Nathan MacKinnon heard them, too.
The chants of “MVP, MVP” — that’s more lyrical than “Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy” — carried through the Pepsi Center Sunday afternoon, at his two-goal, one-assist game in the Avalanche’s 5-1 rout of the Red Wings.
It wasn’t universal, of course, since roughly a third of the fans — if they hadn’t left already — were in Detroit red and were too busy deciding when to bolt for Denver International Airport to catch the flight home.
But you couldn’t miss it, and I asked MacKinnon about it after the game.
“I don’t really care,” he said. “It’s obviously nice. It’s flattering, but it doesn’t really get me that excited. My success comes with team success. Obviously, I really appreciate the support from the fans to have my back and they’re rooting for me to win an award in June. Hopefully, we can push and play for another award that gets handed out in June.
“Come April, mid-April, we want to be in the playoffs and like I’ve said all year, when I’ve succeeded, we’ve seemed to get wins. Everybody’s really helping me out right now.”
MacKinnon now has 38 goals and 51 assists in 64 games. His 89 points put him four behind league leader Nikita Kucherov of the Lighting, who had two goals against Edmonton Sunday night. MacKinnon is tied for second with the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and the Oilers’ Connor McDavid, the 2016-17 Hart winner.
It has become this simple: If the Avalanche makes the playoffs, pulling off the turnaround of epic proportions after the 48-point nightmare that was 2016-17, MacKinnon is the obvious choice. And if those are the circumstances, I have enough faith in the voters — even those who sometimes overrate all accomplishments in the Eastern Time Zone — that I’m convinced he would be the pick.
Yes, I’ve come around.
When the Hart talk began for MacKinnon earlier in the season, after he took off in November, some of it was a tad bit premature and even locally blinkered sentiment.
He kept it up.
MacKinnon has done it far from alone, of course, considering the accomplishments of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog, and even the unlikely contributions from third-liners Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau, who (especially in Soderberg’s case) seemed to be dead weight and and contractual albatrosses last season. And from others, of course.
Yes, also toss in the work of second-year coach Jared Bednar, who is here only because Joe Sakic had the nerve to defy NHL convention and pass on making his coach the scapegoat for a horrible year.
Sakic had a stake in that, of course, since firing Bednar would have been admitting the hire was a mistake in the first place. But that also wouldn’t have shocked anyone. And now Bednar himself would be a real threat to win the broadcasters’ voting for the Jack Adams Award if the Vegas Knights’ Gerard Gallant didn’t have it already wrapped up.
“For me, if we get in the playoffs, for me, he’s the MVP,” Bednar said of MacKinnon after the game. “I can’t imagine there’s another player than means more to their team, doing more for their team than what Nate’s doing for us. That’s just the way I see it. He is the driving force to our offense and it is consistent. It’s multiple-point games, it seems like every night and I think he deserves it.
“And maybe not. I could be wrong. We have to get in, get in the playoffs, and then for me becomes the lead candidate in my mind.”
Amazingly, MacKinnon’s eight-game absence in early February didn’t derail his candidacy. In fact, it might be helping it in the sense that the Avalanche went 4-4 while he was out, hanging in the playoff race but clearly missing him, and now the fact that he’s threatening to win the scoring title despite that absence is a huge point in his favor as others beat drums for Kucherov — who indeed was the most deserving candidate for much of the season — and Malkin. (To be fair, Kucherov also has missed two games and Malkin four.)
The intriguing part about having McDavid in the running again with MacKinnon is that as the generational prospect from the top spot of the 2015 draft, he long has been the most recent example cited as comparison for MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in 2013. And until this run, McDavid has far overshadowed MacKinnon, who won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2014 but had underachieved and tantalized — at least when playing in the NHL and not in international competition.
MacKinnon would be the Avalanche’s third Hart winner, behind two guys who raised the Stanley Cup twice each and now have their numbers hanging from the Pepsi Center rafters. Joe Sakic did it in 2000-01, the Avalanche’s second Cup season, finishing with 54 goals, 64 assists and 118 points. Peter Forsberg, who took over games that season to the point that his numbers didn’t do justice to his dominance, had 29 goals, 77 assists and 106 points in 2002-03.
If MacKinnon sticks to the same pace through the final 10 games, or 1.39 points per game played, he will finish with 103 points — on 45 goals and 58 assists.
But there’s more to it than numbers.
Part of it was his willingness to step and assume his share of responsibility — and it was considerable, given unmet expectations — for last season’s fiasco. And then to do something about it.
At 22, he still has strains of goofiness, but he also has matured, and that’s shown up in his relationship with Bednar after some rocky moments a year ago.
Yes, if he can lead this team to the playoffs, it’s Hart stuff.
* * *
Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week 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 “March 1939: Before the Madness,” about the first NCAA basketball tournament and its champions; and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett