MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Nathan MacKinnon (29) controls the puck in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets last week. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

 

During the Avalanche’s mystical, magical (until the playoffs) 2013-14 season, Nathan MacKinnon was 18 and destined to claim the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Around him, Colorado’s other young forwards and potential franchise cornerstones included Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Gabe Landeskog.

Among that group, only Landeskog still is a MacKinnon teammate — though the Swedish captain again won’t be on the ice Tuesday night, when he serves the final game of his four-game NHL suspension as the Avalanche faces the Buffalo Sabres to finish a so-far disappointing five-game homestand.

Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly (90) reaches for the puck against Pittsburgh Penguins center Jake Guentzel (59) Saturday night. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

O’Reilly, traded to the Sabres in June 2015, also will be back in the Pepsi Center with what at this stage of the season is the NHL’s worst team, at a dreadful 6-17-4. O’Reilly has seven goals and 16 points in 27 games.

“It feels like he was here a long time ago,” MacKinnon said after Monday’s practice at Family Sports Center. “It’s only been a couple of years, but it feels like there’s been a lot of change since he was here. He’s an awesome player and a good buddy of ours still. I’ve played at the Worlds (for Canada) with him the last couple of seasons. Obviously, I wish they were doing a little better as a team, but he’s a good guy. It’s in the past now and I just think of him as a Sabre.”

MacKinnon is coming off a terrific November, when he had five goals and 20 points in 12 games and was named the NHL’s No. 1 star for the month. In the wake of his lackluster 16-goal output last season, it’s an encouraging sign the NHL’s former No. 1 overall draft choice could be about to jettison his reputation for mercurial play, often with more flash than production.

“I feel like I’m getting there,” MacKinnon said. “I’m not going to produce like that every month. I don ‘t think anybody has since (Wayne) Gretzky, at that pace for a whole season. That’s not sustainable, but what I’m going to try to do is play as well as I can, just like that. The points aren’t always going to be there, but I hold myself to the standard where I want to be one of the best players in the league, and that’s what I’m striving for.”

Was that the best month of his career?

“In terms of production, it was,” MacKinnon said. “Just like the team, I’m trying to find my identity as a player and I want to produce every night. A good thing for me to be mindful of is not to be worried about points  or be points-oriented. That stuff will come with good play. That’s kind of my mindset. That’s how it’s been and it’s going to continue like that. Whether I get points or not, I’m just trying to play well and help the team out. . .

“I think the biggest thing is that when you start to feel it, you have no thoughts with the puck, you just kind of react. You react and read the play naturally. When you’re fighting it a little bit, when your confidence isn’t there, you start to try to think up plays and think the game. But when I’m at my best, I’m playing the game, not thinking it, and I think everybody’s like that. When you’re just playing and working hard, things seem to open up sometimes.”

MacKinnon said it was a coincidence that his game picked up after Duchene — who was centering the second line — was traded to Ottawa in early November.

“I started that month when Dutchy was here and I started to play better,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously, it’s a little more responsibility for me when he’s gone, but I was still getting other teams’ top lines and top D pairings on the road. It’s not like he’s gone and I’m getting them. I’m getting them the whole time. That hasn’t changed and to be honest, nothing feels very different.”

This will be O’Reilly’s third Pepsi Center visit since the trade that sent him and Jamie McGinn to the Sabres for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, the rights to the since-signed J.T. Compher and a second-round draft choice. The trade was the result of Joe Sakic‘s determination to avoid a repeat of what happened with Stastny, who signed with the Blues as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014 after the Avalanche was unable to sign him to an extension.

O’Reilly had one season remaining on his contract at the time of the deal and soon signed a seven-year, $52.5-million extension with the Sabres. That kind of contract would have thrown the Avs’ much-cited “structure” of the time out of wack, setting the benchmark higher as Sakic, while coping with locker-room politics, sought to tie up his young “core” with long-term deals. At the time, Duchene’s $6-million annual salary was the informal ceiling.

Two years later, Grigorenko is written off as a washout and is back in Russia, playing in the KHL. Zadorov has been up and down, but promising and intriguing as a young defenseman. And Compher has become a solid contributor. Who won the trade? That result is incomplete, but the Avs got something for O’Reilly. Which is more than they can say about Stastny.

Like Stastny, O’Reilly’s contributions always went beyond his offensive numbers, and the Sabres both literally and figuratively bought into that, tying him up through 2022-23.

“Coming in here, I got a fantastic contract that helped, but I think it’s a great city to play in,” O’Reilly told me in Buffalo in February. “It’s a great hockey town. It’s a good group of guys in here. I think I’m seen a little bit more as a leader and a go-to guy, which at Colorado I might not have been.”

More than ever, that’s MacKinnon’s role now.

*    *   *

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. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

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