Nathan MacKinnon Gave The Avalanche Everything They Dreamed He Might

“Franchise savior” is a cruel and overzealous label tacked on to every teenage athlete, and yet it’s inevitable that nearly every No. 1 overall winner — in any sport, not just hockey — will be pressured to do so by conditions to meet these set expectations. Rarely, if ever, is the team that isn’t in trouble found first, and rarely, if ever, is the player picked ahead of everyone else who isn’t being hailed as a conspicuous talent with Hall of Fame potential. The desperation of the franchise and the gifts the youngsters have shown at lower levels of competition combine in an unmanageable anticipation whose ultimate hope – a title for the struggling team, achieved largely through the incredible play of their new leader – almost arrives never happened. In the NFL, only once since the 2005 draft has a top overall pick won a title with the team that drafted him (Eric Fisher of the Chiefs). Only LeBron and Kyrie have made it in the NBA since Tim Duncan. And in the NHL, no one since Steven Stamkos, who was picked first in 2008, had managed to complete that final step into Salvation until Nathan MacKinnon did it Sunday night.

MacKinnon wasn’t quite the consensus for the Avalanche when they held their first and only top pick to date in 2013. Many speculated that Denver’s own Seth Jones, who eventually finished fourth with the Predators, would be a better fit. But the Avs were bad on both offense and defense at the time, and the then-Braintrust of Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic chose to address the former and draft MacKinnon, an amazing goalscorer for his hometown Halifax Mooseheads who was only 17 years old scored seven goals in the Memorial Cup and won the MVP tournament.

“He’s an electrifying player,” Sakic said at the time. “He’s the most explosive player in this draft.”

And more than anything, the Avs needed a spark. They were winners from the moment they left Quebec for Colorado in 1995, beating the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals the following spring, appearing in three of the next four conference finals, and winning the cup again in 2001. But over the rest of the decade, as that glorious generation defined by Sakic, Roy and Peter Forsberg retired from the league, playoff runs got shorter and then playoff appearances got less certain. And finally, by the time the 2013 draft rolled around, the Avalanche had missed the postseason three straight years and had just finished bottom in the Western Conference. Once a cornerstone of the NHL in the spring, they had sunk into oblivion.

MacKinnon is far from the only lottery pick that has helped the Avalanche win the trophy – their batting rate among first-rounders over the past decade has been spectacular – but as the only person to ever finish first, he always carried an extra burden. After all, there is no Wikipedia article listing every player ever drafted second total. (It didn’t help that MacKinnon hails from the same town as Sidney Crosby.) But instead of faltering as an 18-year-old making the transition to NHL speeds, MacKinnon helped the Avalanche shine in his rookie season bring . Joined by a quality group of young players including Ryan O’Reilly, Gabe Landeskog and Matt Duchene, the Avalanche rocketed to the top of the division, falling into overtime in the first round in game seven against the Wild, but at least with a Calder Trophy for Nate.

From then on it wasn’t a linear path. While their top picks regularly found plenty of success, the Avs consistently failed to make smart decisions in the later stages of the draft, and this lack of anything other than inexperienced potential stars led them to consider Roy’s retirement as more three post-seasons in a row missed coaches and the arrival of Jared Bednar behind the bench come chaotically just before the start of this final and ugliest season of 2016-17.

MacKinnon also hit a wall. By the end of his fourth season — the flop of 16/17 — his rookie totals for goals and assists remained his career highs. He was no longer a teenager who blew away all his peers, but an ordinary striker who put up numbers that only made him the most productive player in a miserable team. That offseason, MacKinnon said later in 2021, was finally a turning point in his commitment to greatness.

“I was just sick of being average,” he said. “I knew I was better than a 50, 60 point guy. So I dialed everything: my diet, my body, my mind. I was just trying to tick all the boxes.”

That kind of fiercely serious dedication to getting as much out of his body as possible makes MacKinnon an easy target for jokes — watch the kerfuffle over his supposedly health-conscious tyranny over locker-room food and the Avs’ pre-game meals . But it has brought him undeniable results. From 2017 to 2018, MacKinnon emerged as a franchise leading scorer on a team no longer a joke, surpassing 35 goals and 90 points in one, two, then three straight years as the Avalanche made it to the first round and then made it back. to-back second round game 7s. It was here that MacKinnon became truly “explosive” and “electrifying,” as Sakic once prophesied, displaying his breathtaking, unassailable speed and sure-fire lethal finish more and more often until he and his once-bottom-feeder team became all over TV. (Well, at least outside of their home market.)

In the COVID-shortened 2021 season, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since they took home Stanley two decades earlier, with MacKinnon anchoring the top line amid a stacked roster of homegrown superstars and eventually some savvy acquisitions. However, that season ended with another heartbreak in the second round, this time with a losing 2-0 lead to the Vegas Golden Knights. And while there was still so much to like about the Avalanche’s 2021-22 odds, MacKinnon showed a growing awareness of his inability to deliver what everyone wants most from the No. 1 picks.

Despite being slowed down in the regular season by injury, his age of 26 marked another great year. Nate finished second on the team behind the healthier Mikko Rantanen in goals and points, leading the Avs to another West-leader. And this time, they showed little sign of weakness until the final. MacKinnon scored in every game as the Avalanche swept the Predators. He was quiet in the team’s six-game disposal against the Blues, save for perhaps the biggest hat-trick in a loss I’ve ever seen. He then rebounded with a goal in three games of the Avalanche’s conference finals in Edmonton. And in the heavily hyped showdown against the two-time champions, after his first 16 shots on goal were prevented by Andrei Vasilevsky, he managed to grind a critical save in Game 4 that helped lead the Avs to a commanding 3-1 series .

Given MacKinnon’s high standards, he might have been a little upset with himself if that had been all he had to contribute to Colorado’s long-awaited return to stardom. But he was the center of attention in the decisive Game 6. Artturi Lehkonen’s game-winner came after an impromptu recovery pass from the man himself, but before that came the game-determining one-timer that snuck past his nemesis Vasi and gave Colorado a much-needed grip on the road. (Individually it also helped he remains third behind Gretzky and Lemieux in total points per playoff game leaderboard.)

MacKinnon remained melodramatically stoic to the end, asserting during a second break interview that he had “No emotion. Nothing to celebrate.” But after the Avs held off the Lightning for a goalless third period, he was finally able to let it all out. Appropriately, he shared the moment after the honk with Erik Johnson, drafted by the Blues as overall champion in 2006 became.

In an interview during the celebration, after Andrew Cogliano said something cryptic to him about the number 87, he explained that he knew the Avs were going to win when his hotel room number reminded him of Crosby. As important as diet and training and natural gifts and mental toughness have been to MacKinnon’s incredible career, you might not get that far without believing in fate too.

However, Crosby is not off the hook just yet. “I was the drunkest guy on two of his [Cup parties]” MacKinnon told reporters. “So he better be the drunkest guy around.” Today, however, the two aren’t just drinking buddies or Nova Scotians or even just elite hockey players. Now they both know what it’s like to save a franchise.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.