Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon is still learning what it means to be the star of an NHL team. He’s growing into that role.
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon is the star of the team. We know that. He knows that. It’s just sometimes, like a couple games recently (Winnipeg, Calgary) it didn’t exactly look like Nate was our star.
There were times in those two games he looked like he needed a little sit down on the bench. But you usually don’t get benched when you’re the star.
MacKinnon has been on the scene for so long — he’s in his sixth NHL season — that we may forget he’s just 23 years old. And a young 23 in that he turns his age right before the season starts, at the beginning of September.
He was essentially born at the same time as the Colorado Avalanche — September 1, 1995. And we look to him to lead our franchise.
Nathan MacKinnon’s Role
Nathan MacKinnon represents the only first-overall draft pick the Colorado Avalanche has ever had. (Yes, we should have had one after the 2016-17 season, but we all know the Avs dropped like a brick right out of the top-three despite having the worst record in the salary cap era and, yes, I’m clearly still salty about that.)
I’m certainly not going to suggest MacKinnon is the best player Colorado has ever had, considering the Hall of Famers that have worn burgundy and blue. However, we might expect him to be one of the, if not the, greatest home-grown players, someone drafted and developed by the Avs.
As we saw last season, we also expect him to be our leader, not in the captain sense, but in the purely hockey sense. As MacKinnon goes, so goes the Avalanche.
Growing into that Role
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Last season, Nathan put the Avalanche on his shoulders and carried them to the playoffs. I think we are all expecting him to do similar this season.
However, things change. Every team has access to video of MacKinnon playing — of course they’re going to develop strategies for shutting him down. He has less space this year than last. And some of the moves that worked last year don’t this year because players are watching for them.
Naturally, when you have the talent and skill of Nathan MacKinnon, you’re not going to shut him down completely. That’s what makes them great. However, you do get the sense sometimes that MacK is struggling against any shutdown. You see him trying too much or relying on his skills too much when he can just make an ugly play and get it done.
Prior to last season, MacKinnon always had something else to fall back on — the “best” player was supposed to be Matt Duchene. Dutchy took the heat for how the team did. When Matt got traded, though, it was all Nate.
I think that’s why MacKinnon had his breakout last season — there was no longer the Duchene safety net. But now… there’s no longer any safety net for Nate’s role as hockey leader.
Luckily, though, MacKinnon has a good “supporting” cast.
It’s said openly that winger Mikko Rantanen cost MacKinnon the Hart Trophy last season. Votes went to Taylor Hall over MacKinnon in some cases because it was thought Nate had better scoring help in Rantanen than Hall had in his linemates. (Even though one of them was the first-overall they stole from Colorado in 2017, Nico Hischier, but I digress.)
Well, luckily for all of us, the quality of that “supporting” cast was not a fluke. Rantenen is the real deal. He currently leads the entire NHL in points with 26. A full 20 of those points are assists, many of them on MacKinnon goals.
What’s more, our captain, Gabriel Landeskog, is also having a great season. Part of that stellar top line, Landeeskog has already recorded 11 goals and 8 assists for 19 points. That puts him on pace for a career season.
They’re not the only Avalanche players playing well. However, they’re the ones directly taking the pressure off MacKinnon. He’s still growing into his role. He has to learn what all the greats have to learn — hockey is a team sport, so they don’t have to do it all by themselves.
MacKinnon isn’t as electric with the puck as he was last year — not yet anyway. However, I have confidence that he will be. He’ll have Colorado Avalanche fans and all of the hockey world on the edge of their seats again as he discovers the nuances of his role as the star of the team.