Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon stepped up when his team needed him

The Colorado Avalanche center saw both of his favorite weapons hit the shelf this year, but he still put up massive numbers. Now we wait to see if he wins the MVP over two other great choices, Leon Draisaitl and Artemi Panarin
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Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

No matter who wins the Hart Trophy this year, they're going to have an excellent case. Personally, I went with Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and he is indeed one of the three finalists alongside Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl and Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers (both of whom were also on my ballot).

Whether or not MacKinnon ultimately wins the trophy this season, the Avalanche's franchise center has firmly cemented himself as one of the most elite players in the NHL. On top of finishing second in Hart voting to Taylor Hall in 2018, MacKinnon also finished sixth on the ballot last season. Including this year's nomination, that means MacKinnon has been top-10 in Hart votes for three seasons in a row. Neither Panarin or Draisaitl can make that claim and neither can Sidney Crosby, for that matter. Connor McDavid has ranked fifth and third in previous years and while we don't yet know where he ranks this season, it can't be better than fourth.

Simply put, Nathan MacKinnon is in a zone right now.

On a conference call with the three finalists, each was asked for one skill they coveted from the other two players. Draisaitl cut right to the chase when it came to MacKinnon.

"Obviously his skating," he said. "It's hard to stop him when he gets going - almost unstoppable. You have to take penalties on him for sure."

Panarin saw something similar in both, but also agreed with Draisaitl on MacKinnon's wheels.

"Both players have very high hockey IQ, which is the quality most dear to me," Panarin said. "And Nathan definitely has great speed."

In turn, MacKinnon said he'd love to have Draisaitl's backhand or Panarin's offensive deception. As it is, I'm not sure NHL defenses could handle MacKinnon getting any better when the puck is on his stick.

What made MacKinnon's Hart case so compelling for me was how much he drove the offense on a very good Colorado squad - one good enough to finish top-four in the West, allowing the Avs to bypass the Return to Play qualifying round.

Pulling up the ol' stat line, you'll see that MacKinnon led the Avalanche in scoring by a mind-boggling 43 points - his 93 points were followed by defenseman and Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar, who had 50.

Now, in a normal season, MacKinnon's linemates, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, surely would have been closer, but both winger sustained injuries during the campaign and missed significant games. And yet, Colorado was still successful, in part because their top center went beast-mode in their absence.

"Losing those guys to injury was tough," MacKinnon said. "If anything I was more aggressive when I had the puck. When those guys are on the ice I want to look to them and get them involved. But we're so deep that so many guys stepped up and played great, it wasn't just myself."

At just 24 years of age, MacKinnon has the chance to continue as a Hart Trophy contender for the foreseeable future and he'll no doubt be aided by a growing Avs team that still has more help on the way in the form of top-end prospects such as Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram.

What he proved this season is that he can be The Man on a contending team that needed its best player to step up when the squad faced adversity. And if that doesn't qualify him as the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team, then I don't know what does.

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