SANTA CRUZ, April 28, 2014— For a highly touted prospect, especially a top NHL draft pick, there is often no way out from under the weight of the expectations which come along with being a top pick. It takes more than top end skill to live up to the kind of hype which builds around these prospects, it takes a steely maturity beyond one’s years.
Eric Lindros was supposed to be the next Wayne Gretzky and, while his career stats are very good, he was never able to deliver on the promise so many others held for him. The Ottawa Senators made Alexander Daigle the first overall pick in the 1993 NHL draft and he was about as much of a bust as a professional hockey player can be.
Nathan MacKinnon was collecting praise and garnering national attention by the time he was a bantam player, and the buzz only grew when he entered the QJMHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) with the Halifax Mooseheads. MacKinnon is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the same hometown as NHL star Sidney Crosby, and so began the comparisons of the two skilled centers.
Halifax had a deep, talented team, but Nathan MacKinnon’s video game-like numbers are no less impressive, his first season he finished with 78 points in 58 games, and ended his second (and final) season with 75 points in only 44 games while helping the Mooseheads win a Memorial Cup championship.
The Colorado Avalanche had one of their worst seasons in 2012 since the franchise moved to Denver in 1996. The team was flush with young talent at center, but seemingly needed drastic improvement at every other position. With highly touted defenseman Seth Jones in the draft, many thought the Avalanche would choose Jones to address one of their glaring needs.
Nathan MacKinnon was rated higher, but where would he play on a club that already had Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene, and Paul Stastny at center?
In spite of all this, Colorado ended up picking MacKinnon first overall in the 2013 draft, and things could not have gone much better for both the team and its top pick.
MacKinnon, who will not turn 19 until September, finished the season fourth on the team in scoring, with 63 points. He also proved he could weather the grind of a long NHL campaign, playing all 82 games and finishing an impressive plus 20.
On a team with so many talented forwards, head coach Patrick Roy was able to protect Nathan MacKinnon from the pitfalls of so many other highly touted prospects who are expected to somehow single handedly save their franchise. Roy managed MacKinnon’s minutes, letting him absorb the experience and learn to play the pro game.
It takes a special player to compete in the NHL at 18 years old and not look out of place. Anyone who watched the Avalanche this season will attest that Nathan MacKinnon is such a player.
Colorado is now enjoying their first playoff appearance since 2010 with a roster of young players and a fiery, first year NHL head coach. Wherever the club ends up this spring, Nathan MacKinnon’s rookie year will be viewed as the beginning of a reversal of fortune for one of the league’s most decorated franchises. Roy, who won two Stanley Cups as Colorado’s goaltender, must watch his skilled forward corps and be reminded of former teammates Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Milan Hejduk.
For the Avalanche and their rookie phenomenon, Nathan MacKinnon, the sky is the limit going forward. Colorado’s return to status among the NHL’s elite could come sooner than anybody might have guessed just one year ago.