The Colorado Avalanche star met the Pittsburgh Penguins captain through trainer Andy O’Brien when he was 15. Through workouts back home and off-season skating, the two have become good pals.
“We have a good thing going,” MacKinnon said. “We push each other. He makes me a lot better, he pushes me hard.”
Their friendship has resulted in a friendly rivalry and new Tim Hortons commercials every year.
As part of one the best lines in hockey this season, MacKinnon is tied for third in NHL scoring with nine goals and 18 points. One of his linemates, Gabriel Landeskog, is tied for the league lead in goals scored with 11. Mikko Rantanen? Well, he’s only the current Art Ross Trophy leader with 21 points.
That top line for the Avalanche just picked up where they left off last season that saw the 23-year-old MacKinnon get a June trip to Las Vegas as one of the three Hart Trophy finalists.
We spoke with MacKinnon earlier this season about his breakout year, playing for Jared Bednar, hitting 40 goals and more.
Q. Two things happened last year. One was you exploded, and two, the Avalanche yo-yo’d back up into the playoffs. Where did the personal turnaround come from?
MACKINNON: “I just think it was experience. It was my fifth year in the league and I just feel I was ready to be an elite player and I hope I can stay there. I just tried to figure out the — I know it’s cliché — but the highs and lows, it’s a real thing. It’s a long season, there’s so many games. You can definitely ride highs and get really low as well. But I feel like I’m in the middle now, I’m not satisfied and I’m not too down on myself at the same time.”
Q. Was there something specific in your game that changed? Your skating couldn’t possibly get better, but were there other things that might have physically changed in your game?
MACKINNON: Not physically, just mentally. I just wanted to be really aggressive on the ice and I wouldn’t say take risks, but just be aggressive and assert myself in the game and stay positive. That’s pretty much it. I think my physical tools might have gotten a little bit better, but nothing drastic.
Q. How do you insert yourself more into a game? How do you be more aggressive?
MACKINNON: “I just think by shooting more, having more of a selfish attitude with the puck and taking it yourself. It might be throwing ahead or just being aggressive in everything you do on the ice is my mentality.”
Q. What makes Jared Bednar a good coach?
MACKINNON: “Well, he’s very personable. He’s a great dude, he’s very easy to talk to. He’s kind of the new style of coach, I think, just very relatable, a player’s coach, and lets you play. But you know he also can come down on you a little bit, but ‘Bedsy’s’ a great guy.”
Q. You were real close to 40 goals last season. Do 40 goals matter? Do you still look at these milestones or are you just playing?
MACKINNON: “I mean it’s tough. It would’ve been cool to get 40 and 100 or whatever it was, but just didn’t happen. I’d be lying, I’d love to get there one day, but I think 50’s a big milestone, not 40.”
Training camps open in about a month’s time, which means it’s time for coaches around the NHL to really ramp up preparation for the new season. Some coaches have a lot of work ahead of them to try and turnaround poor seasons. For Jared Bednar, he’s hoping to build off of the success that his Colorado Avalanche had in 2017-18, improving by 47 points and returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014.
After being at the NHL Draft in Dallas and going through the start of the free agency period and development camp, Bednar was able to get away for some vacation before turning full focus on the 2018-19 campaign.
“For me, I like to stick around at the end of the year, do a bunch of review and take a look at some things and get my plan together,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during his drive from South Carolina to Denver. “Then you get a little bit of time away and you go to the draft and we do our development camp following the draft, so that’s a good week of getting to know some of our new players, but also your coaching staff is all there and the schedule comes out around that time and you can put together training camp schedules and get a lot of that type of work done. And then it’s nice to take a breather and get away from the game for a little bit.”
Bednar is entering his third season as head coach of the Avalanche. Year one, which he described as “horrible,” saw him hired in late August after Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation, something that affected preparation for that season. But year two was much better with a playoff berth and great seasons from Nathan MacKinnon, who was a Hart Trophy finalist, and Mikko Rantanen. He was rewarded by getting a trip to Las Vegas in June as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.
We spoke with Bednar about his growth as a head coach, the plan for his two goalies and his brief time playing in Roller Hockey International with the Anaheim Bullfrogs.
PHT: How have you seen yourself change in the 10 years since your first professional head coaching job?
BEDNAR: “Well, there’s a lot of ways, I think. I’m more patient now. The experience that you have. I believe I trust my players more now than I did when I first started coaching. Try not to worry as much. I always felt like the preparation was the key to success and still is. A lot of things have stayed the same but I would say I’m a little bit easier to deal with and less riding the roller coaster… Probably a little more calm now than I was as a younger coach.”
PHT: Is there more delegation on your part now?
BEDNAR: “Absolutely. Part of that’s the level of which you coach. In the ECHL you wear so many different hats and your staff is small. I was alone for my first year and then added an assistant my second year, so you’re kind of doing everything hockey related and [also] GM duties and just the things you need to get done for your players. A lot of interaction with your guys at that level, which is nice. But your staff is small so you’re kind of overworked and you have to be real good with your time down there, which is a good thing to learn because it seems like I’m back to that at the NHL level as well.
“You have to really manage your time because you get pulled in so many different directions as a head coach that you have to rely on other people. We’ve got a great staff. My staff has been amazing and they’re all very good at what they do. It’s kind of the more detailed work the higher you go and the bigger the staff you need and more attention you try and give your players, especially nowadays. Players like the back and forth with the coaches, a lot of communication, so it’s real important you have a good staff and a big staff.”
PHT: You’ve won a Kelly Cup (ECHL). You’ve won a Calder Cup (AHL). Was there a trait that those two teams shared and do you see that in this current Avalanche roster?
