The Colorado Avalanche were convinced they were getting someone very special in forward Nathan MacKinnon when they selected him with the first pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
"We wanted somebody who was not only a good hockey player but someone who would entertain our fans and give them a good reason to come and watch our games," said coach Patrick Roy, who also serves as the team's vice president of hockey operations.Fans haven't been disappointed. The Avalanche have been one of the surprise teams in the NHL. Entering action on Thursday, they sat second in the Central Division and third in the Western Conference with a 43-18-5 record. After finishing 29th in the overall standings a year ago, they are in line for their first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance since 2010.
The play of MacKinnon, who turned 18 on Sept. 1, has been a major factor in Colorado's improvement. He leads all NHL rookies in goals (22), assists (29) and points (51), had a 13-game scoring streak to break Wayne Gretzky's 1979-80 record for an 18-year-old and is a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.
"It's amazing what's going on right now," Roy said. "Every game he wants more and more. It's amazing to look at him. He's been really sharp lately and performing really well. He deserves his ice time and he's fun to watch. The speed that he has is just great to watch. For our fans it's entertaining. For us even as coaches, it's fun to see when he explodes on the outside."
Roy isn't too surprised. As part owner, general manager and coach of the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he watched MacKinnon work his magic for the Halifax Mooseheads for two seasons.
"Obviously I knew him," Roy said. "His skating is so powerful. When he starts getting going, everybody is at the end of their seat. That's how exciting it is. That's what we were looking for when we drafted him."
MacKinnon was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and grew up in nearby Cole Harbour, which is also the hometown of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Like Crosby, MacKinnon left home to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep School in Faribault, Minn., where he stayed for two years before becoming eligible for the QMJHL draft.
MacKinnon had a choice at that point in his budding career: play for the Omaha Lancers in the United States Hockey League for two seasons and then head to college or continue to hone his skills in the QMJHL, preferably with Halifax.
When MacKinnon was drafted by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, he and his family requested a trade. Roy was very familiar with MacKinnon and his Remparts were in the mix to acquire the young star, but the price would have been too high for a team in rebuilding mode and MacKinnon's rights were traded to his hometown Mooseheads.
MacKinnon was quite a difference-maker. He piled up 63 goals and 90 assists over two seasons in 102 regular season games, and was even more prolific in the playoffs with 24 goals and 37 assists in 34 games.
He was named last year's Memorial Cup tournament MVP after collecting seven goals and six assists in four games. He had a hat trick and two
assists in the Mooseheads' championship-clinching 6-4 win against the
Portland Winterhawks and defenseman Seth Jones. Jones, the son of longtime pro basketball player Popeye Jones, first learned to skate while growing up in Denver and was a draft-eligible player many Avalanche fans coveted.
But Roy and Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic made it clear before the draft that MacKinnon was their guy.
"He's been outstanding since the start of the season," Roy said. "Many times I've mentioned how happy I am with him, especially the fact that he's been very receptive to our teaching. He's looking to get better every day and he is where he is right now with great offensive skills. He has improved his game defensively tremendously."
MacKinnon chose not to set any personal goals before the season, saying he didn't want to be disappointed if he didn't reach them. Yet he's flourished despite playing a good portion of the year as a right wing rather than his natural center position.
"I think the only regret I have is not being more comfortable at the beginning of the year," said MacKinnon, who was placed on a line with team captain Gabriel Landeskog and center John Mitchell after center Paul Stastny sustained a back injury last Saturday against the St. Louis Blues. "I was scared to make mistakes and I definitely could have played better and made more of a difference in helping the team a little bit more than I did. Lately I feel more comfortable with the puck. I'm reacting and not over-thinking anymore, which is definitely a plus."
MacKinnon has remained humble, Landeskog said, despite emerging as one of the League's best young players.
"He's been a big part of our success and he's just taking it in stride and having fun with it," Landeskog said. "The first few months you're trying to figure out the League and you're trying to figure out how to be successful. He's certainly gotten better as the season has progressed. He's been very consistent, and that's something that's very impressive. He's certainly found a way to be successful and he's one of the more exciting players to watch."
Polite and soft-spoken, MacKinnon still acts like the teenager he is with teammates.
"I get a kick out of him, all of us do," center Matt Duchene said. "We're always laughing at him in a funny way, in the sense that he's still such a kid. He's really adapting well, though, and fits in really well. That's the biggest thing. Sometimes you draft a player and for a couple of years he's a square peg in a round hole. It takes a little while. With him, it's been a perfect fit."
MacKinnon's adjustment to life in the NHL was eased when goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose wife Kristen is from Halifax, invited him to live with his family during the season.
"He's taught me a ton," said MacKinnon, who often drives Giguere to games and practices. "Jiggy is just a calming influence, for sure. I'm very lucky."
The rookie has tried not to get too wrapped up with talk of winning the Calder Trophy, which Landeskog won in 2011-12.
"It is pretty cool," he said. "It was always nice when I was watching as a kid, all the young guys who had a chance at it. It's a pretty cool award to win. If I happen to win, it would be pretty flattering, but there are some very talented rookies that came into the League this year. It's definitely a tough trophy to win. Everybody has a different opinion and is going to vote differently. I guess we'll see if they vote for me or not. It's not the main thing on my mind, but with social media these days it's all you hear about."
For the time being, he's more concerned with winning games as a team than awards as an individual.
"I'm very lucky to be on a winning team like this. A lot of young rookies come to teams that are losing. For me, I've been able to create winning habits right away. It's pretty exciting with everything that's going on here right now and I'm enjoying every minute of it."
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