Brock Osweiler, also a standout basketball player, probably could have been a pretty good hockey defenseman.
(Just getting your attention.)
Nathan MacKinnon, who is not a quarterback, is wearing an assistant captain’s “A” this season for the Avalanche, and it’s another sign that, yes, the Colorado organization believes he’s ready for the mostly symbolic responsibility at age 22 and in his fifth NHL season.
But there’s clearly more to it, going beyond the letter-less Matt Duchene’s strange and awkward situation, to the likelihood that this is another means of possibly prodding MacKinnon to get past what generally is perceived to be his maddening — if often flashy — underachievement.
Although Gabe Landeskog, in his sixth season as captain, still is only 25, the younger MacKinnon more is in the same range as those brought in as the Avalanche committed to getting younger and faster.
“I enjoy it,” MacKinnon told me after practice Wednesday. “It’s fun to have a lot of young guys I can relate to. Obviously, the older guys are helping as well. With Gabe doing a great job, as he has always done, I’m just trying to help everybody. I was just a rookie a few years ago. I’m still young. There are some ups and downs that I’ve dealt with and I’m still dealing with. But it’s such a long year and I think it’s important for guys to stay even-keel.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said the choice wasn’t difficult.
“I made him an assistant captain because he’s one of our top players,” Bednar said. “He’s one of our top minute guys, and he’s looked upon that way within our locker room. We lean on him in a lot of situations where we need something to happen on the ice. Likewise, I think he’s at the point in his career where we should be leaning on him in the locker room and off the ice as well.”
After scoring twice in the 6-3 Saturday win over Chicago, MacKinnon has three goals and five assists heading into the Thursday home game against Carolina. Until Saturday, he had only one goal in the first 10 games but his line — he’s now with Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen — was productive.
Most discussion of MacKinnon, though, tends to come back to this:
Is he ever going to be great?
Is he ever going to be worthy of mention in the same breath as phenoms Connor McDavid of Edmonton and Auston Matthews of Toronto, unless that mention is part of a rote listing of recent NHL top overall draft choices?
McDavid and Matthews were billed as such spectacular prospects, it was tempting for teams to tank to improve their lottery chances at landing them — not that tanking would ever happen in the NHL. (Wink.) In fact, the Avalanche was so bad last season, nobody accused the organization of tanking before unlucky Colorado ended up with the fourth pick after the weighted lottery.
MacKinnon was draft-eligible in a year when there was considerable debate over who should go No. 1, and the picks behind him were forwards Aleksander Barkov (Florida) and Jonathan Drouin (MacKinnon’s major junior linemate at Halifax who went to Tampa Bay); and then defenseman Seth Jones (Nashville). MacKinnon has one more career goal than Barkov (78-77). Drouin, now with Montreal, has 31 goals. Predictably, Jones, now with Columbus, took time to grow into the role of shutdown defenseman at the position with the more daunting transition from major junior or college to the NHL. At that point, the Avalanche wasn’t willing to be patient.
And lastly, are MacKinnon’s moments of eye-popping speed and flashiness going to remain more tantalizing than they are confirmation that he’s on the verge of superstardom?
When those moments come, as they often have, in international play at the World Cup (for 23-and-under Team North America) or the World Championships (for Canada), the talk — especially from our friends to the north, who also saw him star in major junior with the Mooseheads — is that he’s thisclose and the victim of sub-par talent around him with the Avalanche, rather than still far short.
This might be the 30th time I’ve written about this, but it remains pertinent and one of the most significant issues tied to the Avalanche’s future. To his credit, MacKinnon never is offended when it comes up.
It’s not that he’s been awful, or anything close to it. He won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2013-14, when the Avalanche stunningly piled up 112 points and he had 24 goals as an 18-year-old.
Since, though, he has flat-lined … or worse.
Last season, his fourth, he had only 16 goals, in keeping with the Avalanche’s dreadful season. His shots sometimes are more Ricky Vaughn than Joe Sakic. Yet on his spectacular nights, the reaction is a combination of a) “Wow!”, and b) “How come he can’t do that all the time … or at least more often?”
The problem will be if this is what he is and what he will remain — a mercurial and good, not great, player and former No. 1 overall pick who suffers in recent comparison to McDavid and Matthews, instantly among the top players in the league. (Plus, McDavid, after missing much of his rookie season with a broken collarbone, was the Hart Trophy winner in 2016-17, with 30 goals and a league-high 100 points.)
“There’s only one me, good or bad,” MacKinnon said Wednesday. “I’m not anybody else. I work really hard and I do a lot of things to get better. I’m improving and I felt like I really improved over the summer and I feel good. My mindset’s getting stronger as well. I’m still pretty young and I feel I have lots of growing to do.
“Obviously, those guys (McDavid and Matthews) came out of the game strong and are pretty special players. I don’t know if I’m going to be a Connor McDavid one day, but I’m going to be the best version of myself and I hope that can help turn this team into a championship team.”
He said he looked at his success in international play through a prism of realism.
“It’s two different leagues, I guess,” he said. “We’re playing Belarus and Kazakhstan and stuff, so it’s tough to compare.
“I think this year, I’m looking to take my game to another level. I think more than ever, I’m more process-oriented. You control what you can control instead of setting goals. They’re going to come if you stay with the process. I believe the game is fair and if you play the right way, if you play well every night, it’s going to come. Hopefully, this year is my year.”
Bednar is the coach who would reap the benefits of a MacKinnon breakout season. Forget the No. 1 overall label for a second. It’s no guarantee, of course, and MacKinnon’s current teammate — Nail Yakupov, a washout at Edmonton and St. Louis now getting a last chance with Colorado after going at the top of the draft the year before MacKinnon — is proof of that. Erik Johnson, the No. 1 overall choice in 2006 with the Blues, hasn’t quite climbed into the stratosphere of NHL stardom, either, but is far and away the Avalanche’s top defenseman and is among the best of the league’s second tier on the blue line.
But MacKinnon has shown those flashes. To a point, if you’re talented enough to get to the NHL, that’s close to inevitable. But these flashes are so tantalizing. And even so maddening.
“The latter part of last season, I loved the way he was playing,” Bednar said. “He might not be putting up the numbers some people expect him to early this season, but he’s been playing well and you see what he could do, he took over the game the other night (against Chicago), him and his line, and led us to victory.
“The goal is to try to make that happen more consistently. But every night, you look at the best guys around the league and they come in bunches a little bit. If you break that down, I think he’s right on track to have a good season.”
The Avalanche needs him to be better than that.
* * *
Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries 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.
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