BEDNAR: “Yes. The leadership both times that I’ve won with was outstanding, and not just coaches. Our players taking over our room and the character of our leadership and the hunger, the willingness to come out and do things right every day… Those teams had it and they were hungry for more. The desire to win was deep and it started with our captain, Ryan Craig in Cleveland, Jaime Sifers, guys like that that kind of forced our team to have this daily mentality that we were going to get better and pay attention to the process.
“I saw it a lot last year in our group. The hunger that we had coming into the season after a horrible first year with me at the helm, I saw our leadership get passed to our young core, our star players, and they were focused and driven and resilient. They got along with each other. Our room was really tight and I think you have to have that in order to win. We still have a lot of work to do, but those are the things that lead you in the right direction and eventually will push you over the top. Hopefully we can continue to grow in those areas. But that’s the main thing, is that leadership and focus and determination that we had.”
PHT: How do you and your staff keep the complacency out after a season that saw huge strides?
BEDNAR: “We’ve talked with our guys, even during the off-season. The hunger has to be there again from our players, from our coaching staff, and I believe it is. Our division, our conference, I think is more competitive than ever and everyone’s building and adding and trying to get better and we’re no different. It comes down to the character of our players wanting to be coached, wanting to be pushed and willing to go the extra mile in order to get it done. We’ve got a talented group. We’re trying to fill in pieces around our core to make our team better. From my conversations with our guys they’re hungry, they want more. They had a taste of it last year and I think we’ve added some nice pieces in there, too.”
“It’ll be a little bit of a different feel this year, but I know that our key guys are hungry for more. Adding players to our roster like Philipp Grubauer, who just won a Stanley Cup; Ian Cole’s won a couple Cups. Having guys that have been through it before and that were able to achieve and win the Stanley Cup are great additions to our team, along with a guy like Matty Calvert, who’s hungry and comes over from the Columbus organization.”
BEDNAR: “It’s hard to say. I think there’s been some inconsistencies in Varly’s game because of his injury history over the last couple of years, right? We eased him into the season a little bit last year to make sure that he was feeling confident in himself and that he was feeling right, and it worked out. He had a tough break at the end because there’s a collision and he hurts his MCL. I don’t think that you can prevent that as a goalie. He’s there to make the save. It’s not something that was tied to his previous injury.
“We need Varly to stay healthy and when he’s been healthy, especially last year, as he started to play midseason and go he’s proven that he’s a No. 1. Now you have a guy like Philipp Grubauer coming in and he’s hungry to be a No. 1, he’s pushing to be a No. 1. Certainly last year he took over the net at times in Washington. But at the end of the day it made him a better goalie and it made Braden Holtby a better goalie and he ends up going in and winning them the Stanley Cup. We want the best out of both of these guys and we’ll ride the hot goalie at times, but I’d like to see Varly stay healthy and be able to regain his form because I think he’s trending that way and it’s going to be a matter of health for him. I know he’s one of our hardest working guys and a real hungry guy and I feel like Philipp Grubauer is hungry to prove that he’s a No. 1 as well.”
PHT: Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention last season and deservedly so, but Mikko Rantanen had a tremendous year playing alongside him. What kind of kid is he and how has it been to coach him?
BEDNAR: “First off, their success goes hand in hand. They play on the same line, the same power play, the majority of their ice time they’re on the ice at the same time. They got a great chemistry, they complement one another. Mikko is a really nice kid, had a breakout season. He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko…
“Certainly, Gabriel Landeskog is part of that line and can’t be overlooked because they all play a different game but they find a way to complement one another and there’s a chemistry there that I’d like to see them continue to grow as a line. Last year, just being the first step, they can continue to improve as individuals and as a line, to be honest.”
PHT: Obviously playing with Nate and Gabe helped him a lot with the point jump in year two, but what areas did you see Mikko take major strides in last season? Was it a matter of playing with those two guys and just another year of experience or was there more?
BEDNAR: “I think there’s more. There’s certainly a comfort level there with Nate and Gabe. I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two. [He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well. I also think that their success, you have to give their teammates some credit, too. We had some depth. We had a checking line with [Carl] Soderberg, [Blake] Comeau and [Matt] Nieto that freed those guys up to play in more offensive situations. I felt like the year before they were doing a lot of the heavy lifting defensively and still we had to try and rely on them to create offense. Last year a lot of the responsibility was split because of the depth we had. We had some secondary scoring with guys coming in like [Alex] Kerfloot and [J.T.] Compher and [Tyson] Jost. It’s also there’s a team perspective to their success as well.”
PHT: Finally, you’re one of a handful of people in the NHL with a tie to Roller Hockey International. How did that opportunity [six games with the Anaheim Bullfrogs in 1995] come up and did the ankle injury prevent you from playing again the following summer?
BEDNAR: “I was playing in the ECHL in Huntington [West Virginia] and Grant Sonier got hired as our coach and we got talking. They invited me out to go play. A lot of ECHL players were doing that. It was a way to stay in shape, to keep training. Heading out to the west coast in LA or Anaheim seemed like a fun idea. Enjoy the beach and train and continue working at hockey and then getting paid for the summer instead of going back home and getting a construction job or something, it was a way to keep training and continue to live like you would during the season and just put more into your training. That seemed like a no-brainer for me and [I] went out there and had a great time, met some great people. I did end up getting hurt, jamming my ankle into the boards and breaking it, so I spent a little time in a cast which set me back but it was just a risk that you take in order to try and continue to get better as a player and be able to train for the summer when you need to make some money and work.
“I enjoyed it. I just decided not to go back. Because of the injury I was a little bit leery of competing all summer long again when I could put a little bit more time into my training, which it turned out to be a good decision.”