DENVER | Mention a topic, just about any topic, and sharp-shooting Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon takes his elusiveness to a whole new level.
Not appearing on the cover of the NHL’s latest video game? “Don’t care,” he responds. The pressure of becoming one of league’s top stars after a 97-point season? “Feels normal,” the top pick in the 2013 draft quips. Taking another step in his evolution on the ice? “Hopefully a few,” he offers.
It’s not like the speedy, 23-year-old shies away from the spotlight he has earned through his electrifying play. Rather, he’s just highly focused on helping Colorado return to the playoffs after a stirring run a year ago behind his hard-to-keep-up speed and hard-to-stop shot.
“He’s a legitimate, bona fide superstar in our league,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who joined the Avs after spending last season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. “He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league.”
MacKinnon finished with 39 goals and 58 assists last season. He finished second to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who means the most to their team. That didn’t exactly sit well with MacKinnon’s line mate, captain Gabriel Landeskog.
In Landeskog’s view, seeing is believing in MacKinnon’s skills.
“The hockey world is big in the East and they don’t see Nate as much, or us as much,” Landeskog said. “We all know how good he is. It’s a matter of time. But he doesn’t need the recognition from anybody else — we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing as far as being a really good offensive player.”
MacKinnon turned in a breakout season in which he posted stats that hadn’t been seen in Colorado in a while, including:
— Most points by an Avalanche player since Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07
— Most shots (284) since Sakic during the Stanley Cup championship season in 2000-01
— 12 game-winning goals, matching the Avalanche record set by Sakic in ’00-01
— 13 three-point games, which was the most since Peter Forsberg had 14 in 2002-03.
Quite a list — and one he hopes to top this season. That’s why his summer consisted of working out every day and skating three times a week. Maybe an occasional round of golf , but his world revolved around the rink.
“I’m always thinking about hockey,” MacKinnon said . “Not stressing over it, but definitely always thinking about it. I worked hard because another 100 points isn’t going to be handed to me. It’s tough to get that many. I don’t know if I will get that many this year. But I’ll try to and see what happens.”
MacKinnon’s prepared to embrace the pressure of being one of the game’s elite players. Then again, expectations have never weighed down MacKinnon, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Growing up, I was always a top prospect, and I went first overall. So it just feels normal,” said MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1 million deal in July 2016. “It’s somewhere I expect to be. It’s not like I won the lottery here. I feel like I’ve earned that.”
He wasn’t one of the cover players for EA Sports’ NHL ’19 , which features Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, and Toronto center William Nylander on respective editions.
“I really don’t care,” MacKinnon said. “I just don’t.”
More on his mind is getting the Avalanche back to the postseason. The team earned the No. 8 seed with a win in their last contest of the season before being eliminated in six games by Nashville.
“We’re trying to prove ourselves,” said MacKinnon, who missed eight games in February with a shoulder injury. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing — keep getting better by doing the little things. Be very consistent every night and making sure I’m healthy and feeling good.”
That sort of mentality is music to the ears of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.
“He’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever met. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met,” Bednar said. “He’s hungry to prove that (last season) wasn’t a one-off — that’s who he is. He expects to be even better this year.”
Maybe even the best in the league.
“I’d like to. I’m working for that,” MacKinnon said. “I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL.”