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Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, right, could be a game-altering centre.

The Associated Press

Were it possible to burrow into the consciousness of a highly touted hockey prospect, one would doubtless discover abnormally high levels of anything-is-possible confidence – the kind of self-assurance that can only come from possessing superior talent.

From that vantage you too might be taken aback at how hard it is for gifted players to quickly master, let alone dominate, the centre position in the NHL.

Just over a week from now the league's most recent Next One, second-year Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, will lead a cluster of pivots who are taking on not just wary opponents, but a trend.

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Absent the rare examples of generational talent – Crosby, Lemieux, Gretzky, et al – it takes at least two or three seasons for young players, even those with enormous promise, to emerge as polished, game-altering centremen.

Hockey people have various stock explanations for this.

It's positioning, or defensive awareness, or maturity, or adjusting to the speed. All of these terms are well and good, but they're buzzword-y and unsatisfyingly vague.

So we turn to the Avalanche's Matt Duchene, Canadian Olympian and a former third-overall draft pick, to fill in the details as to why exactly this position is so tricky.

It boils down to surviving in your own end Duchene said: "You're matched up against some of the best players in the league. Offensively, that part takes care of itself, it's playing both ways that's hard."

Duchene, who admits that after five years in the league he's still figuring this stuff out, said the myriad nuances of the defensive game in the NHL are essentially about "making the right decisions at the right time."

He enumerated some of those choices.

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They included reading how deep to skate in your own end, switching assignments with defencemen, knowing when and where to commit to puck battles (and learning how to win them), understanding stick positioning and which lanes to close off.

Then the player has to do all this while matched up against men who are not merely big and fast, but better at passing, shooting and protecting the puck than anyone he's ever seen.

Wingers have responsibilities too, but centres are the linchpin of defensive-zone coverage – a lot more can go wrong in the middle of the ice than along the boards, and there's a lot more space to worry about.

Any top-line centre in the NHL played the position for years in minor and junior hockey and has had the basics drilled into him since he was old enough to skate. But as Duchene said, "These guys make passes you didn't see in junior, and plays. You have to be on your toes all the time."

He then offered an illustration of the challenge.

"In my first game in the NHL we played against [San Jose Sharks centre Joe] Thornton's line, and I remember that on one of my first few shifts I over-backchecked. In the OHL, the guy probably just shoots the puck from the outside or whatever, but Joe held up, hit the guy late, and he scored," he said. "A good lesson early for me."

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Another difficulty for young NHL centres, particularly those thrust into prominent jobs on their team's top two lines, is overcoming what Montreal Canadiens centre Lars Eller refers to as "junior plays" – things that succeeded against lesser players but turn into over-embroidered, risky gambles on an NHL rink.

Eller first made the comment two years ago in reference to himself and young teammate Alex Galchenyuk, another third overall pick who is being tried out at centre this month in training camp.

The 20-year-old Galchenyuk's experience thus far has been a mixed bag; he's had his travails defensively and in the faceoff circle, he's made some eye-popping offensive plays (including scoring the overtime winner in a pre-season contest against Colorado), the general consensus is he may not be quite ready.

There are analogous examples around the league; nearly every Canadian NHL team enters the season with a premium prospect still finding his footing as a productive-but-dependable frontline centre: Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele, Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad, Calgary's Sean Monahan, Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Toronto's Nazem Kadri.

All of which brings us back to MacKinnon, a player some scouts and hockey executives see as the best player to enter the league since Sidney Crosby (this being hockey, there are others who disagree).

The off-season departure of pivot Paul Stastny has thrust the 19-year-old into the fray as the Avs' second-line centre.

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On the evidence of his Calder Trophy-winning season last year, the thickly built Nova Scotia native has the skills and power to pull it off, but life is rarely that simple in the NHL.

MacKinnon realizes as much.

His summer training, which he mostly did alongside Crosby, his fellow Cole Harbour, N.S., native, was focused on building his strength to face the rigours of battling the likes of Thornton and other big-bodied Western Conference centres like David Backes (St. Louis), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim) and Anze Kopitar (L.A.).

"I'm not going to get 120 [points] this year, like Sid, but I'll try my best to be an impact player every night," he said, deadpanning that he doubts any of Crosby's legendary defensive instincts rubbed off on him. "In the summer we don't do a whole lot of D-zone work,"

To that end, MacKinnon is focusing on playing in his own end like never before.

There are repeated video sessions, entreaties from coaches and not inconsiderable time spent agonizing over past miscues. Avs coach Patrick Roy said MacKinnon is as critical about his own play as anyone he has seen.

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It's a trait that rapidly becomes obvious in talking to the player, as does his evident self-belief.

"You want to do so much, and I think less is more sometimes … you want to help guys out and get on guys quick, but sometimes I lose my guy, I'm working on that stuff," he said. "In junior, the last couple of years, you have the puck the whole game so you don't really have to play in the D-zone that much, but I'll pick it up pretty quick."

The latter sentiment is the sort of thing many players believe, but few are able to live up to.

The answer should be clear soon enough whether MacKinnon, an exceptional prospect, will be another exception to the rule.

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