Nathan MacKinnon had an explosive rookie season and easily won the Calder Trophy. Will he build on that, or take a step back in his sophomore season as recent Calder winners have? All indications are that he’s bulked up and ready to score even more.
Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie last season and it wasn’t even close. The Cole Harbour, N.S., native earned 130 first place votes, while Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat was second with five first place votes. MacKinnon was consistently good all season long – he had a scoring drought of three or more games only three times and his longest scoreless streak was a five-game spell in October. But we know winning the Calder Trophy doesn’t ensure growth in Year 2. Jonathan Huberdeau, 2013’s Calder winner, scored fewer points in 69 games last season than he did in 48 games as a rookie. Gabriel Landeskog won the award in 2012 with 52 points in 82 games and followed it up with 17 points in 36 games as a sophomore. Jeff Skinner’s second season was derailed by a concussion and his point average dropped, too. MacKinnon was always supposed to be a better player than these guys, though – that’s why he was far and away considered the top forward available in his draft year and the others weren’t. Maybe the better rookie comparables for MacKinnon are Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin or Alex Ovechkin, three Calder winners who maintained their rookie dominance, or built on it in Year 2. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and declare that MacKinnon is about to break out as an NHL superstar before his 20th birthday, but that’s the potential he had when he entered this league a year ago. And by all accounts, MacKinnon is coming into his sophomore season bulked up and more impressive than ever.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie was on TSN Radio and talked about MacKinnon’s work in the off-season and what to expect from him in 2014-15. Brace yourselves, Avs fans. “I just feel like Nathan MacKinnon can be one of the very best players in the game,” McKenzie said. “And I realize he’s very young and you don’t want to burden anybody with expectations that are too great, but what we saw of him in the playoffs and he just took off and all the reports I’ve gotten this summer is physically he’s becoming a beast. That he’s really getting a lot stronger. He’s really physically maturing. He’s already got dynamic speed and strength, but I think the workouts that he’s done this year with Andy O’Brien and working with Sidney Crosby and Matt Duchene and all of those guys that spend their time in Vail, Colorado in the off-season, I think he’s even going to take another quantum leap forward from what we saw in the playoffs. “I think he’s got the tools to be one of the most exciting, most dynamic players in the game and I won’t be surprised if he plays like a prime time guy that’s one of the top 10-15 guys in the National Hockey League this year.” Impressive stuff. Because of Colorado’s puck possession troubles and how they overachieved last season according to advanced stats, many are projecting them to fall back to the pack this season. Semyon Varlamov played outstanding last season with a career-high .927 save percentage that will be difficult to duplicate. The loss of Paul Stastny to the St. Louis Blues will hurt. The defense is still a drag. We are projecting the Avalanche to finish fifth in the Central Division after they won it a season ago. But MacKinnon is a wild card behind all this. If he follows the trend of recent Calder winners and falls behind his rookie scoring pace, the Avalanche will have another minus added to the pile. If he excels and performs even better, though, MacKinnon will help balance a tide that’s supposed to be turning the other way. Despite the loss of a possession-strong player like Stastny, having a top 10 or top 20 scorer would be a huge addition. No pressure, kid. You don’t want to read too much into most stories about “Player A comes to camp in the best condition of his career” because it’s a common, overly optimistic pre-season storyline. But when you hear a player like MacKinnon has put on 12 pounds of muscle, it’s legitimate to wonder about the heights he could hit. He already has the natural talent to go No. 1 in the draft, had a breakout playoff season in which he scored 10 points in seven games – and now he’s applying his work ethic in the summer to become man-sized. McKenzie added: “More than anything when you have these tools, the insatiable desire to really be excellent and dominate and I think this kid’s got it. He’s a hockey player. I think this game courses through his veins… “Veteran NHLers have seen him train this summer and they shake their heads. This guy’s a machine.” All eyes were already on MacKinnon the first overall pick and the reigning rookie of the year. And now that everyone can see the physical results of his off-season training and project what it means for his on-ice contributions, fans are getting excited and the pressure is ramping up. That’s where mental strength will play an important role. Because as enticing as a bulked up, driven MacKinnon is, he’s still a teenaged kid in a grown man’s league. He’ll have his good nights and his bad runs – all professionals do. He probably won’t reach the heights of a Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby this season, but he’s also not your average sophomore. He’s an “anything’s possible” player. He’s on track to reach that superstar status eventually. And he may achieve it quicker than we think.
Follow Rory on Twitter