Frei: Nathan MacKinnon has the best of intentions … but it’s a bad, bad idea

Mar 10, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Arizona Coyotes left wing Jordan Martinook (48) and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) fight in the first period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps some will portray this as a rip of Nathan MacKinnon.

It’s not.

What this is, is this: An argument that it needs to be made clear to him that he’s the Avalanche’s best player. (Well, he already knows that, but…)

As the Avalanche’s best player, and secondarily as he still is only three weeks removed from missing eight games with a shoulder injury, he just can’t give in to the instinct to “stand up for a teammate.”

And that’s especially true when, as in this case, the opponent transgression was a clean yet emphatic hit on Mikko Rantanen delivered by the Arizona Coyotes’ Jordan Martinook at 17:18 of the first period Saturday afternoon at the Pepsi Center. MacKinnon and Martinook drew the matching fighting majors, but MacKinnon also was called for roughing. By then, the Avs led 3-1 and they killed off the resulting Coyotes’ power play. So it wasn’t “costly.”

Yet MacKinnon can’t be trying to be Jarome Iginla, Cam Neely or Brendan Shanahan in their primes as wingers, or other power forwards whose sharp-edged games were fueled by emotion, even anger, that often led to the dropping of the gloves. That was true whether it involved simple one-on-one battles or straying into the standing-up-for-teammates category.

The Avalanche can’t afford to have MacKinnon, the 22-year-old center who still has a longshot chance of winning the NHL scoring title, fighting.

It’s that simple.

That’s a huge compliment.

That’s even before you get into the discussion of just when it became the fashion in the NHL to feel the need to react to clean hits — and react beyond simply giving credit where credit is due and looking for an opportunity to deliver a clean hit back in reply.

There, I’m thinking of the types of hits Nikita Zadorov is prone to deliver, and the inevitability of the how-dare-you reaction.

I get the notion of deterrence, of heading off “liberties.” There as a reason Dave Semenko was out there with Wayne Gretzky, of course. But there’s also a fine line.

MacKinnon can hold his own, and more, in fights, and he did again Saturday. He saw the hit on Rantanen and I’ll concede he didn’t have the benefit of replays to decide it it was clean or at least sufficiently objectionable as he decided to “stand up” for his young Finnish linemate.

“I think Mikko’s one of our best players,” MacKinnon said after he finished with two assists in the 5-2 win over the Coyotes. “He gets run over, I think anybody would have done the same…Anybody in that situation would have stood up for Mikko or anybody. It doesn’t happen who it is.”

It’s praiseworthy, even impressive humility. MacKinnon doesn’t think he’s above this.

Well, he is now.

And all his teammates should know it.

With all due respect to Rantanen (and MacKinnon), this wasn’t going to happen if roles were reversed. If a Coyote belted MacKinnon with a clean hit, Rantanen wasn’t going to go after the opponent and drop the gloves. And he shouldn’t. That’s just not Rantanen.

As of Saturday night, MacKinnon, the Flyers’ Claude Giroux and the Oilers’ Connor McDavid were tied for third in NHL scoring, each with 81 points. (That was before McDavid and the Oilers’ late game against Minnesota.) The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov led with 88 points and the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin was next with 85.

After the Avalanche pulled into the Western Conference’s second wild card spot by a point over the Los Angeles Kings, coach Jared Bednar voiced his ambivalence about MacKinnon’s reaction.

“I certainly don’t want Nathan MacKinnon fighting, for obvious reasons,” Bednar said. “If something happens to him, he’s such a big part of our club that there’s too much at risk there. But I love the fact that he did fight and stood up for his teammate there. It’s part of what makes him so good, right? He’s a competitive guy, a highly competitive guy. He didn’t like what he saw, so he does that. As the coach, you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

“I would advise him not to be doing that the rest of the year, but part of that again is what makes him so likable and good.”

Bednar conceded, “I don’t think it was a dirty hit. (Rantanen) cut to the middle, looking to make the play. Good players are going to take pucks in the areas where they make guys commit, and then look to do something with the puck that can create a scoring chance. I think that’s what Mikko was doing there. He just got caught in the train tracks and it was a hit, maybe a touch high, but it was a clean hit. Mikko was fine, bounced right back.

“If you thought it was dirty, there still are three other guys on the ice that could possibly jump in there instead of Nate. And I think if guys were closer, they probably would have done that based on what they saw.”

Was it a dirty hit?

“I don’t know,” MacKinnon said. “I just saw Mikko get crushed, and I just reacted. I haven’t watched it.”

There was some history here, too, since MacKinnon dropped the gloves and went at it with Josh Archibald during a chippy game at Glendale on Dec. 23, most notably when Zac Rinaldo delivered an unpenalized hit on MacKinnon and then reacted to Samuel Girard’s approach with a sucker punch to Girard’s face.

“I feel good, though,” MacKinnon said. “My shoulder’s fine. Obviously I’m comfortable to do that, I guess. It doesn’t really matter who you are, I do’t think. I think guys would respect that, that I fought. I’m sure a lot of people don’t expect me to, but respect in this locker room means more to me than anything else.”

They respect him so much now, though, the most fitting message to him could be: “Thanks, but you really don’t need to do that.”

*   *   *

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 “March 1939: Before the Madness,” about the first NCAA basketball tournament and its champions; and “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” about the landmark 1969 Texas-Arkansas football game and the events swirling around it. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @tfrei

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