Though his efforts ultimately came in a losing cause, there is no denying that Nathan MacKinnon played like a wolverine against Russia. Heck, he played like Wolverine against Russia. And this may just be the beginning.
MacKinnon’s NHL career started off as well as it could have, with a Calder Trophy and a surprise division title for his Colorado Avalanche. But as we all know, the team’s success was a mirage and erstwhile coach Patrick Roy’s possession-devoid game led to two straight years without playoff hockey. Now that Jared Bednar is taking over behind the bench, it’s gripping to think what MacKinnon and his fellow young stars up front can do in Denver – a group that also includes Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen (assuming he returns from injury without issue).
MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, brings the most promise.
“He came in as a baby-faced kid, 18 years old, right out of junior,” said Avs defenseman Erik Johnson. “When you look at him now, he’s thick, he’s big and you can tell he puts in a lot of effort in the off-season. Each off-season he has taken such a step becoming more of a man and you can tell on the ice; he can manhandle guys. He’s a pretty tough load to handle and he can fly. Pretty much the whole package. Once he puts it all together, it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Based on how MacKinnon played against Russia, that time may be upon us. Not only did he help out offensively with an assist and a net-front presence on Morgan Rielly’s goal, but MacKinnon played mad, throwing his weight around and mixing it up with Andrei Markov, among others.
And yet, he only took one penalty – one that Markov nullified by getting a roughing himself in the fray. MacKinnon played on the line, but didn’t hurt his team by going over it.
So shift things back to Colorado and you have to ask what expectations should be for the burly center in 2016-17. His 52 points in 72 games ranked him third on the Avalanche last year and that was his best output since his Calder year, with a sophomore slump plopped in between. Expectations are always high for a No. 1 pick, but for some players, time can be their best friend.
“He’s one of the most, if not the most gifted physical players I’ve seen,” Duchene said. “His god-given ability is extremely high and he’s refining it more. It’s so raw when you come into the league – I was the same way – and I’m starting to see that transformation in him.”
Which will be important for this season. The clock is ticking on this Avs youth brigade to get back on track and MacKinnon now comes in with a brand-new contract that pays him $6.3 million for the next seven years. That makes him the highest-paid player on the squad and with that, everyone will be watching.
The World Cup already looks like it’s going to be a great springboard for him and with Bednar resetting things behind the bench in Colorado, the Avalanche will have a new playbook that’s hopefully more progressive than what Roy was selling.
With his combination of power and skill, MacKinnon looks ready to take that next step. Now the only question is, how high can he soar amidst the Rockies?