DENVER – As a kid, Nathan MacKinnon admired the game of his idol, Sidney Crosby. He even had posters on his wall of the Pittsburgh Penguins star.
MacKinnon grew up with constant comparisons to his boyhood hero, especially since they were from the same hometown and had a similar scoring panache.
Now, MacKinnon gets a chance to carve out his own identity after the teenager was the first pick of the draft by the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday.
Much like Crosby eight years ago, MacKinnon will be counted on to turn around a franchise, one that finished last in the Western Conference in 2012-13 and missed the playoffs for a third straight season.
No pressure, MacKinnon insisted.
“I don’t think anybody expects me to tear up the league and get 100 points as an 18-year-old,” MacKinnon said at his introductory news conference on Monday. “I just want to help out and have a strong role and contribute as much as I can.”
To ease MacKinnon’s transition into the NHL, new Colorado coach Patrick Roy has already decided he’s going to pair the rookie on the third line with Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie. That way, MacKinnon can be mentored by the veteran players.
“I want him to have fun,” Roy said. “There’s going to be enough pressure on him anyway. I know he’s going to deal well with it. At the same time, it’s important for him to feel comfortable.
“We need to give him time to adapt and just feel comfortable.”
Since being picked, MacKinnon has received congratulatory texts from teammates Matt Duchene and captain Gabriel Landeskog. He’s also heard from Crosby, the player he grew up respecting so highly.
“That was so cool,” he said.
MacKinnon was the first player drafted No. 1 overall out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since Crosby in 2005. Fittingly, he’s only the third 17-year-old taken No. 1 overall in the draft since 1988, joining Joe Thornton (1997) and Crosby.
There was a time when MacKinnon constantly heard about how he was going to be the next Crosby. The last few years, though, the comparisons have slowed down.
Either that or he’s simply tuned them out.
“I realize that I wasn’t going to be Sid and I am going to be a different player than him,” said MacKinnon, who turns 18 on Sept. 1. “I wanted to create my own path. We’re from the same area—if I wasn’t from there those comparisons wouldn’t be made.”
The 6-foot, 182-pound MacKinnon actually sees himself being more similar in style to Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks captain who just led his team to the Stanley Cup crown.
Like Toews, MacKinnon prides himself on being solid on both ends of the ice. That’s why Colorado was so drawn to the youngster, picking him over defenceman Seth Jones, who slid to No. 4 and was picked by Nashville.
“(MacKinnon) wants to be a difference maker, and he is,” said Joe Sakic, the executive vice-president of hockey operations who’s in charge of the Avalanche’s restoration project. “I don’t believe (pressure) is going to affect him one bit. He’s lived under pressure his whole minor hockey and junior career. He’s a hockey player—he doesn’t worry about pressure.
“He can’t wait to get on the ice and play to the best of his ability.”
He can’t wait to get back on the ice, period, especially now that the draft is over.
The last time MacKinnon picked up his stick was when he led the Halifax Mooseheads to their first-ever Memorial Cup last month. He had quite a tournament, too, recording 13 points on his way to being named the MVP.
Asked if that performance at all swayed the Avalanche to use the top pick on him, Sakic said: “Anybody that watched him play there realized, on the biggest stage, he was by far the best player.
“He was always rated right up there,” Sakic added. “We did our homework. We had our internal meetings and that’s the guy we all felt is a can’t-miss kid, a guy that’s a perfect fit for our organization.”
MacKinnon certainly doesn’t rattle. Not on the ice or in the presence of two Hall of Famers. He posed for pictures standing between Roy and Sakic, hardly even intimidated by the moment.
“That,” he said, “was so cool.”
Now, it’s back home to work on his game. In a few months, he will be back in the Mile High City for training camp.
Just where he’s going to live as a rookie remains undecided. MacKinnon might reside with an Avalanche player to begin his career, the same way Duchene once shared a roof with Adam Foote’s family. But that hasn’t been worked out yet.
“This is the way I envisioned things all my life—to play as an 18-year-old,” MacKinnon said. “Pretty cool to hear that they have confidence in me, that I can make the jump and contribute. It’s a big role as an 18-year-old. I have a lot to learn. I know that.”
NOTES: The Avalanche drafted seven players on Sunday, including five defencemen. … Roy wants to play Ryan O’Reilly, Duchene and P.A. Parenteau on one line, along with Landeskog, Paul Stastny and newly acquired Alex Tanguay on another.