Nathan MacKinnon finally feels like an NHL all-star. Even if the Avalanche center did it without anyone noticing.

Nathan MacKinnon finally feels like an NHL all-star. Even if the Avalanche center did it without anyone noticing.

Nathan MacKinnon stood within shouting distance of a rare gray wolf in Wyoming last week. The Avalanche’s star center, the once and future hope for a rebuilding franchise, was never more anonymous in the face of nature.

By the end of the week, MacKinnon was named an NHL all-star for the second time in his still-budding career. The 22-year-old, now nearly a veteran five years into his career, tore through the league in the first half of this season, with the second-most points per game in the league through 41 games.

But his career continues in relative obscurity in Colorado, with the Avs having qualified for the playoffs just once in the past seven seasons. If the wolf passed him by without much regard, MacKinnon is accustomed to the feeling.

“I go out to eat and to the grocery store and nobody knows who I am,” MacKinnon said.

As a teenage juniors star in Nova Scotia, he was Elvis in skates playing for the Halifax Mooseheads. He isn’t looking for fame. He enjoys the anonymity. He wants only the success envisioned by the Avs when they acquired him with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.

“Back in Halifax, it’s very different,” MacKinnon said. “In Halifax, everyone wants pictures and autographs. And that’s fine. But it’s nice here being part of the community and not be a celebrity. Hopefully it picks up; that would mean we’re winning games and getting more fans.”

His time has arrived.

Since Nov. 1, MacKinnon has been the NHL’s top scorer. Overall this season, his 53 points (19 goals and 34 assists) trail only Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who has 60 points. Kucherov, though, has played in two more games. MacKinnon scored his 19th goal of the season Saturday night at Dallas.

MacKinnon’s arrival at what his coach says is “elite” status has coincided with an Avalanche turnaround. Before a five-day break that allowed MacKinnon a trip to Jackson, Wyo., the Avs had won five consecutive games — their longest winning streak in more than two years.

During that streak, MacKinnon collected 12 points, including three, three-point nights, on three goals and nine assists.

“The early articles were, ‘Why can’t we see this every night?’ And now we’re starting to see it every night,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of MacKinnon. “He’s making a believer out of all of us. He’s starting to become the player everyone hoped he would be. It was a matter of time for him because of his drive and his passion.”

The blockbuster trade in November that sent center Matt Duchene out of Colorado to Ottawa didn’t leave a void within the Avalanche so much as an opportunity. MacKinnon was always expected to be the Avs’ best player. But his youth, and perhaps the pressure to perform, got in his way.

But through half this season, he already matched his season total from two years ago and was one point shy of his output last season. His career-high 63 points in his rookie season likely will get surpassed soon. He has played in only 10 games this season without collecting at least an assist.

“There’s a maturity to his game,” Bednar said. “We started seeing it at the end of last year. He’s found some chemistry with his linemates. He’s distributing the puck better. A lot of his success has come from his drive and his desire to be the best. He’s always in top condition, but this summer, he took his training to another level. It’s starting to show.”

MacKinnon said his ascent is due in part to focusing on smaller goals. Where before he set the bar at maximizing his point total by the end of the game, now he is looking to win every shift and “let the results take care of themselves.” Now he really is maximizing his point total.

“Not every night is going to be a three-point night,” he said. “It’s been like that lately for everybody. But it will be tough in the second half. It will be more of a grind. We have to be ready to be patient. And stick with it. We’ll get our chances. We have to be ready for them.”

MacKinnon admitted that his all-star selection a year ago made him uncomfortable. He was honored, sure, but he didn’t feel worthy, not on a team that finished with the NHL’s worst record.

“I wasn’t embarrassed. I still felt like I was a good player,” MacKinnon said. “But in terms of being an all-star, I didn’t feel like it. We didn’t have an all-star team, that’s for sure.”

After he was drafted in 2013, the attention MacKinnon had always drawn as an up-and-coming star faded away. Growing up, he said, the spotlight was always on. Only when he reached the NHL did he become anonymous. It suited him well. He looked inward and made himself better. He is now the go-to scoring leader the Avs needed.

“I feel like I’ve earned an all-star selection,” he said. “It’s easier when you’re focusing on making the playoffs. That’s my goal. The team’s success comes with individual success for everybody. It’s obviously showing. We’re a better team this year.”

Published at Mon, 15 Jan 2018 13:00:17 +0000