With three-quarters of the 2013-14 season complete, NHL.com looks at some of the biggest storylines and award contenders.
The number of precocious newcomers to the NHL seems to increase annually, and that's made handicapping the Calder Trophy race for 2013-14 more difficult than predicting exactas.
But there's something about Nathan MacKinnon's makeup. Life in the League immediately became routine for the 18-year-old Colorado Avalanche rookie, who was taken No. 1 in a fertile 2013 NHL Draft.
"First time I met him I realized this is going to be a piece of cake for him on his own," Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. "Off the ice you can't tell he's a rookie. He's certainly one of the guys on the ice. He's gotten more and more comfortable as the season has gone along and gotten better and better and has been one our best players over the past couple of months."
MacKinnon had two assists in his NHL debut, a 6-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 2, and put up points in his first three games and five of six (one goal, six assists). After going pointless in his next five, MacKinnon smashed through the proverbial rookie wall to create distance in the Calder race like a thoroughbred three-quarters of the way through the regular season. His 22 goals (a team-high eight on the power play) and 45 points lead all rookies. With an assist Wednesday in a 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, MacKinnon has at least a point in nine straight games (five goals, 12 points) and 11 of 12 to power the upstart Avalanche, who finished 15th in the Western Conference last season, toward their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009-10.
MacKinnon made the big jump after two seasons playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Instead of being swallowed by a faster game, he's flourished in it.
"The game is the same for sure. Hockey is hockey," MacKinnon said. "It's at a different level but everybody is just better. Fast pace is a lot of fun for sure; you don't have to overthink things or overthink plays."
MacKinnon is on pace to become the first rookie to eclipse 60 points since Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner had 63 in 2010-11, and he'd be the first top pick to win the Calder since Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane accomplished the feat in 2007-08. He's not the only teenager thriving in the League, but more than anyone he's proven to be a natural for its faster pace.
"I remember as a rookie there were so many games you would get tired and had to find a way to find your game some nights because you're so tired with travel or whatever," Landeskog said. "But he's found a way to keep that consistent level and that's not easy to do. That's something I've been very impressed with."
Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: Undrafted and obviously overlooked, Johnson has played his way into serious Calder consideration. The fact that he's second in rookie scoring with 37 points, including points in 12 of his past 15 games, is impressive enough. Much of those numbers were earned playing on the Lightning's top line after Steven Stamkos was lost to a broken right tibia in November.
"Obviously, playing with Marty [Martin St. Louis] has helped a lot," Johnson told CBC Sports. "One of the main reasons I signed with Tampa is the fact that Marty was here and he's done so much. I felt I would be given an opportunity. That's the biggest thing -- getting an opportunity or someone believing in you for just a second so you have that confidence that you can prove other people wrong."
Torey Krug, Boston Bruins: Krug tops all rookie defensemen in scoring (34 points), power-play goals (six), power-play points (18) and shots on goal (134). The Bruins continue to curb Krug's ice time (17:28), but when he skates he's an offensive force. Krug has four multipoint games, including a three-point effort that sparked Boston past the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 4 that pushed him to a nine-point month for the second time this season.
"His confidence will never lack," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "He's very assured by what he can bring. When you talk to him about parts of his game he has to improve, he acknowledges it but it certainly doesn't affect the rest of his game."