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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Nathan MacKinnon gives Avs hope at No. 14

MacKinnon has underwhelmed in recent years, but the No. 1 overall pick from 2013 remains an immense talent.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

The past few seasons probably didn’t go how Nathan MacKinnon expected. After being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, he recorded 63 points and won the Calder Trophy on a 52-win Avalanche team as a rookie. The path seemed to be set for MacKinnon to take the league by storm as one of its next big young stars.

That’s not quite how it panned out. Instead MacKinnon sputtered over the next two seasons as the Avalanche fell back to earth, then watched as the bottom fell out during a disastrous 2016-17 where his individual production cratered along with the team’s record.

MacKinnon now enters his prime years (he turns 22 on Sept. 1) at a crossroads of sorts. Will he be able to get his career back on track and reach the immense potential he’s shown in the past? Can he be the cornerstone in Colorado that Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog never quite were?

There’s a lot riding on MacKinnon’s future with the Avalanche if they’re going to return to relevance anytime soon. The good news is that MacKinnon didn’t get all that hype early on for no reason, and there’s still hope that he can become one of the best players in the NHL.

Things didn’t work out the past three seasons, as MacKinnon recorded just 143 points in 218 games, but the eye test and his underlying numbers give reason for optimism that there’s more in him. He’s just too fast, too skilled, and too good at generating shots. He’s shot 7.4 percent over the last three years — how much of that is his fault, and can someone as talented as him really shoot such a low percentage forever?

MacKinnon is going to be putting these questions to the test, and he needs to answer them positively for the Avs to become winners again soon.

Past accomplishments

MacKinnon dominated junior hockey with 153 points in 102 games as a member of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads to become the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. He immediately made the leap to the NHL, where he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie with his 63-point debut.

That’s where things have derailed for MacKinnon a bit. He missed 18 games in his sophomore year to injury, then underwhelmed with 52 and 53 points over the last two respective seasons. The Avs have asserted him as their No. 1 center, but it hasn’t led to that big breakout season yet. He was the team’s lone representative at the 2017 All-Star Game, which unfortunately isn’t saying much.

Internationally, MacKinnon has a pair of medals with Team Canada at the World Championships. He won gold in 2015, then bronze in 2017, recording 24 points in 20 games over the two tournaments. He also played for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Future impact

MacKinnon hasn’t had that big season yet, but the Avalanche are going to try to put him in position to make that happen. He’ll be on the team’s top line again, although it’s unclear what the final composition of that group will be.

Last season, MacKinnon’s top linemates were Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who are both still around now. Coach Jared Bednar could go with that grouping again. It’s also possible the Avs try to team MacKinnon up on a turbocharged line with Matt Duchene, although that would require either MacKinnon or Duchene to slide to the wing.

There are other possibilities beyond that, but it’s fair to assume that MacKinnon will be playing a huge role no matter who his linemates are. Part of the Avs’ top priorities should be to unleash him on opponents with the best opportunity possible.

The good news is that MacKinnon has strong underlying numbers for the most part. He finished No. 16 in the NHL in shots on goal last season, and the Avalanche posted a 50.7 percent 5-on-5 Corsi with him on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. He finished first among full-time players on a terrible Colorado team in 5-on-5 GF% at 45.9 percent, and that’s with a well below-average PDO of 97.3.

So there’s reason to think that MacKinnon could finally have his big season soon. He should at least be much better next season.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

MacKinnon has massive potential that could ultimately make this ranking appear too low. If he starts shooting a more reasonable percentage with a similar volume, look out. He’ll be just 22 years old when the season begins, so we’re just getting into what should be his prime years.

But three years of low percentages suggests MacKinnon might just not be a good shooter, and that would limit his upside if he can’t even crack 10 percent. The breakout may be around the corner, or maybe he’s just a guy who piles shots on net while getting a below-average amount of them to go in.

There are signs that MacKinnon could still be a franchise cornerstone, and his ranking here reflects his ability and pedigree. But he needs to be a lot more than a 53-point forward on the league’s worst team.

Highest rank: No. 3
Lowest rank: Not ranked