Nathan MacKinnon’s career achievements are often framed by his youth. The descriptor ‘youngest’ appears frequently in his already impressive list of accolades, most notably when he became the youngest to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year at just 18 years, 244 days, following the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.
Now, having appeared in 218 games and completed his third NHL campaign, MacKinnon’s maturity has become a focal point.
"The lows aren't as bad, and the highs aren't as high as they were early," he commented to ColoradoAvalanche.com before his 200th professional game on Feb. 4. "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."
The emotional control that MacKinnon has developed was substantiated by his six game-winning goals last season, which was tied for the most on the team with Matt Duchene. Additionally, he scored two clutch game-tying goals in the final minute of regulation on Jan. 6 and 22 (both against the St. Louis Blues) with the Avalanche going on to win in overtime and a shootout, respectively.
“It feels great. A lot of adrenaline, that’s why you play the game, to feel that kind of emotion and excitement. That’s what we play for, that feeling and obviously we needed at least a point or two and we got two,” he said after the game on Jan. 22, which was the team's third victory of a four-game win streak.
MacKinnon’s extraordinary speed was evident at the time that the Avalanche drafted him first overall in 2013, and he has not slowed down since. Combined with his offensive skillset, he used his quickness to assail the net for a team-leading 245 shots last season, scoring on 21 of the attempts. Three of those goals came from his Dec. 28 performance in San Jose, marking his second-career hat trick.
The forward also contributed 31 assists and finished third on the team with 52 points despite missing the last 10 games of the season due to a knee injury.
Opposing defenses were sometimes simply unable to keep up with him on breakaways and were forced to concede two penalty-shot opportunities, allowing him to join Milan Hejduk (2003-04) as the only Avs players to attempt two penalty shots in a single season. He matched the team’s former captain in the record book again when he scored two goals 13 seconds apart on Nov. 14 at Montreal—the fastest two goals by an Avalanche player since Hejduk did it on Jan. 18, 2001 (also 13 seconds).
The team’s veterans and leadership have been impressed by MacKinnon's development.
"It's hard to believe that he's only that age," alternate captain Cody McLeod said prior to MacKinnon’s 200th contest. "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."
Fortunately, Colorado fans will be able to enjoy much more improvement and skill in the future, as the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native signed a seven-year contract earlier this summer.
“He is going to be a key part of our team for many years to come, and it was important to secure his rights moving forward,” Avalanche executive vice president/general manager Joe Sakic noted at the time of the signing.
With his firm commitment to stay in Colorado, his maturity will continue to grow while wearing the burgundy and blue.