There were a lot of fans and experts who thought the Colorado Avalanche made a mistake by selecting Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon over Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones with the top pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
The Avalanche already had plenty of center depth with Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny giving new head coach Patrick Roy a talented three-headed monster down the middle. But vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic chose to take the player who drew comparisons to NHL superstar Sidney Crosby, and after the first four months of the 2013-14 season it appears that the first-year executive made the correct decision.
MacKinnon leads all rookies with 42 points, and he’s the only one with at least 20 goals and 20 assists. The Avs center ranks first among rookies in power-play goals (eight), game-winning goals (five) and shots (164). He also has five goals and eight assists in his last nine games, including a six-game point streak. His nine goals in the month of January were the third-most in the league.
Many of the skills he displayed in Halifax have helped him ascend to the top of the Calder Trophy rankings. MacKinnon’s incredible shot — which features a quick release, spot-on accuracy and power — is already among the toughest for goaltenders to stop.
His playmaking skills are remarkable, and this area of his game is where he draws the most comparisons to Crosby. MacKinnon’s patience with the puck, vision, offensive awareness and ability to thread the needle with pinpoint passes create a ton of scoring chances for the Avalanche. In Colorado’s 6-1 win over Buffalo on Saturday, MacKinnon tallied three points, including a beautiful assist on Gabriel Landeskog’s first-period goal.
In junior hockey, MacKinnon’s speed allowed him to blow by defensemen and drive to the net. Despite playing against faster and stronger defensemen at the NHL level, the 19-year-old’s quickness is still a nightmare to defend against, and that was evident on Jan. 10 when MacKinnon scored a brilliant goal by racing past New York Islanders blue-liner Matt Donovan even though he was well-positioned to start the play.
MacKinnon is also an extremely hard worker and willing to put in the time and effort to improve all areas of his game. This isn’t a common mindset for young players, especially former No. 1 overall picks (Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov for example).
There are a few things MacKinnon still needs to work on before he becomes a complete player. The rookie forward is winning just 43.7 percent of his faceoffs, and his strength needs to improve because he’s losing too many puck battles. He’s not a liability defensively, but his positioning and back checking must be better and more consistent.
MacKinnon told me at last year’s draft that he “idolized” Sakic as an Avalanche fan growing up, and that he switched his allegiance to Pittsburgh when Crosby arrived.
It’s easy to tell that MacKinnon has taken parts of both players’ games for his own amazing skill set, and as he gets more NHL experience, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become one of the NHL’s top 10 players in the near future.
Photo via Twitter.com/Avalanche