Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon or Matt Duchene on Wing?

Colorado Avalanche forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene are versatile players who can play both wing and center, but which one is better suited to play the wing this season?

The lone representative from North America for the Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon — missed Friday’s practice because of a funeral. My condolences for MacK’s loss.

He was back for practice Saturday though, and will likely play the wing on Team North America’s third line, along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at center and Jonathan Drouin at left wing.

Nathan MacKinnon played a mix of wing and center during the preliminary rounds, and was tied for second in overall point production during the prelim rounds.

Although MacK is a natural center, sometimes centers end up becoming great wingers because of a decreased defensive responsibility. Indeed, MacK played wing during the majority of his rookie season, and he’s yet to match that point total since.

Matt Duchene also played wing during the preliminary rounds of the World Cup. Although he was not as successful as MacK with point production, you have to remember that he is also playing on a much more competitive team.

Interestingly enough, Matt Duchene is projected to play on Ryan O’Reilly’s wing during Saturday night’s game. The two are accustomed to playing on the same line with one another as Colorado Avalanche players, but O’Reilly was playing on Duchene’s wing during those days.

So, with both MacK and Dutch playing the wing during the World Cup, and with a question for wing talent in the top six for the Avalanche, you have to wonder who will play wing between the two, and who will play center*.

The Colorado Avalanche have a bunch of depth at the center position — just like Team North America — and they may consider putting MacKinnon or Duchene on the wing to help evenly distribute the lines.

*fair warning: from here on out the article is mostly speculation.

Should Matt Duchene or Nathan MacKinnon Play Wing?

To me, this is where coach Jared Bednar will have to make a decision — unless he’s not as high on Carl Soderberg as the fans are.

Carl Soderberg has proven that he can play second line center. And, if Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikko Rantanen can take the next step then there will be some promising options in the top six.

With two top line centers in both MacKinnon and Duchene, as well as a second line center in Carl Soderberg, the Colorado Avalanche will have to make some decisions on the wing.

Another factor playing a role in line combinations will inevitably be the lack of depth that the Avalanche have on the wing.

In other words, Jarome Iginla and Gabe Landeskog are the only natural wingers that have also proven themselves capable of top-six production. Other than those two, the Colorado Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Mikhail Grigorenko, Carl Soderberg, and Joe Colborne with wing/center versatility.

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So, if one of either Duchene or MacKinnon were moved to the wing it would not only open a spot at the center position, but also help to solidify the wing position.

Furthermore, whoever gets moved to the wing has to be a bona-fide top-six forward, otherwise the move is not worth it.

Obviously that means that Duchene or MacK are going to get moved to the wing because both have played wing successfully during the early part of their careers.

Do the Avalanche Want an Off-Winger?

Nathan MacKinnon is a right-hand shot, and Matt Duchene is a left-hand shot, and both would either play top line center, or top line right wing.

So the question between MacK and Dutchy now comes down to whether or not the Avalanche want Duchy on his off-wing, or if they want MacK playing his strong-side wing.

When a left-handed player slots in on the right side they are privy to certain offensive opportunities that they might not normally receive.

These opportunities include cross ice one-timers from the right face-off dot on a left-shot stick, easier access to slot shots based on defensive handedness, and better cross ice passing opportunites to the other winger.

More simply, why do you think Alexander Ovechkin (a right-hand shot) sets up at the left face-off circle during the power play?

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However, playing on your off-wing can also result in some defensive issues. In other words, it’s difficult to cover the boards on your wing side if your handedness doesn’t allow you to keep your stick along the boards without turning your body and exposing yourself to bad positioning.

It can also play a role on the forecheck or the back-check. Imagine a player back-checking on the right-wing with a left-shot. He has to use a backhand motion to stick-check and stick-lift, instead of having access to a forehand motion.

And, this is especially true if the player they’re back-checking is carrying the puck along the boards. Let’s be honest, that’s how every winger protects the puck when they’re skating toward their offensive zone — unless they’re playing the off-wing.

Or, Do the Avalanche Want a Strong-Side Winger?

Nathan MacKinnon is a right-hand shot, and would be able to play his strong-side wing slot which is still offensively productive, but more defensively responsible.

Don’t get me wrong, some players can play the off-wing extremely well while also avoiding any defensive deficiencies. Look at Vladimir Tarasenko for example.

Tarasenko plays the right wing with a left shot. And, he’s on the cusp of becoming one of the most dominant goal scorers in the league. Furthermore, he’s not terrible defensively, and his offensive production generates a lot of possession anyway.

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However, Nathan MacKinnon is 6’1 and 210 pounds, he has offensive skills, and the physicality necessary to becoming a dominant two-way center. He’s also only 21 years old though, and could spend some more time on the wing before he becomes a full-time center.

Still, Jared Bednar is a defensive coach and may want the best defensive option available on wing or center. So, Bednar may ensure that MacK either plays second line center, or first line right wing for the defensive benefits.

For the sake of the article though, I’m going to ignore discussions of second line center for MacK and Duchene because I believe that they’ll either play first line center or first line right wing.

Shouldn’t We Take Faceoffs Into Account?

This is where the decision is made folks. Matt Duchene has consistently been one of the best faceoff players in the league since he joined the NHL, and last season was no different.

Nathan MacKinnon — on the other hand — has not been a particularly good faceoff man since he joined the league, and last season confirmed that.

Here’s the deal folks, even when Matt Duchene was playing Nathan MacKinnon’s wing last season, he was still taking important draws.

Matt Duchene was tied at third in the league for face-off percentage last season with a 57.9 percent winning percentage. Nathan MacKinnon was tied at 74th in the league for face-off percentage last season with a 48.4 percent winning percentage.

However, you also have to take into account that the Avalanche are trying to develop Nathan MacKinnon as a center, so they want to be sure that he plays the center position consistently.

Nonetheless, you don’t relegate a top three faceoff percentage center to the wing. That just doesn’t make any sense, particularly when that center has only had one year below the 50 percent mark in the faceoff category since joining the league.

Conclusion

I think you Avalanche fans know where I’m heading with this. Matt Duchene should be the top line center, and Nathan MacKinnon should hit the wing for the season.

Here’s the lines:

  • Mikhail Grigorenko Matt Duchene Nathan MacKinnon
  • Gabe Landeskog Carl Soderberg Mikko Rantanen
  • Blake Comeau Joe Colborne Jarome Iginla
  • Cody McLeod John Mitchell Andreas Martinsen

I just think there are too many factors going against Nathan MacKinnon playing center this year. He’s a right-handed shot and can play strong side wing, he doesn’t have a dependable faceoff winning percentage, and he’s played wing successfully in the past.

Duchene has the best faceoff winning percentage among all avalanche players, plays the off-wing, and has always played best at center.

I would expect to see MacK on the wing to start the season, and if some of the other Avalanche players are able to step up then MacK may be able to move back to the center.

Nonetheless, the Colorado Avalanche have some tough roster decisions to make during this year’s training camp and preseason.

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