Now that the ink is dried on his entry-level contract all the press tours regarding his being selected first overall in the NHL Draft have come and gone, there are questions about Nathan MacKinnon.
Not about his talent – no one questions that he has generational talent in terms of skating and offense, nor that he could be a franchise player for the Avalanche. No, the question I’m referring to is about what he might do during his rookie season.
A real quick overview: since 1988 (25 years ago), the first pick has been used on a forward 18 times, 10 of those specifically on center prospects. MacKinnon would make the 19th and 11th of those, respectively.
One interesting trend: of those picks, only four didn’t play in the NHL the next year. Mike Modano, first in 1988, had a contract dispute and stayed inPrince Albertof the WHL for one more year. Mats Sundin, first in 1989, stayed an extra year in Djurgardens IF of the Swedish Elitserien League before making the jump toQuebec. Eric Lindros, first in 1991 toQuebec, famously held out until he was traded in a huge blockbuster deal that saw him end up inPhiladelphia. And the last to not make the jump was Alexander Ovechkin, first in 2004, simply because the league decided to not play that year.
That’s not going to be of concern to the Avalanche or their fans: Patrick Roy has already signed young MacKinnon and publicly slotted him in as the team’s third-line center behind Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny. So he’s going to be there.
Let’s take a brief look into the forwards selected first, what they did, and how their team fared.
Mike Modano, C – Minnesota, 1988
Modano, as stated above, didn’t join the North Stars until a year later. He had a solid regular season, posting 29 goals and 75 points, earning a Calder Trophy nomination. The North Stars saw a sizeable improvement – from dead last in the league to a first round playoff exit.
This one is an anomaly (as you’ll see) in terms of impact on the team. An extra year before Modano signed up obviously helped the North Stars bolster their team enough to not be horrible for his rookie year.
Mats Sundin, C – Quebec, 1989
Like Modano above, Sundin also waited a year before making the jump the NHL, staying another year with Djurgardens IF and the SEL title.
Sundin would make the jump with Owen Nolan (more on him next) during the 1990-91 season. Sundin was also pretty decent, with 23 goals and 59 points his freshman year. The Nordiques were still historically bad, albeit not quite as bad as the year before. They improved from 12-61-7 to a very-modestly-better 16-50-14.
Bad teams pick high for a reason and though Sundin looked promising, didn’t make the team much better.
Owen Nolan, W – Quebec, 1990
As stated above, Nolan debuted with Sundin, making the jump right from Juniors to the NHL after being selected first. Caveat about power forwards applied here and Nolan clearly struggled through his 59-game rookie season. With just three goals and 13 points, he didn’t have much of an impact.
The team was again historically bad and sucked enough to land…
Eric Lindros, C – Quebec, 1991
The first on our list to be regarded as “The Next One”. Lindros had made it clear to the Nordiques that he would not play inQuebecdue to the ineptitude of the team, the market ofQuebec, and his desire to not have to speak French all the time. Lindros would hold out the entirety of what would have been his rookie season (1991-92) before being traded in a mega-blockbuster toPhiladelphia.
The haul? Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a first round pick in 1993 (Jocelyn Thibault, who was later traded in the package that landed Patrick Roy), a first round pick in 1994 (traded to Toronto), and $15 million.
Lindros would go on to show that he was worth the hassle, scoring 41 goals and 75 points in just 61 games with the Flyers during 1992-93, making the NHL All-Rookie Team.
Alexandre Daigle, RW – Ottawa, 1993
Daigle, the “can’t miss” prospect from the QMJHL, jumped right to the Canadian capitol the season he was drafted first. His 20 goals and 51 points looked promising and he helped improve the Senators, but only slightly. After all, when your team loses 70 games (they went 10-70-4 the year prior), there’s nowhere to go but up. Unfortunately for the Sens, they still lost 61 times.
Joe Thornton, C – Boston, 1997
“Jumbo” Joe made the jump to the NHL in his draft year but a few things make him an anomaly of the group. First, he was injured in camp. A fractured arm in the pre-season limited him to just 55 games during his rookie season. Secondly, the team was very cautious in his development. This frequently resulted inThornton seeing fourth-line minutes or being a healthy scratch. He averaged just 8:05 of ice time during his rookie season which makes his 3-4-7 line more understandable.
The Bruins would go from worst to 2nd in the Northeast division butThornton played very little part in that as the team clearly had an eye to the future.
Vincent Lecavalier, C – Tampa Bay, 1998
Similar toThornton, Lecavalier made the jump to the NHL his draft year but was also coddled. Which is fine as long as your owner doesn’t dub you the “Michael Jordan of hockey”. Yikes. Lecavalier played every game that year, posting 13 goals and 28 points as he spent the majority of the year on the third line, the idea being that he would be eased into NHL competition. The Lightning were unsurprisingly terrible, managing to actually get worse during Lecavalier’s rookie year.
Patrik Stefan, C – Atlanta, 1999
Being an expansion team that year, the Thrashers actually had the second pick in the draft. But after some crazy wheeling and dealing by then-Vancouver GM Brian Burke, they ended up with the first pick and Stefan. Not surprisingly, they finished out the year with the worst record in hockey and Stefan struggled his way to just 5 goals and 25 points in 72 games. Turns out that Burke wasn’t the only one who traded the first pick that year –TampaBayhad it first. Kind of says something when two teams trade out of the first slot and the team picking takes a guy kind of off the radar.
Ilya Kovalchuk, W – Atlanta, 2001
This one the Thrashers managed to hit. They actually got worse record-wise, going from third-worst the year before to dead last, but Kovalchuk was a hit. 29 goals and 51 points before a season-ending shoulder injury took him out, Kovalchuk was clearly dynamic and talented. Not only that, but he and fellow rookie Dany Heatley were given all the opportunity in the world to thrive and produce. Calder nomination but lost to Heatley.
