In a sport where youth is often not trusted, the Colorado Avalanche are a bit of an anomaly.
The final score sheet for last Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators shows that the Colorado line eating up the most ice time included a player who did not turn 18 until two months after he was drafted in June.
Nathan MacKinnon was on the ice for 19 minutes 36 seconds, took three shots and had an assist. Linemate Gabriel Landeskog was on for 18:37, and also had an assist. Landeskog turned 21 at the end of November. He is in his second season as the captain of the NHL team.
The third member this night was John Mitchell, ancient at 29, who had been moved onto the line as a replacement for the injured Paul Stastny.
Mitchell, who once had trouble sticking with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, scored the team’s third goal on a pretty passing play by MacKinnon and Landeskog and was on the ice for 20:52, more than any other Colorado player (only because he, unlike the two youngsters, also kills penalties).
Heading into Monday’s games, MacKinnon leads the league rookies in goals (22), assists (30), points (52) and shots (195). His 13-game scoring streak this winter broke a 34-year-old record for an 18-year-old NHLer – held by no less than Wayne Gretzky.
The Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s top rookie, which two years ago went to Landeskog, is almost a certainty for MacKinnon.
Previous runaway winners include: Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin in 2007, Winnipeg Jets winger Teemu Selanne in 1993, Boston Bruins blueliner Raymond Bourque in 1979 and New York Islanders defenceman Denis Potvin in 1974. and, of course, the Bruins’ sensational Bobby Orr in 1967, when the runner-up was Ed Van Impe.
It is hard to reconcile this Nathan MacKinnon with the 17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon who represented Canada at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, 14 months ago.
While he sits, head back, happily smiling at the end of the Ottawa match, he was almost impossible to find in Ufa, either on the ice or sitting somewhere with his head down, never smiling and rarely talking.
For reasons that baffle, Canada’s coaching staff determined the then-17-year-old, if he saw the ice at all, would do so only as part of an “energy” line, designed to shake things up and create a little chaos – a most peculiar role for a finesse player.
Hockey is well-used to distrusting youth, of course. James Norris Memorial Trophy winner P.K. Subban was a healthy scratch for Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Erie Otters sensation Connor McDavid was hardly used at the 2014 WJC. Even Penguins star Sidney Crosby was denied a chance to represent Canada in the 2006 Turin Winter Games.
MacKinnon is diplomatic about the slight in Ufa.
“It wasn’t too bad because I knew it was a short tournament,” he says. “It might have been different if I knew it was going to happen for 80 games or something, but it was about the team, not me.
“I kind of started as the 13th forward and never really got in enough to work my way up. I had a couple of shifts of game, but not much. It would all have been worth it if we had ended up winning.”
The decision not to use MacKinnon in an offensive role may well have been a factor in Canada finishing out of the medals for the first time in 15 years. The native of Cole Harbour, N.S. (same hometown as Crosby), returned to the Halifax Mooseheads and led them to the Memorial Cup, where he was named MVP of the tournament.
In an ironic twist, the Mooseheads beat the Portland Winterhawks in the final, with MacKinnon picking up five points in a 6-4 victory. The Winterhawks featured defenceman Seth Jones, who had starred for the United States in Ufa and who was the draft pick of choice for many Colorado fans, given he had learned to skate in Denver when his basketball star father, Ronald (Popeye) Jones, played there.
The Avalanche, by virtue of a miserable showing last year, would have first pick. Colorado, however, decided to use it to select MacKinnon – and these days the choice looks inspired.
The Avalanche have a history of giving youth a leading role – Stastny, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and, most significantly, Landeskog – and new head coach Patrick Roy had no hesitation in doing the same with MacKinnon. Coming from the QMJHL, where he had owned, managed and coached the Quebec Remparts, Roy was more than familiar with MacKinnon’s talents.
“He’s been great,” MacKinnon says of his NHL coach. “He deserves the Jack Adams [Award, as NHL coach of the year]. For us to do as well as we have compared to last year is definitely all to do with him – he’s made the biggest difference.”
Well, so, too, has the 18-year-old kid who wasn’t good enough to take a regular turn on the ice in Ufa.
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