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Focusing On The Small Things Helped MacKinnon Become An MVP Candidate

Avalanche forward became more aggressive offensively in 2019-20

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab / ColoradoAvalanche.com

Twice in the past three seasons Nathan MacKinnon has been named a finalist as the NHL's most valuable player.

The honor is very much justified as the Colorado Avalanche center has produced three consecutive seasons of 90 or more points, becoming the first player since the club moved to Denver in 1995 to record such an achievement. That feat alone is impressive for a franchise that has had hockey hall of famers like Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg donning the burgundy and blue colors in the Mile High City.

MacKinnon, 24, has 115 goals, 174 assists for 289 points in 225 games played over the last three campaigns, ranking third among all players in scoring. Only the Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (321 points) and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (313 points), two former NHL MVP's themselves, have more than the Avs' alternate captain in that time.

Since breaking into the NHL as the Calder Trophy winner as the league's rookie of the year in 2013-14, MacKinnon has always been known for his blazing speed, taking part in the Fastest Skater event at each of the last four NHL All-Star Skills Competitions. While keeping his fleet feet, the game has slowed down for the forward in recent years, and it's the little things that have had a big impact on his overall play.

"I think when I really turned my game around, and I really started to focus on every little detail off the ice and on the ice, I'm up for some big awards two out of three years, I don't think that's a coincidence," MacKinnon said. "Obviously getting older and more mature helps, but I definitely had to dial it in, in every aspect of my game. I had some tough seasons to figure that out, and once I did it's obviously very rewarding."

Video: Nathan MacKinnon on NHL Awards and Training Camp

MacKinnon was named a finalist on Tuesday for the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the league's most valuable player as chosen by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, just one week after being chosen as a contender for the Ted Lindsay Award--a similar trophy that is given to the NHL's "most outstanding player" as voted by their peers in the NHL Players' Association.

In addition, MacKinnon is also a nominee for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy that goes to the player "adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability." He is the only player to be a finalist for three league awards this season.

"I know a lot of people close to me are proud, but like I've always said, I think to leave a legacy you have to win," MacKinnon said. "That's not what I'm really looking to do, leave a legacy, but I want to win with these guys. We're such a close group, and everyone wants to see each other succeed. Obviously with my teammates being so amazing, I've played with some really great players and they make my life really easy out there."

Last season, MacKinnon produced a career-high 99 points while playing in all 82 games, and he also produced personal bests in goals (41) and assists (58-tied).

This year, he finished fifth in the league in scoring with 93 points, ranked ninth overall with 35 goals and finished sixth among all NHL players with 58 assists. He also had 29 multi-point games, tied for the second-most among all players, and led the league for the second-straight year by firing 318 shots on goal.

All those totals came in just 69 contests before the league decided to cancel the remainder of the regular season and jump right to the playoffs due to concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What also made his numbers this year impressive was his supporting cast, as two of his primary linemates over the previous two seasons were stuck in the training room for large stretches in 2019-20. Gabriel Landeskog, who recorded a career-high 75 points last season (34 goals and 41 assists), missed 16 games from Oct. 30-Dec. 4 due to a lower body injury, and Mikko Rantanen, who had recorded 80-plus points and set new career highs each of the prior two years, was out for 16 games from Oct. 25-Nov. 29 with a lower-body injury and then missed the team's final 12 contests after suffering an upper-body ailment on Feb. 17 against Tampa Bay.

Landeskog and Rantanen's void in the lineup was one of the reasons why MacKinnon finished with 43 more points than Colorado's second-leading scorer, star rookie Cale Makar (50 points). It was the largest gap for any club since the 2007-08 Washington Capitals (Alex Ovechkin 112 points, Nicklas Backstrom 69), and it was even larger than the 41-point gap between Taylor Hall (93 points) and his next closet New Jersey Devils teammate in 2017-18 (Nico Hischier 52). Hall went on to win the Hart Trophy that season, finishing with 12 more first-place votes than MacKinnon in one of the tightest votes in recent years.

MacKinnon's 2019-20 might have been his best season yet due to how he stepped up his game while his two primary wingers were on the shelf.

With Landeskog and Rantanen both out for almost all of November, MacKinnon put together one of the greatest months in Avalanche history. He had 25 points (10 goals and 15 assists) in 14 games in November, the most by a Colorado player since Sakic had 26 points in March 2000 and setting a new career high for him for any month.

"Losing those guys to injury was tough. If anything, I was a little more aggressive when I had the puck without those guys," MacKinnon said. "When those guys are on the ice, I want to look to them and get them involved, they're such good players. The guys I was playing with are very good as well, I just kind of got in a little more aggressive mindset and it worked out obviously. They were out for 15-20 games, and we're so deep that so many guys stepped up and played great. It wasn't just myself."

His teammates helped MacKinnon be selected for the end-of-season honors and helped the squad finish the regular season with the third-best record in the league and two points out of first place in the Western Conference. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Andre Burakovsky, Ian Cole, J.T. Compher, Joonas Donskoi and Samuel Girard all set new career high in one of the three scoring categories during the shortened campaign, allowing the Avalanche to finish third among all teams in goals scored (236) and tied for first in 5-on-5 tallies (162).

"If we don't have that depth when Gabe and Mikko get hurt, I'm not in this position and that's just the way it is," MacKinnon said. "You know, you can't play by yourself in this day of age. You can't carry two guys with you, we all have to work together, and I think along with having an aggressive mindset, aggressive playstyle for myself, it worked out."

The 24-year-old joins the Oilers' Leon Draisaitl and Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers as the three finalists for the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, but there are many other players in the league that could have been up for both honors as well. MacKinnon recognizes that and appreciates being chosen as one of the select few.

"I think Auston (Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs) had a great year. Guys like Auston and (the Boston Bruins' David) Pastrnak are probably right up there. They are really amazing players," MacKinnon said. "Obviously, we're very lucky to be voted for this award. There are so many deserving players that could have been in our shoes, but it's nice to get voted."

The winners of the league's awards will be announced sometime during the conference finals in September, but MacKinnon has his eye on another trophy that is expected to be presented in October.

Now in his seventh season with the club, he feels like the 2019-20 Avalanche has the depth to win the Stanley Cup and achieve its third championship in franchise history.

"There isn't a ton of us from my first couple years, but the group that we do have remaining, we've been through some tough years, we've had some tough seasons and this is exciting," MacKinnon said. "It's my seventh year, and this is the first one I really feel like we have a chance to win. It doesn't come around very often, definitely don't want to take this for granted... Winning this year is obviously not like winning any other year (due to the pandemic), but we feel like the importance will be the same and we're excited for the challenge."

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