As difficult as last season was for Nathan MacKinnon, what he experienced at the end, in Prague, more than a month after he and the Colorado Avalanche were finally put down for the count, helped make up for at least some of what went wrong in Denver.
MacKinnon was part of Canada's gold-medal winning team at the 2015 IIHF World Championship. He played on a line with Avalanche teammate Matt Duchene and Jason Spezza of the Dallas Stars. He scored a goal in Canada's 6-1 gold-medal clinching win against Russia. He scored nine points, including four goals, in 10 tournament games.
The whole experience was like a breath of fresh air for the 20-year-old forward who was good enough to win the Calder Trophy and help his team finish with 112 points as a rookie, but couldn't crack 40 points or lift his team even close to the Stanley Cup Playoff race in his second season.
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He needed it.
"Obviously it wasn't a great year, but when you have so much fun overseas winning in the Worlds it kind of makes you forget a little bit how the year went," MacKinnon told NHL.com in a phone interview. "It's such a tough tournament to win and Canada hadn't won since 2007, and we had such a special team that we were pretty confident all along. We had a few guys on the Avs too, but you have to remember that everybody on that team didn't have a great season or finish to their season or else they wouldn't be at Worlds so that's for everybody, not just us. But it definitely made the season feel a little better than it was."
Last season, or better yet, making up for last season, is what is on MacKinnon's mind now, this week, as he puts in his final preparations in Denver for the start of the Avalanche's training camp, his third since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
MacKinnon said he doesn't think he can personally take any momentum from winning in Prague four months ago into training camp or the start of the NHL season, but he did learn something that put even his memorable experience at the Worlds in perspective.
"Now I definitely don't want to be going to Worlds every year, that's for sure," he said.
It's obvious as to why. Players who play in the World Championship are no longer playing for the Stanley Cup. That's why MacKinnon is looking back to last season and thinking about some of the lessons he learned, such as figuring out the NHL really is a hard League and nothing, absolutely nothing, should be taken for granted.
It wasn't that MacKinnon or the Avalanche had it easy during the 2013-14 season, they just made it look like they did. MacKinnon had 24 goals and 63 points in 82 games (.768 points per game); the Avalanche finished first in the Central Division and second in the Western Conference with 112 points. They lost in seven games to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round.
There is no sugarcoating last season. What looked hard for MacKinnon and the Avalanche was hard. MacKinnon dropped to 14 goals and 38 points in 64 games (.593 points per game); the Avalanche finished with 90 points, last in the Central Division and 11th in the Western Conference.
"Obviously there is no looking back here, but I'm just happy that I've been there before," MacKinnon said. "I learned a couple things last year that I could take away hopefully into the rest of my career. It's the best League in the world for a reason. You're not going to walk through every season. You want to be a good player, but it's a long season and you have to realize that. Definitely I matured a lot last season and hopefully this year it's more even keeled for me and the whole team."
MacKinnon said he feels different going into this season than he did last season. Part of it has to be because he's been humbled, which should make him more aware of what can happen in an NHL season.
"I think your first year you really don't know what to expect, and when you have a good year your second season you have high expectations," MacKinnon said. "This year, going in, I'm kind of in the middle. I know what to expect. I have expectations. They're still high. But I just feel a little different, more calm and prepared, I guess. It's just a different mindset. It's tough to really say what it is. I'm just more comfortable. I feel better. I know what to expect a little more.
"The team had high expectations last season and we felt good coming into the season, but maybe we were a little too comfortable. There is a different way of thinking this season and we're excited to get going here."