Long before he blessed Colorado Avalanche fans and cursed opposing goalies with his almighty scoring touch, Nathan MacKinnon was just another kid obsessed with working on his shot. “I started really young, probably 6 or 7,” the 24-year-old center says. “A ton of pucks. Every day.”
At first he would practice in the garage of the family’s Halifax, Nova Scotia home with his father, Graham, but when that space became too cramped their sessions relocated to the driveway. This worked until the garage door was dented into a Mars terrain map thanks to all the wayward rubber, so one of his cousins, a carpenter, laid down some wood, plexiglass, and protective netting in the backyard, where Graham would string milk jugs to the goalposts and Nate would, as he puts it today, “try to smash them. As a kid they would stay on, because my shot wasn’t strong enough. As I got older, they wouldn’t last very long. Zip ties would break up too.”
Such is the cost of greatness, evidently, extra bucks spent on hardware and dairy. But who can argue with results? Last season, MacKinnon topped 40 goals for the first time and led the NHL with 365 total shots, most in a full decade by any player not named Alex Ovechkin. This season, he has marshalled a robust Hart Trophy case with the league’s fourth-most points (66), fourth-most goals (27) and second-most shots (210) through Monday. Unlike the Great 8, though, the Great Nate doesn’t rely on power alone to produce. “They’re similar, the body language in how they shoot,” says Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer, who previously spent four-plus seasons with Ovechkin in Washington. “But Ovi just uses his raw force. Nate has precision.”
Nate has a lot of things. A diverse arsenal, for starters; according to NHL.com, he is the only skater with 20 or more slap, snap, wrist and backhanded shots on goal in ‘19–20. “Woah, didn’t know that,” MacKinnon says. “I don't think it’s just ‘down the wing and rip it’ for me. I think I’m a little more dynamic than that. I have different tools.” Like the one-timers that he cranks from the left faceoff circle on Colorado’s top power-play unit with increasing regularity. Or the trio of rockets launched against Calgary in last spring’s first-round upset, which inspired this Deadspin (R.I.P.) headline: Nathan MacKinnon's Wrist Is Trying To Kill The Flames All By Itself.
Or what teammate Tyson Jost refers to as “that patented move of his,” a sick offspeed forehander lofted over the goalie’s glove-side shoulder. “Don’t want to tell him this to boost his ego,” Jost says, “but when I was younger, before I was drafted, I’d watch that move on YouTube and then go out and practice it on the ice.”
What really sets MacKinnon apart, though, occurs before the puck ever zooms off his 95-flex CCM blade. Aside from perhaps Connor McDavid, no one hypnotizes opponents with such rapid-fire stickhandling, while still skating at top speed. “Because he’s so fast and he shifts his body so extremely well, it makes it really hard for us,” Grubauer says, evidently speaking for the entire goalie community. “He doesn’t just freeze the goalie. He freezes the defenseman.”
Thanks to the strength of his 6’0”, 200-pound frame—and, surely, all those hours smashing milk jugs—MacKinnon also possesses an uncanny knack for firing mid-stickhandle. “His release, it’s unbelievable how quick it comes off,” winger Andre Burakovsky says. This way, rather than drag the puck back into a shooting position and reveal his intentions, MacKinnon can keep fiddling and keep his options open. “There’s a certain amount of deception, where you don’t know if he’s going to skate with it or if he’s going to shoot it,” Avs coach Jared Bednar says. “Especially now when he’s kind of feeling it and things are going his way, it’s tough to read what he’s going to do on the attack.”
This is MacKinnon at his most eye-popping, bulldozing down the ice while leading an Avalanche odd-man rush, the precise reason why fans recently voted him as the Central Division captain for this month’s NHL All-Star Game. But he has also become an effective scorer in subtler ways. Three of his goals this season, for instance, have come on seeing-eye wristers from 50-plus feet, each fluttered through layers of traffic. “I just try to get them through, because it gives my teammates a better chance of tipping them," he says. “Doesn’t have to be hard from out there.”
If that wasn’t scary enough, though, MacKinnon has improved at the other end of the velocity spectrum too. “I had such a bad one-timer my first couple years,” he says. “Me and [former Avs defenseman] Tyson Barrie would work on it and I could barely lift the puck. Now I feel like it’s a tool that I can use in-game. Still need to shoot them every day, or a couple times a week, to make sure it’s still sharp, or I kind of lose it.” Indeed, MacKinnon is self-aware enough to admit when something needs work. “My backhand is not great now,” he says. “It’s kind of a muffin.”
Everything else has been humming along at an MVP-caliber clip. Through 45 games, he was on pace to sniff 50 goals and surpass 120 points, a combo last reached by Jaromir Jagr in ‘05–06. Asked about this spike in production—as well as his current career-high 4.67 shots per game—after a recent morning skate, MacKinnon wipes some sweat from his forehead and shrugs. “I don’t know, I’m just being aggressive,” he says. “When I have an aggressive mentality, I seem to shoot a lot of pucks. I think when you shoot and get it back, that's when you really get chances. Usually it doesn’t come off the first shot. Usually you’ve got to get it back and start breaking the defense down when they can’t reset. That’s what I’m focused on.”
As an example, MacKinnon is reminded of a first-period sequence from a home game against divisional rival Nashville on Nov. 7. Enjoying a two-man advantage, the Avalanche power play swung the puck to MacKinnon, who uncorked a one-timer from the left faceoff circle that pinged off the goalpost. Seconds later, as the puck came back around, MacKinnon found himself with possession in a similar spot. This time, he stickhandled toward the slot, waited for bodies to crowd in front of goalie Pekka Rinne, and unleashed a wrister that gave Colorado a 2–1 lead.
“Yeah, exactly like that,” MacKinnon says. “Don't want to get too predictable, so switching it up.”