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Paul Klee: Now an MVP candidate, Colorado Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon a different kind of rising star

By: Paul Klee
January 13, 2018 Updated: January 14, 2018 at 8:05 am
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Cartoon by Drew Litton

DENVER — Hockey guys are a little different. Their idea of a good time is smashing strangers into a wall and showing off where their teeth used to be.

Not judging. Just saying.

And this hockey guy, Nathan MacKinnon? Real different, in a good way. So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that, when the Avalanche had a week off between games, MacKinnon hopped a flight north, to a place where it was 20 degrees, even as teammates like Erik Johnson hit the beaches of Southern California for sushi and sunshine.

“I went to Wyoming,” MacKinnon said.

Again, not judging. Just saying: You know most folks prefer to vacation somewhere warm?

“Yeah," he said. "I wanted to check it out.”

It’s past time to check out MacKinnon. He’s carving out the kind of season that has smarter hockey people than me wondering aloud if he’s the MVP of the NHL. It’s a heavy notion but not a crazy one, and I know that because MacKinnon is wired in the same relentless way that Von Miller of the Broncos and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies are wired, and those two guys are usually in that same conversation.

“It’s a matter of time, I think, for him, because of his desire to be the best,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said.

“The early articles (about MacKinnon) were: ‘Why can’t we see this every night?’ Now we’re starting to see it every night,” Bednar said.

MacKinnon is 22 and second in the NHL in scoring. He’s a pain in the you-know-what to defend — not simply because of the speed that everyone knows about, but also because he has only one speed, full. Paired with 25-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog and Miko Rantanen, 21 — “That line is terrorizing the NHL,” as Altitude play-by-play king Marc Moser put it — MacKinnon is also relentless on the ice. He keeps coming and coming, and, by the time the third period rolls around, it’s apparent the defenders assigned to mark the No. 29 sweater often are just flat-out tired of chasing him all over the place.

“It was nice to get a vacation for sure,” MacKinnon said. “But I would rather just keep going.”

See what I mean?

“Who knows where we’d be without him?” Johnson said.

It’s too early to buy the Avs, who, despite their overwhelming youth, entered the second half of the season on a five-game winning streak, a sweet little reintroduction to the playoff picture. But the Central Division isn’t getting any easier, and there’s a stretch right around the bend where the Avalanche must play nine of 10 games on the road. Per custom with all Colorado teams, it's time to take them seriously when they start to win on the road. So we'll see.

“I know how quickly it can turn,” Bednar said.

“It’s going to be tough for the second half,” MacKinnon added. “It’s going to be more of a grind.”

But MacKinnon? Buy, buy, buy. The motivation — “to be the best,” as Bednar said — was always there. So was the talent that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. But teammates say there’s now an understanding that one bad play needn’t carry over into the next play, that he’s so absurdly gifted the next play will be astounding enough to make everyone forget about the bad play.

“I just think his mental mindset is much better. Last year he would get really upset with himself if he was making mistakes or he wasn’t scoring,” said Johnson, another former No. 1 pick. “But I think he’s staying really even-keeled. I think that’s huge for him. He’s a guy that’s very emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s been able to manage his emotions.”

Back to his January vacation. MacKinnon signed up for a wildlife tour and spotted bison, moose, even a wolf. And no one in Wyoming recognized the NHL's second-leading scorer. Turns out, that’s not so different.

“I go to eat (in Denver) and no one knows who I am. I go to the grocery store and no one knows who I am. It’s great,” he said. “Back in Halifax (his hometown) it’s very different. In Halifax you go to the grocery store and people want pictures or your autograph. ... I guess, hopefully, it picks up. That means we’re winning games and more fans are coming to the games.”

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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