Mile High Sports

Frei: The MacKinnon-for-Hart Trophy talk becoming more legit every day

Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) celebrates his goal with right wing Mikko Rantanen (96), Nikita Zadorov (16) and Tyson Barrie (4) in the second period against the Detroit Red Wings at the Pepsi Center. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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.

(Yeah, right.)

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. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible