There simply aren’t many prospects – even those drafted No. 1 overall – who get to spend the summer before their first NHL training camp skating with two of the three reigning Hart Trophy finalists. But Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon is one of the lucky ones. The No. 1 overall pick spent some of his off-season in Halifax sharing practice ice with Sidney Crosby and John Tavares, among others, prior to joining the Avalanche last month.
It’s all been part of a path to the NHL that started in Crosby’s shadow in Cole Harbour, N.S., and continued to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the same Minnesota prep school No. 87 left home to attend before graduating to the QMJHL. MacKinnon’s first encounter with Crosby came at the Halifax airport when he was about seven years old and stopped his idol for a photograph (it still hangs in his childhood bedroom). Since then, they’ve gotten to know one another on a more personal level, with Crosby taking an interest in the younger player’s development.
“He’s been really fortunate to be around Sidney a lot,” Tavares told sportsnet.ca.
MacKinnon’s NHL career is quietly off to a good start in Colorado. The 18-year-old racked up three assists in his opening two games and managed to avoid the intense limelight normally afforded a No. 1 pick because of the headlines coach Patrick Roy was making last week. But that is bound to change come Tuesday in Toronto, when MacKinnon visits a Canadian city for the first time as a pro and gets a taste of the limelight that comes with playing in Canada.
Crosby, Tavares, MacKinnon and top Avalanche centre Matt Duchene were among the players who spent time together while training with Andy O’Brien over the summer. Prior to heading back to Pittsburgh for training camp, Crosby shared some advice with MacKinnon.
“I told him to have fun and I reminded him that you only get one first NHL season,” said Crosby. “I told him just to take it all in, because it’s a special thing.”
What has impressed the Avalanche over the past month is how humble and unassuming MacKinnon has been since arriving in Denver. He was slowed slightly by a hip flexor injury during training camp, but stood out in a pair of season-opening victories over Anaheim and Nashville. The Avs are coming off their worst finish since moving to Denver in 1995 and are looking for MacKinnon and Duchene to form an elite 1-2 punch at centre for years to come.
MacKinnon's arrival has already bumped Paul Stastny down the depth chart and may ultimately lead to the pending unrestricted free agent moving on. The rookie is as speedy as they come with great hands and vision, and projects as a high-end point producer. For now, he’s been placed on a line with P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn, one that isn’t being counted on for primary scoring. However, MacKinnon’s 16-plus minutes of ice time over the first two games included some work on the power play and penalty kill.
“He’s already on the right path,” said Tavares. “He’s going to be a great player.”
Essentially, Colorado is easing him in slowly and keeping expectations in check. While the franchise clearly believes that MacKinnon has star potential, he certainly hasn’t been billed as a saviour in a season where he’ll be the second-youngest player in the entire league. Roy has said he doesn’t want him to try to do too much, but even his coach can’t keep MacKinnon from his own expectations.
The six-foot, 182-pounder has spoken about how he’s long felt that becoming a NHL player was his destiny and you can be sure that he never dreamed about becoming an average one. Having spent time around Crosby and Tavares—two of the game’s most dedicated athletes off the ice—he has seen first-hand exactly what it takes to get to the top.
“He plays like a pro,” said Toronto’s youngster Morgan Rielly, who played with MacKinnon in last year’s World Junior Championshipo. “He’s quick. He’s strong. He’s powerful.”
The most telling sign of all is how well he already fits in with some of the game’s best. Tavares, the NHL’s No. 1 pick in 2009, didn’t know MacKinnon personally before the off-season workout sessions in Halifax but was quickly won over by the teenager.
“He’s a great kid,” said Tavares. “We actually hit it off pretty well.”
Crosby is a member of the growing fan club as well. The Penguins captain will go head-to-head with MacKinnon for the first time later this month—Colorado visits Pittsburgh Oct. 21—and has already been charting his progress in the NHL.
“I think he’s a great player and that he’s going to have a really good year,” said Crosby. “He’s going to get lots of opportunities. He’s already off to a great start, and I think he’s going to handle all the pressure really well.”
A little guidance from those who have been there before certainly hasn’t hurt.