Avs F Nathan MacKinnon's rookie campaign turning into special one
Nathan MacKinnon's Calder-worthy rookie season is unlike most in recent years. From his relative youth to his vital contributions, MacKinnon is proving to be a special talent.
Had Nathan MacKinnon been born a mere 15 days later in September 1995, he would likely be playing in Halifax this year, tearing up the QMJHL for a third straight season, biding his time before his name could be called in the NHL Draft. Fifteen days later and Nathan MacKinnon would not have been allowed to play in the NHL this year because he would have missed the NHL's Sept. 15 draft age cutoff.
But he was born on Sept. 1, 1995, and as a result is 70 games into his rookie year for the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL, fulfilling the promise that was placed over his head from the time he was just a lad growing up in Sidney Crosby's vast shadow in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. He's still just a lad, a rich lad, with loads of talent and almost certainly a Calder Trophy in his future if not more hardware.
The 18-year-old phenom has 54 points, tops among all rookies. He leads first-year players in goals (23) and assists (31) as well. He's also 36th in the league overall with his point total.
He's running away with the Calder Trophy at this point, but more importantly, he has become an integral part of one of the league's best turnaround stories. It has been a bit of a perfect storm for the Avs, but it took a lot of bad and being rewarded for being bad to get to this point. Those lean years are turning out to be worth it, big time.
The Avs are getting a lot out of the three players they drafted with top-three picks in recent drafts. Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are both fulfilling the promise of their lofty draft positions, and have been since arriving in Denver. Adding MacKinnon to the mix gives the Avalanche as formidable a top six as any club and a core of young players that could become the envy of the league if it isn't already.
As much praise as new coach Patrick Roy is deservedly getting, MacKinnon's arrival could be a real flashpoint for the franchise. What he's doing this season was expected to a degree because of the hype this kid came into the league with, but what is getting lost is not that he's just a rookie. He's an abnormally young rookie.
MacKinnon is on pace for 62 points this season, which is on a par with former Calder Trophy winners Jeff Skinner (63 points in 2010-11) and Patrick Kane (72 points in 2007-08). Skinner is the closest age comparable. As a May birthdate, he didn't turn 19 until after his rookie season had ended. Meanwhile, Kane was a late-1988 birth year, meaning he spent most of his rookie season at 19. It also meant Kane had an extra year of seasoning before his draft compared to what MacKinnon has had.
It may not seem like much, but in those stages of a player's development, age and experience count for a lot. There's no grain of salt to be taken with MacKinnon's performance as a true 18-year-old rookie.
The fact that MacKinnon won't turn 19 for nearly five months makes what he's doing all the more remarkable, especially when he does things like this offensive-zone effort leading to a goal against Montreal earlier this week:
Because of that relative youth and the success he's having at this point, it's almost hard to fathom what kind of ceiling there is on his potential. If he's this good at 18, what is he going to look like at 23? Other NHL teams may shudder at the thought.
It's also not just how much he is producing that makes him such a special rookie, it's when. Of MacKinnon's 23 goals, 17 have come in score-close situations, including nine goals scored when the game is tied. He also has five game-winners on the season.
He's also getting better as the season progresses and his usage is growing as a result. Though MacKinnon's season average is 16:53 of ice time per game, he has played more than 20 minutes in five of his past eight games. All that while the Avalanche battle with Chicago for second in the Central Division.
The 18-year-old has 21 points in his past 20 games, which included that record-breaking point-scoring streak of 13 games that topped Wayne Gretzky's effort at the same age.
It's kind of funny to think that going back to January there was a legitimate debate about who would be the Rookie of the Year. In the past two-plus months, MacKinnon has obliterated the discussion. He's more than likely going to do something his Cole Harbour predecessor could not by winning the Calder (Crosby lost out to Alex Ovechkin in 2006).
MacKinnon is not Sidney Crosby and he doesn't have to be, even though the comparisons will be drawn for the rest of his career because of their common roots and paths to the NHL. It's unfortunate that some will view it that way, because MacKinnon is doing things on his own merit that don't have any need for a Crosby-related qualifier.
What MacKinnon is now is a vital part of one of the NHL's most exciting teams. He has been a huge part of the Avs' turnaround and will remain a large part of their very bright future.
There may be ups and downs along the way, but MacKinnon is showing this season that he was more than ready for the challenge. He hasn't done it on his own, but without him, it's hard to see the Avalanche having the scoring depth to pull off what they have so far this season.
It's a good thing MacKinnon was born when he was because having to wait another year to watch what he's doing now would have been a disservice to hockey fans everywhere.
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