Even Nathan MacKinnon would be surprised if you told him that almost a quarter into the season, the guy that nobody recognized at the Tim Hortons drive through in those television ads would be 10 points ahead of the guy everyone seemed to know.
Such is life for MacKinnon these days. In his third year in the NHL, MacKinnon seems more comfortable in his skin than ever and it’s showing. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft is on pace for 92 points this season and finds himself firmly ensconced in the top 10 NHL scorers. And the other guy in those commercials? Well, Sidney Crosby is off to a miserable start, with just nine points.
“I guess we’ll see how it finishes,” MacKinnon said prior to his Colorado Avalanche facing the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I’m sure Sid is going to get pretty hot here, hopefully not against us next game. I hope he gets more points than me this year. He deserves it.”
If that’s going to happen, Sid the (not so young) Kid is going to have to turn it up. Playing on the top line with Matt Duchene – and either Gabriel Landeskog or Mikhail Grigorenko – MacKinnon has established himself as the undisputed No. 1 center on the team and among the best in the league today. In his past six games, he has four goals and nine points.
Over the past two seasons, only six players in the league have had more 5-on-5 shot attempts than MacKinnon has, which is remarkable considering what a bad possession team the Avalanche are. According to war-on-ice, the Avs get 48 percent of all shot attempts when he’s on the ice, compared to just 42 when he’s on the bench. And for those of you who still put stock in plus-minus, MacKinnon’s plus-9 is best on the team and he’s one of only five Colorado forwards who are plus players.
“The puck seems to be finding me a little more this season, but that comes with playing well,” MacKinnon said. “I’m a little more even-keeled than I once was. My first couple of seasons was like a roller coaster. This season feels more steady.”
MacKinnon could not have picked a better time to find his inner Zen. This year is a contract year for him and the situation obviously has not affected his play. The way he is playing, the only question is how wildly wealthy he’s going to be after this season. And if he can keep up the way he has performed so far, he’ll make an excellent case for being one of those players who skips over the two- or three-year bridge contract and goes straight to the long-term, ridiculous-money deal.
And the Avalanche would be well advised to give that to him. No fooling around with a two-year deal while he proves himself. The thinking is that the Avalanche are going to have MacKinnon, who will turn 21 just before training camp in 2016, for the prime years of his career if they sign him to an eight-year deal. And if his trajectory is ever upward, why would he not shoot for the moon with an $8 million or $9 million deal or, gasp, even Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews money. (Interesting side note: MacKinnon is represented by Pat Brisson, who did the Kane and Toews deals. Brisson also represents Seth Jones, another pending Group II free agent who is up for a big, big raise.)
The logic goes something like this: If you believe you’re going to have one of the league’s top players for the best years of his career – and MacKinnon certainly has the potential to fall into that category – then why not pay him like it? Signing to a bridge deal and watching him score 90 points again is only going to delay the inevitable and the Avs will end up signing an eight-year deal to a player who might be on the decline in the last couple of seasons of it. And MacKinnon is clear that he prefers to go that route as well.
“I like the long-term (deal),” MacKinnon said. “I think that’s what’s best for me. I want to be here for a long time and a lot of the other guys who have signed have signed for long-term, so I’m sure they’ll want to do the same with me.”
There is a precedent for the Avs locking their core players up to long-term deals. After he came out of his entry-level contract prior to last season, Landeskog signed a seven-year deal worth $39 million, which gives him an annual cap hit of just under $5.6 million. The Avs would be well advised to make MacKinnon’s one year longer with a much bigger final number.
And if the Avs are not willing to give that contract to MacKinnon, perhaps there's a GM in the NHL who will have the stones to do it.