He's still young at 20 years of age, but the Colorado Avalanche forward has come a long way since breaking into the league on Oct. 2, 2013, in the season opener versus the Anaheim Ducks. MacKinnon is now established as one of the Avs' top and trusted players and is set to skate in his 200th NHL contest this evening as Colorado hosts the Dallas Stars at Pepsi Center.
"It's gone by quick, 200 games already," MacKinnon said after today's morning skate. "It seems weird. I'm only in my third season. Obviously, Game 1 was exciting, and it is still exciting, but it's different."
The difference is maturity.
After being thrust into the NHL after success in junior with the Halifax Mooseheads, there was an adjustment period for MacKinnon. He had to learn how to deal with the excitement of winning and scoring just as much as dealing with losing and pointless streaks.
"The lows aren't as bad, and the highs aren't as high as they were early," he said. "Not trying to sound like a 15-year veteran over here, but I definitely learned some stuff of staying even-keeled over the course of the three seasons."
MacKinnon is no longer a rookie, or even a kid. His body has filled out, and he has the swagger of a professional hockey player.
He's experienced plenty already in his two-plus seasons since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, including a playoff series, a Calder Trophy, two hat tricks, position changes from center to right wing and back to center and a season-ending injury.
"I've played some good hockey and some bad hockey over the course of 200 games," MacKinnon said. "I was fortunate enough to play in the playoffs my first year, and we're chasing a playoff spot now. It's good for me to experience that, and how important it is. I've learned a lot. I'm more comfortable."
Colorado alternate captain Cody McLeod, whose locker is next to MacKinnon's in the Avalanche's dressing room, sees the same maturity of the forward, especially on the ice.
"Playing more of a 200-foot game, understanding that playing in our own end is big, blocking shots; just kind of stuff that you learn as you go," McLeod said of MacKinnon's development. "He's filled out more as a player. He's good. He's a big part of our team, and when he's going our team is doing well."
He's also grown as a person away from the rink after staying in the homes of former Avalanche players Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Maxime Talbot for his first two campaigns. MacKinnon is in his first year of living by himself and is experiencing all the benefits and struggles of getting one's life organized with nobody else around.
"It eased me into it for sure," he said of living with Giguere and Talbot. "The first two seasons, it's new to me. Living on my own would be tough, but it's good. I'm on my own now, and I'm more comfortable than ever."
On the ice, MacKinnon is part of the Avalanche's core. He leads the team in assists with 23 and ranks second in scoring with 41 points. Through his first 199 games, the 20-year-old has registered a total of 142 points (56 goals and 86 assists)—the most from his draft class.
"It's hard to believe that he's only that age," McLeod said. "To play the way that he plays. He's playing like he's been in the league five, six years now. It's good, and he's only going to get better as the years go on."
TO DIM THE STARS
The Avalanche remembers its last meeting with the Stars well. It was less than two weeks ago when Semyon Varlamov made 42 saves, and the team scored two short-handed goals in the 3-1 victory at Dallas on Jan. 23.
"The last game, Varly stole it. Plain and simple," MacKinnon said. "We did not have a very good game. We know that. A couple short-handed goals were fortunate, and I think they had six or seven power plays to one. They had a ton of shots."
This time, Colorado is aiming to do a better job of slowing down the Stars offense, which ranks second in the league at 3.24 goals per game. To do that, forward John Mitchell noted the Avs need to create scoring chances for themselves first and foremost.
"You play in their end for the majority of the game, it is going to obviously limit their ability to get on offense," Mitchell said. "That is something that we are going to have to try and do."
The Avs would like to duplicate their third-period effort from Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks for the entire game. Colorado had 15 shots in the final stanza after only generating eight through the first two.
"I think we just have to do what we did in the third period last game, just generate shots, chances, just throwing the puck on the net. You can get rebounds off that," Mitchell said. "Yeah, you might not score the goal, [but] you might get lucky, it might go off a skate and go into the net. I think it is just a matter of putting pucks on the net and getting those rebounds and just be hungry in the offensive zone."
Jarome Iginla—Nathan MacKinnon—Matt Duchene
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Cody McLeod—John Mitchell—Jack Skille
Andreas Martinsen—Mikhail Grigorenko—Alex Tanguay
Francois Beauchemin—Erik Johnson
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Chris Bigras—Zach Redmond