Conventional NHL wisdom states that the Stanley Cup playoffs are a trial by fire, a test only the most grizzled veteran is prepared to face. But last season, it was Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, an 18-year-old rookie phenom, who brought the heat.
In the Avalanche's first-round series against the Minnesota Wild, MacKinnon posted 10 points (two goals, eight assists) over seven games. The real story, though, is inside the numbers. In the series opener, MacKinnon set up the tying goal with only 14 seconds left in regulation, then set up the winner in overtime. In Game 2's 4–2 Avalanche win, he figured in on all four Avalanche goals, assisting on three and scoring one himself. And in Game 5, he netted the overtime winner to give Colorado a 3–2 series lead.
Ultimately, the Wild kept MacKinnon off the scoresheet in Games 6 and 7 and eliminated the Avs. Still, the series was a showcase for MacKinnon and the skills that made him such a closely watched prospect for most of his life: explosive speed, great hands, and a wicked shot.
In his previous playoff experience, in major junior hockey, he led the Halifax Mooseheads to their first Memorial Cup championship. He put up big numbers (13 points in four games, including a hat trick in the final) and was named MVP of the tournament.
"Growing up, I was always taught that you are remembered for what you do in the playoffs," MacKinnon says. "I just get really excited for that kind of stuff."
Once he got to the NHL, MacKinnon was the youngest guy on an already young team. (The core of the Avalanche roster features 21-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog and 23-year-olds Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene.) After an inconsistent start, MacKinnon settled into a groove that saw him play all 82 regular season games (only two Colorado players did that), put up 63 points, and claim the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year.
"I think the biggest thing for him was when he realized it was a faster league, but he's still the fastest guy in the league," says Joe Sakic, Colorado's executive vice president of hockey operations and an NHL Hall of Famer. "I think that gave him a lot of confidence."
The Next Next One
As Canadian hockey hubs go, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, suburb of Cole Harbour (pop., 25,000) is a world away from Toronto and Montreal. But when a town spits out two hockey prodigies in the span of one generation, people take notice.
First there was Sidney Crosby, the Next One (a nod to Wayne Gretzy, the Great One), a once-in-a-lifetime talent hailed as the best hockey player in the world since his rookie year with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005. And then there's MacKinnon, who grew up both idolizing Crosby and trying to escape his shadow.
MacKinnon's raw talent put him on the radars of coaches and scouts at an early age. And by the time he enrolled at Shattuck–St. Mary's boarding school in Minnesota in 2010 — the same high school Crosby attended — MacKinnon was pegged as Crosby's heir, the Next Next One. The comparisons only grew louder when he jumped to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in '11 and suited up for the Mooseheads, another of Crosby's old teams.
Rather than let the hype overwhelm him, MacKinnon shut it all out. Nine years younger than his predecessor, MacKinnon followed Crosby's career closely, hanging posters in his room and rooting for the Penguins.
"I never really thought of myself as Sidney Crosby, which is probably the best thing I could have done," MacKinnon says. "I don't know if there's going to be another Sid for a long time."
That approach serves MacKinnon well — not only on the ice, but also with Crosby. The Penguins captain has become a mentor to MacKinnon, helping the younger Cole Harbour native navigate the choppy waters of emerging superstardom. The two have also become close friends. They share an agent, train with one another in the off-season, and even shoot commercials together.
"He's an awesome guy, one of the best guys I know," MacKinnon says. "He been through it all. Whatever I've done, he's done. It's a blessing when somebody's been in the same shoes as you once upon a time."
Finding His Own Path
The Avalanche opened last season on a 13–2 tear, signaling to the rest of the league that this was not the same team that finished second to last in the NHL the season before.
Both MacKinnon and the Avs then went through a midseason slump but rebounded thanks to the steady hand of first-year coach — and Hall of Fame goalie — Patrick Roy. The former Avs great kept his team motivated by flashing his temper (such as after the Ducks' Ben Lovejoy ran MacKinnon with a dangerous knee-on-knee hit in the first game of the season) and gave his players the confidence to believe they could hang with the elite teams of the Western Conference.
Roy made MacKinnon play two-way hockey, expanding his game beyond just offense.
"He put me in a perfect situation. I couldn't have asked for anything better," MacKinnon says. "I owe a lot of my success to him."
But the biggest learning experience, for both MacKinnon and for the team, was their short trip to the postseason. Colorado won the ultra-competitive Central Division last year, only to exit the playoffs in the first round. It was, however, a huge turnaround for a team that finished in the basement the season before. No one will take the Avalanche or MacKinnon lightly in 2014–15.
The reigning rookie of the year is up for the challenge. He is battle-tested and rested, having experienced something new this off-season: downtime. For most of his young life, MacKinnon has had uncertainty about his future: Where would he play? What team would draft him? This summer has been different.
"It's been quieter. I've been able to focus on my training a little bit more," MacKinnon says. "It's been one of my more relaxing summers. I know what I'm expecting. What I'm doing is pretty concrete now. I think it's going to be a big year."
Consider that your notice, every team in the NHL not called the Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is reenergized, hungry, and ready to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Photos: JANA CHYTILOVA/FREESTYLE PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES, JUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IMAGES (MACKINNON AND CROSBY)