Nathan MacKinnon has never cared much for being an underdog. He never had to. Until his sophomore year in the NHL, winning came as easily and often as the comparisons to his Cole Harbour hometown buddy Sidney Crosby.
Even off the ice, MacKinnon expected to win. At Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, where he helmed the same powerhouse prep school team that Crosby once did, MacKinnon used to play basketball with teammate Taylor Cammarata and a small group of others. MacKinnon, a huge hoops fan, would always pretend to be Kobe Bryant, while Cammarata, to this day listed at just 5-foot-7 and 161 pounds, would be the diminutive legend Allen Iverson. “It would start off with us just fooling around,” Cammarata said. “But it would get competitive. There were some hard fouls.”
One of the reasons MacKinnon chose Bryant was because the L.A. Lakers icon was never the underdog. ‘Black Mamba’ was expected to win, and he almost always did, helping the Lakers capture five NBA titles and getting to the final on two other occasions. “Kobe was one of the best ever to play sports,” MacKinnon said. “He showed what a killer mentality could do. He was like Michael Jordan, one of the best closers.”
The winning followed MacKinnon to Halifax where he led the Mooseheads to the QMJHL championship and the Memorial Cup in 2013. The good times kept rolling when Colorado drafted him No. 1 overall that summer and MacKinnon jumped straight to the NHL. He put up a Calder Trophy rookie season and the Avalanche surprised everyone with 52 wins and 112 points for an out-of-nowhere Central Division title. But the analytics community hated how Colorado played under new coach Patrick Roy and predicted doom in the post-season. Sure enough, the possession-deficient Avalanche came crashing back to reality in the first round, losing to the seventh-seeded Minnesota Wild.
Then, the franchise began wandering in the desert. The Avs finished 21st overall twice in a row after MacKinnon’s freshman year, then bottomed out last season, posting the worst record in the NHL’s shootout era with just 48 points. “My first year in the league, we clinched with, like, 10 games left in the season and won the division,” he said. “You start to think the game is easy, you’re just used to it. After that, the past three years we missed the playoffs and last year was a disaster. It’s good, though. Obviously, I’d like to have four Cups in my first four years right now, but I don’t. It makes you appreciate it. Last year, we would have given anything just to be in the mix, so we’re not going to take this lightly. We haven’t gotten complacent.”
But this season, MacKinnon is starting to win again, and the superstar potential that brought continual comparisons to Crosby is starting to come to fruition (they’re even both repped by agents Pat Brisson and Judd Moldaver). All it took was for his mind to finally catch up with his body – and that’s saying something since, short of Connor McDavid, few players in the NHL are as fast as MacKinnon, who has brought respect back to the once laughingstock Avalanche and put himself into Hart Trophy contention in the process.
In his first four years in the NHL, MacKinnon relied on the talent and emotional tenacity that had made winning come so natural to him as an amateur. Yet for all his blazing speed and spectacular skill, he remained a step or two behind the league’s elite. To become one of the big boys, MacKinnon realized he didn’t need to actually get faster. Instead, he had to rethink his explosive skating and learn the art of deception at the NHL level. Basically, he was a fastball pitcher who needed to add a change-up to his arsenal. “You can’t have one gear,” MacKinnon said. “You’re too predictable like that. A lot of times, I just tried to go full speed. I’m trying to change speeds more and slow down in the neutral zone. My linemates obviously can skate, but when I slow down the pace it helps them and it helps me.”
Changing speeds isn’t the only mental magic MacKinnon has conjured this season. He has also overcome the emotional roadblock he’d put up between his sublime skill set and his approach to the game. MacKinnon admits his maturation process took longer than it does for other players thrust into the spotlight and that it was the mental side of the game that had been holding him back. “It’s been a tough process,” he said. “I had a good first season, but it’s been tough the past three years. You do a lot of growing. Mentally, it takes time to get a hold of things and be consistent.”
Keeping an even keel and solving Wayne Gretzky’s equation for NHL success (90 percent mental, 10 percent physical) hasn’t been easy for MacKinnon since coming into the league. He was used to winning and was expected to be an instant superstar, so when losing became the norm in Colorado and stardom wasn’t immediate, he struggled.
Erik Johnson has been with the Avalanche for eight seasons now. He too was taken first overall (by St. Louis in 2006) and has watched MacKinnon since he entered the league. “He came in at 18 years old…you’re still a kid then,” Johnson said. “He’s a really emotional guy, and when things weren’t going well for him it could hold him down. Now he has really calmed down and is taking things in stride more. He’s always been a heart-on-his-sleeve guy, and he has found a way to reset after every game, to not let things go to his head, either good or bad.”
