As the Avalanche went into the All-Star break with a two-game losing streak that does nothing to diminish the magnitude of its recovery season (DON’T PANIC!), Nathan MacKinnon headed off to Tampa as Colorado’s only representative on the Central Division roster at the All-Star Game.
If it could only be one, that choice was obvious, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t a year ago.
In retrospect, MacKinnon’s All-Star Game selection in 2017, his first, was much for significant than I (and others) made it out to be.
That’s because of the subplots.
Two years ago, Matt Duchene was the Avalanche’s sole representative at Nashville.
It was deserved.
That season, Duchene scored only one goal in the Avalanche’s first 11 games, and he repeatedly told me and others that it was just a matter of time before he ceased being snakebit and got going. That was something we were accustomed to hearing from Duchene, but it also is an NHL standby for struggling players, and fluctuations for even the best are inevitable.
Then Duchene indeed went on a tear, and he had 18 goals on January 7, when the All-Star rosters were announced. That was a burst, and he reached the 30-goal benchmark in the Avs’ 79th game. Ominously and perhaps symbolically in retrospect, his celebration of his 30th, a late goal that closed Colorado to within 4-1 against St. Louis, irked Patrick Roy.
But at that 2016 All-Star Game in Nashville, Duchene’s second appearance in the NHL’s Midwinter Not-So-Classic, he luxuriated in the pomp and circumstance. At “All-Star Friday Night at Music City,” he played (a borrowed) guitar and sang a few lines in two songs with country star Lee Brice.
At that point, we were thinking Duchene stood a good chance of becoming a virtually annual All-Star Game choice, depending on his continued progression, the game format and roster breakdowns, and, yes, the development of his teammates — including MacKinnon.
The point of bringing this up?
Last season, with the Avalanche in early stages of the post-November death spiral that led to a 48-point embarrassment, when the NHL announced the All-Star rosters on January 11, Duchene had 13 goals, MacKinnon 11. Goal-scoring isn’t the only standard, of course, but MacKinnon was named the Avalanche representative, and his self-effacing fashion, went out of his way to say he knew it was more a case of the at least one-player-per-team All-Star Game requirement. It was clear that while he was fine with going, and honored, it wouldn’t have ruined his weekend if he had it off. And make no mistake, the Avalanche’s recommendation in the choice came into play.
I remember thinking, even then, of the practice locker room dynamic at Family Sports Center. The Avalanche was in the midst of a homestand. Duchene’s stall and MacKinnon’s stall were maybe eight feet apart, on each side of a corner. I don’t remember if Duchene was at his stall when MacKinnon was asked for his reaction to being named, but I knew that this must have bothered Duchene. Why? He ate up that kind of stuff, the confirmation of stardom, as were his appearances with Canada in the Olympics, the World Cup and even the during-the-NHL playoffs World Championships.
The Avalanche front office and coaching staff knew that.
Eventually, it came out that Duchene not only initially bristled at the Avalanche not considering him untouchable, he eventually considered himself sufficiently under-appreciated to request a trade in advance of the All-Star selections.
It would be unfair and ridiculous to make Duchene the only problem in the Avalanche’s horrible 2016-17 season — he had a lot of company there, including MacKinnon, who finished with only 16 goals — but it’s also apparent the soap-opera elements and the Duchene vibes had an adverse effect.
Joe Sakic, again in retrospect, was stunningly patient under the circumstances, finally closing the mega-deal on November 5 that sent Duchene to Ottawa and bringing the Avalanche Sam Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, Andrew Hammond, the rights to Boston University center Shane Bowers and first-, second- and third-round draft choices.
This is not a retroactive trashing of Duchene. After a horrible start with the Senators, he has been decent and has 7 goals and 8 assists in 33 games with Ottawa heading into the break. Without painstakingly pinpointing “blame,” mostly it was sad — and I use that acknowledging that “sad” is a relative term when a then-26-year-old is making $6 million a year — that the Disney story didn’t play out.
He was an Avalanche fan as a kid, he reveled in the 2001 Stanley Cup triumph as a 10-year-old and being drafted by, and playing for, Colorado was the fulfillment of a dream. In a screenwriter’s hands, it would have led to Duchene holding the Stanley Cup overhead in a celebration at Civic Center Park, and perhaps a career-long relationship and No. 9 hanging from the Pepsi Center rafters. He’s a good guy.
MacKinnon, productive with Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen on his line, repeatedly has downplayed the fact that his breakout roughly coincided with Duchene’s departure. He has pointed out they weren’t linemates and that MacKinnon and his line generally were going against opponents’ top lines and D pairs. Duchene strongly preferred playing center, rather than wing. Having MacKinnon and Duchene as linemates required one of them playing wing. That’s part of the story, too, and in a sense MacKinnon — while this still is a work in progress pending sustained greatness — has become what Duchene was supposed to be here.
So now the Avalanche is moving forward with MacKinnon as the (All-)Star.
I admit that “DON’T PANIC” at the top of this piece was a bit of a straw-man argument. Everybody gets it, right? Back-to-back losses at Montreal and St. Louis on the heels of a 10-game winning streak that was longer than anything either Avalanche Stanley Cup team put together are both excusable and understandable.
This still is a reconstruction project, and it’s ahead of schedule, largely thanks to MacKinnon and his linemates, plus a coaching staff that has done a terrific job of minimizing the deficiencies. The biggest mistake now would be to make attaining a playoff berth such a priority that decisions are made that step away from the long-term approach.
With MacKinnon in the lead role, it is working.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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