Rick Nash, W – Columbus, 2002
Another big, talented winger picked first who made the jump right away. Nash would have a solid rookie season (a trend is forming), posting 17 goals and 39 points on the way to a Calder nomination (he lost to St.Louis defenseman Barrett Jackman).
Nash’s presence helped the really bad Blue Jackets improve slightly, from 22-47-8-5 to 29-42-8-3 but still one of the worst records around.
Alexander Ovechkin, W – Washington, 2004
One of the aforementioned four to not make the jump directly to the NHL but the only one who can’t really be faulted for that as the lockout took away the 2004-05 season. As with the others, he went to a bad team that became only incrementally better with his arrival. But here’s where Ovechkin is a total anomaly from the others: he scored 52 times and had 106 points for his rookie year. Naturally, he won the Calder Trophy that year (the first on our list!) but not without some competition from…
Sidney Crosby, C – Pittsburgh, 2005
Without a season to play, the 2005 draft came down to a weighted lottery and lucky for the Pens, they’d been a whole buncha terrible up until that point. Crosbymade the immediate jump to the NHL and dazzled – 39 goals, 102 points. That would win you the Calder and/or the Art Ross in just about any year but Ovechkin was in the way of that (and Ovechkin finished a distant third behindThorntonat 125 and Jaromir Jagr at 123). The Pens continued to be terrible and ended up with the second pick in 2006 – Jordan Staal.
Patrick Kane, W – Chicago, 2007
Somewhere along the lines of the luck the Penguins had with Crosby, the Blackhawks had in getting Kane. They were the fifth worst team the prior year but won the lottery and got the right to draft the greatest Bro the NHL has known. Kane made the immediate jump and almost helped get the ‘Hawks into the playoffs – they fell just short, tying for 9th in the West.
Kaner, meanwhile, had a splendid rookie year, posting 21 goals and 72 points to lead rookies in scoring and win the Calder Trophy. It helped that fellow Calder nominee Jonathan Toews was on his team and, sometimes, line.
Steven Stamkos, C – Tampa Bay, 2008
Jumping right to the NHL, Stamkos’ production was nowhere near what everyone believed it should be for the first overall pick. This was in part due to a disagreement between management and head coach Barry Melrose on how to handle his development.Melroselimited him, often times to 10:00 or less of ice time per game, before he was fired midway through the season. Stammer eventually saw his scoring touch emerge, tallying 23 goals and 46 points on the year. The Lightning, meanwhile, remained horrible.
John Tavares, C – New York Islanders, 2009
Tavares had been a much-anticipated prospect in the years leading up to his draft and naturally made the jump to the big leagues after the draft. The Isles improved by eight wins but were still one of the worst in the league while Tavares finished with 24 goals and 54 points, failing to earn a Calder nomination despite trailing nominee Matt Duchene for the rookie scoring lead by just one point.
Taylor Hall, W – Edmonton, 2010
The Oilers started a pretty epic run of being bad when they picked Hall, the dynamic winger, first in 2010. Unfortunately for them, they managed to get worse during Hall’s rookie year, on that showed promise but would be hampered by recurring shoulder issues Hall had from his junior hockey days. Still, his 22 goals and 42 points were a sign of things to come.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C – Edmonton, 2011
Edmontonstruggled to improve during the Nuge’s rookie year, despite being the home of two top picks and a slew of other young talent. Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, dazzled with his play-making ability. Racking up 18 goals and 52 points in his 62 games, he earned a Calder Trophy nomination, though he would lose to
Adam Henrique of the Devils Gabriel Landeskog of the Avalanche. Like Hall, shoulder injuries would limit him during his rookie year before ultimately having surgery to repair the issue.
Nail Yakupov, W – Edmonton, 2012
Another bad year, another dynamic forward for the Oil. Yak started off slowing for the Oilers before showing his dynamic ability and penchant for over-the-top (but awesome) celebrations. He only played in 48 games due to the evil, evil lockout but managed 17 goals and 31 points, tying him for tops amongst rookies. It still wasn’t enough to get him a Calder nod as he was left off the ballot entirely. Oh, and the Oilers improved marginally, finishing 12th in the West.
So What Does All of This Mean?
Well it means a couple of things: the Avalanche are going to be bad again this year despite a whole bunch of talented young forwards. You don’t get near the top of the draft because of one bad year; the Avalanche have little in the way of a defensive game and the talent back there is just as bad. Worse even. The jury is still out on Semyon Varlamov in net until he gets a team that knows how to play defense in front of him.
What else does this mean? MacKinnon is likely in for a pretty good year but nothing Earth-shattering unless he turns out to be some kind of monster like Ovechkin and Crosby. People seem to think Nate is a franchise player but are hard-pressed to compare him to the two faces of the league.
In all likelihood, MacKinnon is expected to hit somewhere around 20-25 goals, a number of assists right in that neighborhood, and 50-60 points. Not bad at all for an 18-year-old pup learning to play in the world’s greatest league, right? Well we know he’ll start the year on the third line, per Patrick Roy. If he stays there all year, his minutes will be limited unless he sees time on the power play, which is absolutely likely. Still, he’s not likely to get the Thornton/Lecavalier treatment and see his ice time severely limited to protect him. You don’t make a huge deal about picking a guy first then barely let him play.
Final, flimsy prediction: 18 goals, 29 assists, 47 points. A couple of really nice goals, a lot of struggles, and a boatload of potential going into his second year.
Remember: all predictions guaranteed or your money back.
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