MacKinnon's transition a smooth one

Training, comforts of home have 18-year-old thriving in first NHL season

Originally Published: January 16, 2014
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

By all accounts, the grating effects of an 82-game season should have taken a toll on Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon by now, running the 18-year-old ragged or at least temporarily dimming the bright spots of his game.

But the novelty of playing in the NHL has yet to diminish for the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, as the dynamic young center still marvels at what a world of difference he has experienced since making the jump from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He barely blinks about the travel, the bumps and bruises, or the mental toll of an Olympic-year grind.

After two years playing in the "Q" he's still just happy to have a hot meal after every game.

"It's easier than junior. You don't have 12-hour bus trips. No cold mashed potatoes or dried chicken," MacKinnon told ESPN.com. "They treat us really amazing in the NHL. It's a much busier schedule, more demanding, but you have every opportunity to take care of yourself."

MacKinnon has proved himself more than capable of handling what can be a daunting transition for any player, even one that has drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby -- not just because they hail from the same town in Nova Scotia, but because MacKinnon's prolific scoring potential also portends a promising future.

[+] EnlargeNathan MacKinnon
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBecoming stronger with the puck has helped Nathan MacKinnon thrive as a rookie.
MacKinnon is leading all rookies in scoring, pacing his competition with 20 goals and 42 points to establish himself as the front-runner to win the Calder Trophy. He leads the Avalanche with eight power-play goals, and is tied for the team lead with five game winners.

What is perhaps most impressive about his first professional season is the remarkable consistency with which he has produced. Only twice this season has he been held without a point for more than a two-game stretch. His longest skid without showing up on the score sheet? A measly five games.

"It was kind of an adjustment the first 25, 30 games, but I kind of turned that corner and realized I can produce in this league," MacKinnon said.

With 13 points in the past nine games, he has been a pivotal player in the Avalanche's recent surge -- 13 wins in the past 18 games, including four in the past five -- and he is one of the critical factors of the team's drastic 180-degree turn from last season. After finishing a dismal 29th in the league last year, the Avs have been one of the Cinderella stories this season with MacKinnon and new coach Patrick Roy.

Heading into Thursday's game against Philadelphia, Colorado sits just three points behind the second-place St. Louis Blues in the Central Division. That he has had the success he's had, with little to show by way of growing pains, is not surprising to those who have seen him play on a nightly basis. MacKinnon's skating has always been heralded as his strength, and he's exploiting that talent to his best ability now.

"He skates so well. He's so fast," said Roy, who coached against MacKinnon in the QMJHL. "He scares defensemen. When he starts to get going the D pivot pretty fast. Normally, they start pivoting at the blue line, but if you start going against him on the rush, they're gonna start thinking about doing it at the red line."

Even his good friend and teammate, 22-year-old Tyson Barrie, admitted he wouldn't want to draw him as a matchup.

"As a defenseman, I wouldn't want to play against him," said Barrie, who rooms with MacKinnon on the road.

That explosive power and speed was what made MacKinnon such a force in juniors, where he recorded 163 points in two seasons and won a 2013 Memorial Cup Championship with the Halifax Mooseheads. It was what assured his former Moosehead coach Dom Ducharme that he would have no trouble adjusting to the NHL.

"I had no doubt," Ducharme told ESPN.com. "Because of the kind of game he's playing -- we're talking about power and speed -- I knew, we knew, that he had something to bring into the NHL."

That speed and power are elements on which MacKinnon specifically honed from an early age, when he enlisted Crosby's own trainer, Andy O'Brien, to help him as well. He pored over tapes with O'Brien following his first season at the renowned hockey prep school Shattuck St. Mary's, examining his strengths and weakness and exploring ways to get better.

According to O'Brien, every 15-year-old wants to be bigger and stronger. But O'Brien wanted to be more precise, so he asked what that meant to MacKinnon. Did he want to be stronger to absorb contact? To initiate contact? To have that type of strength when carrying the puck?

"That was how we started, as specific as we could," said O'Brien, who has trained MacKinnon the past three summers in Nova Scotia.

In order to achieve equal amount of flexion in the ankle, knee and hip, O'Brien began with correcting MacKinnon's stance, which began somewhat straight-legged. He flexed forward at the hip, though O'Brien wanted him to sit lower on his skates, to drive up through his legs so as to generate the most power. That made a big change.

Whereas in his first year of juniors he had that falling-forward motion, MacKinnon learned better postural position -- to sit directly on top of his feet, allowing him to carry the puck, cross his feet, pivot and change the line he was taking more efficiently, thus utilizing his speed. So, you can imagine O'Brien was happy to hear the feedback from opposing defensemen about how hard it has been to move MacKinnon off the puck.

Considering his unimposing frame -- 6-foot, 185 pounds -- MacKinnon's critics initially wondered about his strength once he was to be competing against men.

"Strength in an athletically oriented game is so different from strength in a static position," O'Brien said. "And size and strength don't always go hand in hand."

But according to O'Brien, MacKinnon has ample high-twitch muscle fiber, a strong output capacity and a high muscle-to-bone ratio of relatively dense muscle to relatively small bones. O'Brien likened MacKinnon's build to a car with a big engine and a light frame. Made for speed. He also has the sort of competitive fire that O' Brien sees from his most well-known client.

"They both hate to lose. They both have that sort of killer instinct to win," said O'Brien, who was thrilled to see the type of competitive interplay between MacKinnon and Crosby this summer.

Not only did it inspire MacKinnon to train with his idol, but it pushed Crosby as well.

"It was great for Sidney, too. Generally he hasn't had a player of that caliber [train with him]. What I liked is that Nate has been looking up to and idolizing him, but it keeps Sidney hungry too," O'Brien said. "It kind of increases the fire."

That intense training is one of the reasons MacKinnon has been so well equipped to handle the peaks and valleys of the NHL season without succumbing to the physical or mental wariness. Living with teammate Jean-Sebastian Giguere and his wife, Kristen, hasn't hurt either.

He has the comfort of a family setting while making the adjustment to adult life, getting home-cooked meals (as a Nova Scotia-bred seafood lover, it's no surprise his favorite dish of Kristen's is shrimp) while skillfully avoiding diaper duty ("I've seen it, though," he says with a chuckle. "It makes me want to wait") in the Giguere household of three kids.

All the contributing factors have made the transition a seamless one for MacKinnon, who has been left to focus solely on his game. That's a good thing for the Avalanche, who will need MacKinnon to keep pace to make a playoff push come spring.

First overall picks don't normally find themselves in the throes of a playoff race, but that is exactly where MacKinnon has landed. It's exactly where he wants to be. Like the rest of his first NHL season, the experience has been full of pleasant surprises.

"I was very optimistic," he said. "But this has definitely exceeded my expectations. It's really exciting"

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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