In Canadian hockey circles, they are always looking for the next big thing. And right now, the next big thing hails from Cole Harbour, N.S., home of the last big thing, Sidney Crosby.
Crosby played in two world junior championships (2004, 2005). In the latter, he was the only underage player on a team full of 19-year-old, locked-out potential NHLers.
So there is something timely and serendipitous about Nathan MacKinnon’s presence at the tryout camp for Canada’s 2013 world junior team – and how he is trying to follow in Crosby’s footsteps. MacKinnon, 17, is expected to go first overall in next summer’s NHL entry draft and, under normal circumstances, he would be heavily favoured to make the junior team.
In a lockout year, however, where the likes of Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all sure bets to make the Canadian team, MacKinnon’s chances are slightly more uncertain.
MacKinnon survived the first round of cuts Wednesday, and his versatility may ultimately gain him a spot on the final roster. Both MacKinnon and Halifax Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin are the two wild cards in the deck for head coach Steve Spott because, on talent alone, they are hard to overlook.
MacKinnon is tied for the QMJHL scoring lead, with 52 points in 30 games, while Drouin is seventh (48 points in only 24 games).
Ultimately, the decision will be based on how well Spott believes one or the other or both will fare against older players at a tournament played on unfamiliar territory in Ufa, Russia. Right now, MacKinnon routinely goes up against players two years older than him, and it hasn’t affected his production or performance.
“There was never an adjustment coming into the CHL,” MacKinnon said. “My age is never really on my mind very much. I mean, guys are a little bigger, stronger, but other than that, there’s not too much change.”
Like Crosby before him, MacKinnon has been in the spotlight since his mid-teens, a player identified early on as someone with massive potential – and he is clearly comfortable with the attention. So many of these young prodigies have poise beyond their years, which may explain why they are the way are on the ice – cool, calm and collected.
“For me, I knew what kind of player I was, and I knew I wasn’t going to be Sidney Crosby,” MacKinnon said. “But at the same time, I’m trying to be the best player I can be.
“I guess I never put too much thought into the comparisons or the expectations. I’m just happy to be here right now, fighting for a place on the team.”
Given they share a birthplace, does MacKinnon have much of a relationship with Crosby, a Stanley Cup and Hart Memorial Trophy winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Crosby is 25 now, and spends most of his life in Pittsburgh. McKinnon skated with Crosby a handful of times this past summer, and describes him as “a serious guy.”
“He’s very focused and determined – a cool guy to be around for sure, [we’re] definitely not buddies, but we know each other. He knows what this was like,” he said. “He’s a busy guy, with the lockout now, but he’s been a good guy with me in the summer. Other than that, we don’t talk too much.”
In both the intrasquad scrimmage last Tuesday and the first exhibition game Wednesday, MacKinnon showed the ability to create something out of nothing offensively.
In the end, however, what may endear him to the coaching staff is his speed and his ability to get in on the forecheck to create turnovers.
MacKinnon will tell you the key to his game is “to use my skating on both sides of the puck, create turnovers down low and be hard on pucks. I just try to force the other team to create turnovers and find my teammates.”
In the past, Hockey Canada made its final player cuts first thing in the morning, meaning an annual ritual of tryout camp week was the dreaded 6 a.m. knock on the hotel-room door. This year, it has amended that process.
Once Thursday’s exhibition against the University of Calgary is concluded, the team will adjourn back to the team hotel, where the players will receive the good (or bad) word mid-day.
The final 23-man roster will then reassemble in the early evening local time at the arena for a team picture, before heading off to Finland Saturday for pretournament team-building, and a chance to adjust to the time change.
MacKinnon is keeping his fingers crossed he’ll be making the trip.
“I tried to battle my hardest and create an opportunity for myself to move onto the next cuts,” he said, “but your guess is as good as mine if I make it through – because there are so many talented players here.”