Joe Sakic, god of the playoffs, won his first Stanley Cup at age 26.
Nathan MacKinnon is 26.
You can see where this is going and it’s time we got there. Is a gap of 25 years a fair comparison? Not really. Different eras, supporting cast, all that. But after two decades, the Avs are back in the Stanley Cup Finals, and two of the central figures opening a series against Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Lightning Game 1 are Joe, the general manager, and Avalanche Legend, and Nate Working Alone.
Stanley Cup Finals: How Avalanche vs. Lightning – Talent versus Experience
The title of undisputed greatest hockey player in Avs history belongs to Sakic. No doubt period, put down your beer. But is it a conspiracy theory to say MacKinnon will eventually surpass the big boss? Not at all, not with the mounting evidence. Also, it’s good to ask questions.
It has to start here: Sakic won two Stanley Cups, in 1996 and 2001. MacKinnon has plans for how he would spend his time with the Cup – a parade in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he played juniors.
“But I have to win it first,” MacKinnon said before the playoffs, without overdoing himself.
Both Sakic, who played in 172 playoff games for the Avs and Nordiques, and MacKinnon, 64 playoff games so far, were and are playoff monsters. The playoffs bring together the best players and best teams, and yet everyone was usually better than everyone else. Sakic’s 34-point (over 22-game) feat in 1996 remains the gold standard for a playoff run in Denver sports. And you know what’s weird? Sakic had a point in 13 of 14 games to start his insane run in 1996. This postseason, MacKinnon has a point in 13 of 14 games to start his in 2022.
This many coincidences feels like a hockey “Stranger Things” if you ask me.
The Road to the Cup: How the Avalanche Reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the First Time Since 2001
MacKinnon will fall short of Sakic’s 34-point mark because the Avs were too overwhelming and it only took 14 games (12-2) to reach the finals. MacKinnon at 18 points. Only Makar (22) has more Avalanche Points.
Lots of reasons make this an unfair comparison, but it’s still fun to talk about the “First Take” style.
Sakic averaged 1.09 points per playoff game. That’s no joke. These are the top 20 of all time. But what if I told you that only two players (with 50+ playoff points) average more points per game than MacKinnon (1.36) – and their names are Gretzky and Lemieux? And only three reached 80 points faster than MacKinnon’s 59 games – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jari Kurri.
This is no joke either. These are the top 3 of all time.
This postseason, MacKinnon overtook the great Milan Hejduk for third place in playoff points among Avs players. He is behind Peter Forsberg (153) and Sakic (177) and both brands are on the table. For the math junkies, at his current pace, MacKinnon would overtake Sakic in 66 more playoff games. So he has to play for a while and escape the second round of the playoffs for a while. Not excluded. He has played 64 playoff games so far. For reference, MacKinnon is younger than Nikola Jokic, the NBA MVP who shares Ball Arena. I know that blew my mind too.
MacKinnon is in his ninth season while Sakic has played 20 for the Nordiques and Avalanche.
Nathan MacKinnon’s Development as a Leader Puts Avalanche in the Fight for the Stanley Cup: “He’s Ready to Do Anything It Takes”
This postseason was actually a brief MacKinnon highlight role. He recharged the memories of Sakic even in a loss, a hat-trick against the Blues, and set up a playoff-winning run with three points in Game 1 of Round 1 to be Makar. But the tone generator is mainly MacKinnon. In Game 1 against the Predators, MacKinnon scored just 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the game. In Game 1 against the Blues, he hit just 5:25 into the game. It took forever in Game 1 against the Oilers. MacKinnon scored 15-10, still in the first period. Also in his first Stanley Cup final there will be no hesitation at number 29.
Good timing too. His contract expires after the 2022/23 season. Sakic bet the #1 franchise on MacKinnon in 2013, and he’ll be betting on MacKinnon again very soon.
MacKinnon is the best bargain right now, or the most underpaid athlete in the sport, however you like to look at it. 93 NHL players made more than MacKinnon’s $6.3 million this season. Sakic made $6 million from his last game contract with the Avs – another weird thing.
Yes, MacKinnon still has a long way to go to reach the Sakic level of Avalanche history. But it’s not out of the question. He has to “win it first,” as he put it — at least twice. It’s time.