Perhaps most impressive is that MacKinnon doesn’t have a fancy sports psychologist to credit for his growth. He just gutted his way through the grind and finally figured out how to approach the game the right way. Undoubtedly, it helps he has spent every summer training with Crosby, who also played with high emotion when he entered the NHL. (MacKinnon has even upped his golf game, to the point where he now gets the better of Crosby on the links in the off-season.) “Last year was tough (for him),” Crosby said. “He wasn’t happy with the way it went, both individually and as a team. I’m sure he wanted to bounce back this year. He works hard. He’s really committed to winning, and he cares a lot about being at his best…He’s been dominant this year.”
Although the stars of the Tampa Bay Lightning have rightly been dominating the awards conversations, MacKinnon is looking like a frontrunner for his first Hart Trophy. His Avs have gone from a depressing bunch of misfits to an exciting young outfit featuring one of the most potent lines in the league. Colorado had a 10-game winning streak in January and by mid-season had already surpassed their point total for all of 2016-17. Even in the suffocating West, a playoff spot is within reach, and should the Avalanche clinch a post-season berth, it’d be their first time playing an 83rd game since 2013-14.
Of course, Colorado’s woes hadn’t strictly been about MacKinnon finding his inner peace. The Avalanche were just plain bad, and last season was rock bottom. “There’s a handful of guys from last season that aren’t even in the NHL anymore,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of older guys and a lot of younger guys, and it just wasn’t a very good fit. When things went downhill in December (three wins, 12 losses), we never recovered. There wasn’t enough jam in our group to right the ship. The group this year is much more tight-knit.”
While Colorado got off to a decent start this season, the mega-trade that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa in a three-way deal with Nashville really cleared things up in Denver. It only makes sense that the uncertainty surrounding a star player who believed his time was up in town would weigh on his teammates. MacKinnon agreed with the sentiment, though he doesn’t blame Duchene personally, so much as the situation itself.
There’s no question now who runs the Colorado offense. MacKinnon flanked by heavy and talented wingers Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen has been one of the NHL’s best units. For the Avs’ trio, the key has been the line’s diversity. Rantanen can be a finisher or a setup man, while Landeskog plays a great two-way game. In MacKinnon, the line has a center who drags defensemen toward him because of his trademark speed, which creates space for everyone else.
Jared Bednar, who took over behind the Avalanche bench last season, is a big fan of MacKinnon’s new skating philosophy. “He’s a more dangerous 1-on-1 player now because he has mixed up his attack,” Bednar said. “Sometimes he’ll drive the ‘D’ deep in the zone and try to take it to the net, sometimes he pulls up and tries to cut to the middle of the ice and get into the interior to use his shot. We’re seeing him shoot and use the D-man as a screen a little more, but he’s also a threat to pull up and look for other guys on the ice.”
While there are no guarantees in the wild West, a playoff berth for Colorado this spring would really cement MacKinnon’s claim to MVP credentials. “I said it all along the past couple years, this guy can be as good as he wants,” Landeskog said. “There are no boundaries, he’s got all the tools. It’s just a matter of staying level-headed.”
Although it seemed like an agonizing past three seasons for MacKinnon, it’s amazing to think he’s only 22 years old. It hasn’t been that long since he was living with veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, trying to convince ‘Jiggy’ to let him blast hip-hop on their commute to the rink. MacKinnon is still a quiet presence in the dressing room, but after wins it’s almost guaranteed he’ll have celebratory rap tunes playing in the gym for the boys. And if you’re looking for MacKinnon, there’s a good chance he’s at the gym or on the ice – he’s one of the first players out there for practice or morning skates. That commitment has allowed him to excel when it comes to the physical side of the game, and now he has the mental fortitude to make it all come together. “I can stick with the game longer now,” he said. “I don’t get down on myself as much and I trust my game more than I have in years past. I try to give my full attention to 60 minutes of hockey.”
With the passengers of the past gone, the Avalanche are finally starting to look like a dangerous team once again. While the front-office skills of franchise legend-turned-GM Joe Sakic had been questioned heavily in the past, the return for the Duchene trade – multiple picks and prospects plus rookie puck-moving defenseman Samuel Girard – have turned that narrative on its head. Landeskog is just 25, Rantanen is but a sophomore and MacKinnon has entered his peak playing years with a forceful 2017-18 performance.
Winning at the highest level may take a little longer, but there’s a lot less losing in MacKinnon’s world right now. Kobe would be proud.