By the end of Saturday’s win in Game 2, they were running out of superlatives to describe the play of Colorado Avalanche rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon.
Here was a player, controversially drafted by the Avalanche first overall in last year’s entry draft – so young that had MacKinnon’s birthday fallen 16 days later, he wouldn’t have even been eligible to play in the league until next season – lighting up the usually defensively sound Minnesota Wild for seven points in the first two NHL playoff games of his career.
Watch: MacKinnon sets up Landeskog for beauty
His scoring output matched an NHL record for rookie points in the first two games of an NHL playoff career. It had happened twice before – the one everybody remembers, back in 1919, Odie Cleghorn with the Montreal Canadiens, and then again in 1982 when Barry Pederson turned the trick with Boston.
MacKinnon was also just the third 18-year-old to score four points in a playoff game, joining Pierre Turgeon (1988) and Trevor Linden (1989), back when the league was an entirely different, freewheeling animal. The record for points by an 18-year-old in one playoff season is 13, set by Jaromir Jagr with the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, and if the Avalanche can get through the opening round, that seems destined to fall too.
The Avalanche selected MacKinnon in last year’s draft and notified their fans well ahead of time they planned to do so, fearing the possibility of a backlash. Coming off a decade coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Patrick Roy had seen the impact MacKinnon could have on a game, up close and personal, many times over the two years MacKinnon played for the Halifax Mooseheads.
Few ever actually disputed the impact MacKinnon might eventually have in the NHL, but there was also a push for the Avs to fill an organizational need by drafting defenceman Seth Jones with that pick. Though Jones was born in Texas, he was raised in Denver, where his father, Popeye Jones, played basketball for the local NBA team.
Organizationally, the Avalanche already had a number of talented forwards (Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog).
Wouldn’t it make more sense to beef up their defence corps?
A year earlier, the Edmonton Oilers were faced with a similar dilemma and made the wrong pick – opting for the forward (Nail Yakupov) ahead of the defenceman (Ryan Murray, who went to Columbus and is already playing a key role with the Blue Jackets).
But Roy was given the unprecedented dual title of head coach and president of hockey operations when he was hired and so his opinion mattered. Roy voted for MacKinnon. Does he have an eye for talent or what?
What sets MacKinnon apart from other teenagers trying to crack the NHL is that he has both the mind and the body to play the game at the highest level. So while the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can be a creative force, and made it right away too, he still hasn’t thickened beyond that rail-thin frame.
MacKinnon is a solid physical mass, which is complemented by a lightning quick first-step and the creativity to make a smart play, rather than force things.
This is an oh-so-rare quality and it was probably most evident in the first game, a come-from-behind win over the Wild, when Roy had goalie Semyon Varlamov on the bench for a sixth attacker with about three minutes to go.
Time was running out on Colorado, Minnesota seemed poised to hang on for a regulation victory, but MacKinnon had the puck behind the net, Gretzky-like. He looked to his left, saw nothing but traffic. Instead of trying to thread a pass through the maze of legs and hope for the best, he shifted a step to his right, and saw Erik Johnson angling down from the point to create a passing lane.
MacKinnon went that way, Johnson got the puck on the net and ultimately Stastny converted the rebound for the tying goal. Paul Stastny won it for the Avs in overtime and then Colorado carried that momentum into their stunning Game 2 victory, in which the line combined for 10 scoring points and three highlight-reel goals.
One play in particular stood out – the third goal, the eventual winner, scored by Landeskog on a behind-the-back pass from Stastny – which wouldn’t have been possible had not MacKinnon taken Tyson Barrie’s head-manning pass between the legs, kicking the puck off the boards and to his stick, without missing a stride. Wild coach Mike Yeo complained afterward that his team hadn’t taken enough time and space away from the Avalanche, but this was an example of a player creating his own time and space with a skilled play that few could duplicate.
Watching the Avalanche play calls to mind an observation by long-time coach Dave King who, during the dawn of the NHL’s dead-puck era, once lamented that it’s too bad fans can’t come into the arenas for practices because that is when the collective skill of NHL players is most often on display.
Even players cast in secondary roles on an NHL roster, given an extra foot of ice or an extra second of time, could make great plays. But then come the games and they evolve into these defensive chess matches, where the goal is to slow everything down and close fast on the puck carrier.
If the Minnesotas, St. Louises and Bostons of the NHL world represent tightly choreographed Bob Fosse shows, then the Avalanche are a freewheeling Second City review, full of improvisation. It’s quite a spectacle, reminiscent of the NHL when Roy played, and good for the game if the Avalanche can succeed because of the inherent copycat nature of the league.
If a team can actually succeed with the sort of rollicking style the Avalanche plays – which doesn’t track well on the advanced stats meter – maybe it will convince other teams to show a little more courage too.
Roy’s decision to play riskier hockey in the late stages of games – as the Denver Post noted Sunday, the Avs have now five times this year pulled the goalie with more than two minutes to go on the clock and produced the tying goal – is supported by statistical analysis.
So there’s method in the madness and it remains to be seen now if the Avalanche can finish off the Wild, who have actually played a pretty good series thus far and look as if they’ll go with the rookie Darcy Kuemper in goal the rest of the way after Ilya Bryzgalov was blown up for eight goals in the first two games.
Colorado has put the entertainment back in the game and it’s a good thing. We’ll see how it lasts.
PAYING THE PIPER: The strength of the Avs all season long has been their one-two punch down the middle; with injured No. 1 centre Matt Duchene ably supported by Stastny in a 1A role most of the year, and John Mitchell working well as an effective No. 3.
