Landeskog wears the ‘C’, but MacKinnon finally leads the way for the Avalanche

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October 16, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Colorado Avalanchecenter Nathan MacKinnon (29) celebrates with left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) his goal scored against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

You just can’t look away from Nathan MacKinnon these days. Whenever he’s on the ice, my eyes have trouble following the puck because I want to know what No. 29 for the Colorado Avalanche is doing. If magic is about to happen, it will be channeled through MacKinnon.

This emergence of MacKinnon as one of the NHL’s best players is about more than his point total, All-Star game appearances or early MVP consideration. It’s about what he does with the puck.

Every night, it feels like MacKinnon is mastering a new skill on the ice. Aided by his talented line mates Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog, he’s finding new ways to dazzle in the offensive end. His skating ability leaves opposing skaters trying to catch him and goalies trying to find him. He sends passes that video game controllers wouldn’t be able to pull off. The speed can really only be captured on slow-motion instant replay.

MacKinnon, put simply, has become one of the best players in the league. This ability to demand your attention, away from the puck, has always been my measure for great forwards in the NHL. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg had it. Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have it. Since Matt Duchene was traded, MacKinnon’s been right up there with the NHL’s elite.

MacKinnon is now the player Avs fans hoped for when they drafted him in 2013. This is the trajectory of a Calder Trophy winner (rookie of the year). This is not a fluke, but the foundation for a sustainable high-performance career (assuming that MacKinnon stays healthy). Now the question becomes, where can he take the Avalanche?

Being the best forward on a hockey team is not like being a quarterback. Very rarely can a player simply take the puck into his own hands and lead a charge. The best analogy is probably a player like Nolan Arenado. The Colorado Rockies’ third basemen can have a huge impact on the game, but must rely on the rest of his team’s play. MacKinnon can only take the Avalanche as far as the talent around him allows. Just ask Ovechkin, who has never seen the Eastern Conference Finals with the Washington Capitals.

What MacKinnon does do is take up attention. He’s becoming the focus of other teams’ game plans. This opens up the ice for the rest of the team—young players like Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Jost have better matchups on the ice.

If a second line emerges, then the Avalanche have the offensive firepower to compete with anyone. The one-two punch of Forsberg and Sakic during the Stanley Cup years has proven to be a winning formula in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Being able to roll out multiple lines that threaten to score every night is the best way to use MacKinnon.

MacKinnon has also shown the ability to win games. In his one playoff series, as a rookie in 2014, MacKinnon had an overtime goal and an overtime assist. He has 21 game winning-goals in his young career. He’s 22 years old.

Watch MacKinnon the next time you’re at the Pepsi Center. He may be the greatest show on ice in the entire NHL. With the Avs trying to prove they’re more than a three-ring circus this year, MacKinnon has become the ringmaster. Fans have spent years looking up into the rafters to see the retired jerseys and waiting. They were waiting for Nathan MacKinnon.