PARIS — A trip to one of the world’s signature tourist destinations made perfect sense for Nathan MacKinnon after the season he endured with the Colorado Avalanche.
Although mental clarity was on the agenda, MacKinnon wasn’t looking for a vacation. He’s treated the world hockey championship like anything but so far, finishing the preliminary round with 12 points — one off the tournament lead.
"If I didn’t come here there probably would have been some negativity in my mind," MacKinnon said. "It gives me some confidence going forward.
"My game felt good at the end of the season. The results weren’t there, but we didn’t score many goals. It was obviously a tough year. With this team — being on a good team — six of our seven games, it’s certainly looking good right now."
This team, the good team, is Team Canada. And with MacKinnon leading the way offensively, the Canadians secured first place in pool play in Paris heading into a quarterfinal date Thursday with co-host Germany in Cologne.
MacKinnon recorded an assist in a 5-2 win over Finland on Tuesday and trails only Russia’s Artemi Panarin in the scoring race. He’s contributing, and doing so on a winning team. Canada’s only blemish in Paris through seven games was an overtime loss to Switzerland.
The situation is in stark contrast to MacKinnon’s season in Denver.
The Avalanche were dead last in the NHL and it wasn’t even close. They won just 22 times and finished with 48 points, 21 behind 29th-place Vancouver. They sported a horrific minus-112 goal differential. Their power play was also last, efficient a measly 12.1 per cent of the time.
It didn’t help that MacKinnon produced arguably his worst output as a pro with 16 goals and 53 points in 82 games. The goal production was just two better than his career low, which he registered in 2014-15 when he was limited to 64 contests.
But on a team as porous as the Avalanche, how much is MacKinnon to blame?
"Obviously, when your team struggles everyone kind of struggles. Coming last, it’s hard to get a career year," MacKinnon said. "I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since my rookie year, regardless of my numbers. I feel like I’m improving as a player. Coming to a tournament like this helps.
"I’m just trying to get better."
A sensational junior player for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, MacKinnon was selected first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. He solidified his spot after a dominating MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament in which scored seven goals and 13 points, outplaying expected No. 1 pick Seth Jones, en route to a championship.
MacKinnon had 24 goals and 63 points as an NHL rookie and added 10 points in his first Stanley Cup Playoff series, a seven-game loss to Minnesota. He was added to Canada’s world hockey championship team after the ouster, his first of now three appearances at the event.
It was a season, MacKinnon admits, when everything went right for him and his team. The Avalanche drew scorn from analysts for their high shooting percentage and inability to suppress shots from the opposition, signs luck was on their side.
MacKinnon has never been able to match his freshman foray, and the Avs have missed the post-season in each of the last three years.
But it’s easy to forget MacKinnon doesn’t even turn 22 until September. When asked to categorize his career to date, MacKinnon said, "I’m still developing."
Canada coach Jon Cooper joked that it’s not hard to disregard MacKinnon as a young player given his team’s all-rookie line of Brayden Point, Travis Konecny and Mitch Marner. Marner was the player of the game against Finland thanks to his three points, highlighted by his beautiful toe-drag move around defenceman Atte Ohtamaa to open the scoring.
But MacKinnon’s talents and results in France shouldn’t be overlooked. The six-foot, 205-pound forward has been especially proficient on the power play, scoring two of his five goals on the man advantage and helping Canada to a 48 per cent success rate on 25 opportunities.
"He’s a bull out there," Cooper said. "He’s a blessed power forward with that much speed. It’s really hard to defend. And then he can shoot it in the net, so that always is a bonus. He’s really helped the power play and been a big part of that power play. (There’s a) reason he’s the No. 1 overall pick."
MacKinnon has excelled playing on an extra-man unit with Marner, Mark Scheifele, Ryan O’Reilly and Colton Parayko. He skates at even strength on the right wing with O’Reilly and Jeff Skinner.
MacKinnon said he’s benefitting from being with talented players who are motivated after seeing their NHL seasons end prematurely. Canada is vying for its third consecutive tournament win.
It’s no vacation for MacKinnon in Paris and it certainly won’t be next season with the Avalanche, a team with nowhere near the quality of Canada’s roster.
As he’s doing with Team Canada, MacKinnon will have to prove he can be the catalyst.
"I want to be a leader," he said. "They put the ‘A’ on me this year (in Colorado). I want to take that and motivate myself to be the best leader I can."
"The guy’s got endless skill and ability," added Matt Duchene, a teammate on both clubs. "The sky’s the limit for him if he continues to progress as a player."