a toll on MacKinnon’s development as a scorer.

But if the Avalanche are to return to respectability soon, MacKinnon will be the player to lead that charge. Even during a wildly disappointing season where he finished tied for 72nd in points, the forward showed signs he could be much higher on that list in a year. The tree hasn’t risen from the ground yet, letting us pluck delicious goals from its branches, but MacKinnon has been sowing the seeds, waiting for that day to come.

It’s not surprising that, even with the Avalanche ready to blow up the roster, they reportedly considered MacKinnon off-limits. If it wasn’t for a shooting percentage that’s hovered between seven and eight percent since his rookie year, he would already be one of the top scorers in hockey. Looking at his combination of playmaking and shot generation, he’s pretty much already there.

Even on the worst offensive team in hockey, MacKinnon was 19th among all players in 5-on-5 primary assists per 60 minutes, per Corsica Hockey, tied with Nicklas Backstrom and ahead of Artemi Panarin, Taylor Hall, and Leon Draisaitl. Combine that with the ability to generate more than three shots per game, and we’re talking about some pretty rare territory.

Only 14 regular NHL forwards recorded at least 0.45 assists and three shots on goal per game in 2016-17, per Hockey-Reference’s Play Index. Those players each averaged 29 goals and 72 points. MacKinnon, with 16 goals and 53 points, is dead last in both categories among the group. His point total is the lowest by any player with those per-game averages in the past nine seasons. Even if MacKinnon isn’t an elite shooter who can hit 15 percent regularly, he probably won’t keep shooting 6.4 percent, either.

This shows how much room MacKinnon has to grow under better circumstances. He’s entering his prime years as a top-level playmaker who generates his own chances like few players can. If the Avalanche can just make some proper tweaks this summer to surround him with better talent and implement a better power play strategy, MacKinnon should be a top-25 scorer next season.

He’s not the only young NHL player ready to rise up the point leaderboards in 2017-18, too. Here’s a look at two others primed for monster numbers next season.

Jack Eichel

Remember that list of the 14 forwards with great assist and shot averages from the 2016-17 season? Eichel is on it, too. And just like with MacKinnon, the Sabres forward’s combination of playmaking and ability to create his own shot makes him a strong candidate to put up huge numbers in his third NHL season.

In fact, Eichel probably would’ve done that this year if it wasn’t for injuries. The forward had a 76-point pace over his 61 games, which would put him tied for ninth among all scorers if he played all 82 games. So really, when it comes to banking on Eichel as a top scorer next season, it’s about his health as much as his underlying numbers.

That’s because the underlying numbers are, in some ways, even better than MacKinnon’s. Eichel hasn’t been as strong at driving possession or winning faceoffs in his two NHL seasons, so he’s not quite the all-around player that the Avalanche star has become, but he’s also over a year younger and generates shots at a historic level.

Here’s a list of players to average four shots per game or more in an NHL season at age 20 or younger: Pierre Larouche, Alex Ovechkin, Dale Hawerchuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Bure, Bobby Orr … and Eichel. To give you an idea of the upside, here are the career-high goal totals for each of those players.

Larouche: 53 goals (1975-76)
Ovechkin: 65 goals (2007-08)
Hawerchuk: 53 goals (1984-85)
Kovalchuk: 52 goals (2005-06, 2007-08)
Bure: 60 goals (1992-93, 1993-94)
Orr: 46 goals (1974-75)

So you’re talking two 60-goal scorers, three 50-goal scorers, and the best offensive defenseman of all time. Plus Eichel.

None of this is to say that Eichel will ever be as good as an Ovechkin or Bure at their respective peaks, but this should tell you that the Sabres center will soon be among the best scorers of his generation. Most likely, the reign starts next season.

Sebastian Aho

Aho doesn’t have the pedigree of MacKinnon and Eichel, who were top-two selections in the NHL draft, but he’s going to be a premier scoring talent soon all the same. The No. 35 overall pick in the 2015 draft had a huge rookie season with the Hurricanes in 2016-17, and looks ready to become the perfect scoring complement to Jeff Skinner on an up-and-coming team.

During his first year with Carolina, Aho recorded 24 goals and 25 assists while playing all 82 games. It was an impressive performance for the 19-year-old, who was coming off a huge 2016 of international appearances representing his native Finland.

There’s room for Aho to improve a good deal upon his 49-point season in Carolina, and not just because he’s so young. Like Eichel and MacKinnon, few players his age are this good at putting pressure on defenses and creating chances.

Aho didn’t get consistent No. 1 line minutes as a rookie, so he averaged a shade under 17 minutes per game, but he still managed to pack a ton of production into that playing time. Only 22 players averaged more 5-on-5 shots on goal per 60 minutes, according to Corsica Hockey. Despite being only 5’11, 172 pounds, Aho got those shots in impressive areas, too. Among the top 50 players in the aforementioned stat, only eight had a lower average shot distance than Aho’s 24.4 feet.

This means Aho — again, at age 19 — was among the best players in hockey at generating in-close chances for himself. In terms of Corsica Hockey’s expected goals, which estimates how many goals a player should score based on historical probabilities using various factors like shot volume and location, Aho was fourth among all players during 5-on-5 play behind Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, and Skinner. Even if there’s some noise in those estimates, it signals how Aho asserted himself as an efficient shooter as a teenager.

And like MacKinnon and Eichel, Aho did all this at a young age on a non-playoff team. The Hurricanes have a nice top six coming together with Aho, Skinner, Eric Staal, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, and Teuvo Teravainen, but it’s Aho who stands the best chance of becoming the superstar they need to keep progressing in the Eastern Conference.

This season, Eichel, MacKinnon, and Aho finished 53rd, 72nd, and 104th, respectively, on the points leaderboard. Expect all three to be in the top 50 this time next year.

***

Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.

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