It gave them unbelievable depth because two other natural centres, Ryan O’Reilly and MacKinnon, played out of position, on the wing, but they were always options to shift back to the middle, when injuries required them to do so.
The Avalanche allowed Stastny’s contract to expire this year, so he will join the Montreal Canadiens’ Thomas Vanek as arguably the two most attractive unrestricted free agents on the open market this season.
Here’s the dilemma with Stastny: When they signed him to his current contract – five years, $33-million, an average annual cap hit of $6.6-million – he was roughly a point-per-game player in his first four NHL seasons (264 in 274 games) and they paid him accordingly.
In the past four years, his numbers have fallen well off. Likely, on the open market, where teams are often forced to pay a premium to sign free agents, Stastny may well get dollars roughly equivalent to what he is earning now.
Within Colorado’s payroll structure, where they will eventually need to pay big money to sign the likes of Landeskog and MacKinnon to extensions, they probably can’t afford to pay him more than $5-million or so per season, which is what his stats say he probably should earn.
So Stastny will likely have to make a decision this summer – stay put in Denver, which has been his home since 2004, when he played the first of two seasons for the University of Denver, or move elsewhere, for a higher pay day. Whatever he decides, his play early on in these playoffs will greatly enhance his market value, if he chooses to go to market.
THE POST-SHANNY ERA: The NHL’s player safety department dropped a $5,000 fine on the Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic for a slash between the legs against Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser in the opening game of their series, but the first real test of the Stephane Quintal-Brian Leetch regime came Sunday when they dinged the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook with a three-game suspension for his hit to the head of the St. Louis Blues’ David Backes in Saturday’s game, a 4-3 overtime loss for Chicago. Seabrook left his feet to make the hit; Backes didn’t have the puck; and the blow staggered him.
It was a textbook example of what not to do in an NHL trying to be more aware of the concussive effects of a blow to the head. Seabrook noted that he has been on the other side of that hit – from Raffi Torres, back when he played for the Vancouver Canucks, in the 2011 playoffs – but he didn’t sound like a player who figured he was going to get off scot free the way Torres did.
The Blues lead the Blackhawks 2-0, but could easily be down 2-0, having scored in the final 90 seconds twice to tie things up and eventually get to overtime. With about three weeks to go in the regular season, the Blues were in the conversation as a possible Stanley Cup contender. Sports Illustrated went in and did a profile of goalie Ryan Miller. Their blue-collar work ethic was praised.
Then the bottom fell out – injuries and fatigue caused a six-game losing streak to end the season. There was always a sense that the Blues could get it back on track, and get stronger as the playoffs unfolded, if they could just get past the defending Stanley Cup champions. Chicago knows how to win and won’t be a pushover in their building, but Seabrook’s absence for the next three will hurt – he was actually their scoring leader in these playoffs, with four points in two games.
Moreover, someone needs to settle down Duncan Keith. The Norris Trophy candidate has been so distracted by the physical nature of the series – and his desire to bait Vladimir Tarasenko, by waving his stick in his face, is bizarre. Tarasenko ended up having the last laugh by scoring the tying goal on Saturday. Chicago has been known to go emotionally off the rails before – remember how Seabrook had to calm down Jonathan Toews in last year’s playoff series, after he started taking a series of undisciplined penalties. They’ll need to get that poise and composure back if they have any plans of getting back in the series.
SHORT TAKES: TSN has a pattern of dropping guest analysts into their playoff panels and Martin Biron, recently retired after starting with the New York Rangers, is back again, after previously having appeared on TV towards the end of his playing career. Sometimes, players are just naturals on the ice, like MacKinnon. Biron is a natural on TV. Even though English is his second language, he makes concise and cogent points the way a more seasoned analyst would – and can be pithy occasionally and critical when called upon. So few players are willing to say much of anything – think Nazem Kadri on Hockey Night In Canada Saturday – for fear of offending their peers. Biron is going to be a good one, if he doesn’t stray too far from his natural voice ... Not sure if anyone in the United States cares about the Allan Cup senior hockey championships, but good for play-by-play man (and fellow Hall of Fame selection committee member) Doc Emrick for giving a shout out to Jay McKee, the former Buffalo Sabres defenceman, who was part of the Dundas Real McCoys roster when they won the trophy Saturday, with an overtime victory over Newfoundland’s Clarenville Caribous ... Not every precocious youngster hits the ground running the way MacKinnon has. Over in the Columbus-Pittsburgh series is a good example of the need to occasionally be patient with a precocious prospect. Ryan Johansen was the fourth player chosen back in the 2010 entry draft, by the Blue Jackets, who sent him back to junior to play as an 18-year-old and had him in Springfield for the first half of last year, as the NHL went through the lockout. In 40 NHL games after January, Johansen had just 12 points and was playing a little over 16 minutes per night. But this year, at the age of 21, it finally all clicked. He became the team’s No. 1 offensive player, miles ahead of the rest of the hard-working Columbus crew, and even though he is now a defensive target, he managed to produce a couple of points in the second game OT win over Pittsburgh. Scott Howson was fired back in February of 2013, but he drafted, signed or traded for virtually all of the key pieces on this Blue Jackets’ team, from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, to defencemen Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson and James Wiesniewski to Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov up front. Those are the easier to recognize names. The draft wins are usually finding NHLers in the nether regions of the draft. Columbus is getting good minutes out of David Savard (94th in 2009), Matt Calvert (127th in 2008) and Cam Atkinson (157th in 2008). Whatever success Columbus may eventually have with this core, the fingerprints of the former GM will be all over it.
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