The Recorder – Avalanche franchise fortunes aren’t MacKinnon’s to shoulder alone

Published: 06/17/2022 18:04:54

Modified: 06/17/2022 18:04:44

DENVER — Nathan MacKinnon has walked away from “Why Me?” to “Why not us?”

After losing in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season last season, the star cross superstar ranted that he’s been eight years into his NHL career and is yet to win.

An off-season chat with his boss, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, helped the Colorado center realize that he didn’t have to lug the franchise’s fortunes and the weight of high expectations squarely on his shoulders.

By dialing down, MacKinnon may have cracked the code.

“Nate is probably giving up playing the way he’s always played to make sure he’s good defensively, but he’s still contributing and it’s up to the other guys on the team, some nights work to do,” said Coach Jared Bednar. “Different guys will be performing on different nights. But that’s how you win in the playoffs, you have to be willing to sacrifice a little bit of your own game for what’s better for the team.”

MacKinnon took that lesson to heart from the start of training camp and helped lead the Avalanche to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 2001.

MacKinnon and his teammates will look to take a 2-0 lead against two-time defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night at the Ball Arena, where they won a thriller 4-3 in overtime in the opening game.

Sakic is attempting to follow in the footsteps of his friend and Denver colleague John Elway by winning a championship from the front office after lifting the trophy twice during his Hall of Fame career. He warned MacKinnon not to be so hard on himself and to play more freely this season.

It has worked wonders. MacKinnon said he no longer feels stuck.

“I was in a different headspace last year, but I definitely feel more free and feel good for sure,” said MacKinnon, who had an assist in Game 1 but drew all eyes — and a lot of Lightning attention — on multiple occasions .

“It’s a special group in there and you don’t get into the finals if you have selfish guys or guys that go in different directions,” MacKinnon said.

Make no mistake, though: MacKinnon still leads by example.

“He’s such an ambitious guy,” said defender Cale Makar. “You see him – he’s on the ice almost every day, one of the first guys, doing individual work or working with the guys. It’s not always just about himself and also about individual work. He’s always interested in collaborating with someone else, whether it’s teaching or giving little hints. He is so ambitious and driven and that makes him great.”

And what helps the Avalanche to grow in size themselves.

“I feel like he just does everything so well. He’s such a two-way player for us,” Makar said. “He comes up in those big moments… he comes up for us defensively too. So there’s definitely nothing in particular I can pin down that makes him special. He does everything so well.”

Trade-Deadline Acquisition Josh Manson said MacKinnon’s all-round game, both physical and mental, makes him the absolute leader, one who makes everyone around him better.

“Well, he wants to win. Since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that’s all he wants to do,” Manson said. “He wants to push the rest of the team to victory. He expects a lot from himself and he expects a lot from his teammates. So he’s a good leader in that regard. He pushes you to get better and he pushes you to push yourself to win every game.”

By modifying his awesome game in 9th grade, MacKinnon has become the complete player everyone envisioned back in 2013 when he was a baby-faced 17-year-old and the #1 overall draft pick.

“I think his game is growing tremendously,” Bednar said. “The maturity of his game over the past few seasons and what we went through in the playoffs last year has pushed him to a different point this year. He has a better understanding and a growing understanding of everything that’s going on around him and that other guys play an important role in the success of our team and it doesn’t always have to come back to him – and to be at peace with that.

“Again, I’ll repeat it as many times as you ask, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t put a lot of weight on his own shoulders. He does,” he said. “That’s the kind of competitor he is.”

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