DENVER — Nathan MacKinnon believes this just may be the best edition of the Colorado Avalanche he’s seen over his tenure.
Not surprising, his teammates feel the same about him.
The proof is in the honors: The speedy All-Star forward is up for a hat trick of accolades, including the Hart Trophy (MVP), Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding as voted by his peers) and the Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship).
Also not surprising, he’s got the support of his teammates to sweep in a landslide. After all, he kept the team afloat when the Avalanche suffered one significant injury after another.
With the team once again healthy — including him, after missing the final game of the suspended season with a lower body injury — he feels comfortable enough to pronounce that this squad should be a favorite in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They were the No. 2 seed behind St. Louis in the Western Conference when things were halted. They open their round-robin games to determine seeding Aug. 2 against the Blues in Edmonton.
”We’re confident that we can get it done,” MacKinnon said.
It’s been quite a season for the 24-year-old MacKinnon, who’s in his seventh year after being taken No. 1 overall in 2013. He was fifth in the league in scoring with 93 points (35 goals, 58 assists).
What’s more, he wound up 43 points ahead of Colorado’s next scorer, rookie defenseman Cale Makar. It’s the largest gap of any team since the 2007-08 Washington Capitals, when Alex Ovechkin had 112 points and Nicklas Backstrom 69.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy: So many top scorers around MacKinnon kept getting hurt. His fellow linemates, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog missed chunks of time with injuries. Rantanen was limited to a total of 42 games and missed the final 12 (he’s healthy again after the four-month hiatus).
Still, the team stayed in the thick of the race.
”We didn’t miss a beat, and that was because of players like Mac leading the charge and elevating their game when we needed him most,” said Colorado coach Jared Bednar, whose team will play an exhibition game against Minnesota on Wednesday. ”That’s what an MVP does.”
And that’s why he’s up for all the hardware. He’s competing against Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and New York Rangers left winger Artemi Panarin for both the Hart Trophy, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and the Ted Lindsay Award.
”It’s nice to get voted by your peers. It’s always really cool to have their respect,” said MacKinnon, who didn’t practice Thursday. ”Things are going well for me. Got some good bounces.”
For a second straight season, MacKinnon led the league in shots (318). In addition, his streak with at least one shot stands at 220 games, which is the second-longest string in team history (Joe Sakic, 227 from ’95-99).
”He just plays good hockey and produces goals and points and plays good for the team,” Rantanen said. ”That’s what he’s doing the last three years. This might be the best he’s played.”
Sure, he had more goals (41) and points (99) last season, but that was over a full season and not with this volume of injuries. He got things rolling early with 25 points in November – a franchise record – despite being without Rantanen and Landeskog for most of the month.
For his success the last few seasons, he credits one big thing – the little things.
”When I really turned my game around and I really started to focus on every little detail off the ice and on the ice, I’m up for some big awards. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said MacKinnon, who was the captain of the Central Division as he made his fourth straight All-Star Game. ”Obviously, getting older and getting more mature helps. But I definitely had to dial it in in every aspect of my game.”
Not that he’s reading too much into all the individual accolades he could potentially take home. He’s got his eyes on a much bigger trophy. The Avalanche have hoisted the Stanley Cup twice in team history – 1996 and 2001.
”To leave a legacy, you have to win,” said MacKinnon, whose team took San Jose to seven games in the second round last season before being eliminated. ”That’s not what I’m really looking to do, leave a legacy. But I want to win with these guys. We’re such a close group. Everyone wants to see each other succeed.”