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MacKinnon ready to make NHL debut for Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- Help your team win the Memorial Cup championship, earn Most Valuable Player honors along the way and become the first player selected in the 2013 NHL Draft. Pretty impressive for a teenager.

Yet Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, who makes his NHL debut Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks at Pepsi Center, has no illusions about taking the League by storm as an 18-year-old rookie.

"I'm not going to have any expectations," he told "This is my first year in the League, and I really don't know what to expect. I don't want to put any numbers out there or anything. If I'm not quite there, it might be discouraging. For me, I'm just excited to be here and I want to try and be a difference maker every time possible. I want to play the best hockey I can play every night and generate as many chances as I can get. For me, pressure's kind of an illusion. It's not really a real thing. People have their own expectations for me, but I'm still adjusting and I'm very excited to get going."

MacKinnon was quite a difference-maker while playing for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He piled up 63 goals and 90 assists in 102 regular-season games during two seasons and was even more prolific in the playoffs with 24 goals and 37 assists in 34 games.

Just three months after being selected first overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2013 Draft, 18-year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon is eager to make his NHL debut Wednesday against the visiting Anaheim Ducks. (Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI)

He was named MVP of the Memorial Cup last spring after scoring seven goals finishing with 13 points in four games, including a hat trick and two assists in the Mooseheads' championship-clinching 6-4 win against the Portland Winterhawks.

MacKinnon has exceptional offensive talent, but he also has the ability to perform at a high level when the games count the most. Aside from an accurate shot and willingness to go into the hard areas to score, he's an outstanding playmaker with great vision, hands and speed.

Born in Halifax, MacKinnon grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the same hometown as Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. They also attended Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota and have skated together over the summer.

"He's one of the hardest workers and obviously the best player in the game," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon will begin the season on the Avalanche's third line with left wing Jamie McGinn and right wing PA Parenteau. It could take a while for the trio to develop some chemistry because MacKinnon missed two preseason games while nursing a minor hip injury, but the line played well Saturday in the Avalanche's 3-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings in Las Vegas.

"I thought it was a really good line. I thought they had a lot of good chances," said Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, who has made it clear that MacKinnon will remain with the team for the entire season. "He was outstanding in that game. This is the guy that I know. We will get him in slowly in different types of situations. He was skating well, was moving the puck well.

"I want him to be him. I don't want him to go out there and try to do too much. The injury, unfortunately, slowed him down a bit. I think we're going to see him improve game after game. It's a change for him because he's used to doing pretty much on the ice what he wanted in Halifax. Here it's a little more restricted. In Halifax, his linemates had to adjust to him. Here it's the opposite; he needs to adjust to McGinn and to Parenteau. He needs to have a feel for where they are on the ice and not improvise."

Parenteau scored a team-high 18 goals in 48 games last season, when he spent most of the time on a line with Matt Duchene. He's impressed by what he has seen of MacKinnon.

"He's got some great hands and he's got a lot of speed," Parenteau said. "He's so young and it's not easy to come into the League. It's a learning curve and hopefully we can help him out with that. Maybe we can score some goals for him. It's a different game, but he's a great kid and I think everyone appreciates him. I think he's going to do real well. He definitely has the skills to have a great career."

Thanks to Avalanche backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, MacKinnon should be able to concentrate more on hockey and on adjusting to life as a professional without worrying so much about things like housing, meals and transportation. MacKinnon has been living with the Giguere family in a Denver suburb since training camp began and he expects to stay there through the season.

Giguere, whose wife Kristen is from Halifax, made the offer while his family was visiting her parents in the summer.

"We're very excited about it," said Giguere, who has three young sons: Maxime-Olivier, Luka and Felix. "My kids are thrilled to have him there and he's from my wife's hometown, so they have something in common. It was a natural fit. When you're a veteran, sometimes it's something you need to do."

Giguere stayed with a veteran player, Jeff O'Neill, when he was a rookie with the Hartford Whalers in 1996-97 and said it made a world of difference.

"It's super helpful," he said. "I'm going to advise him here and there, but he has his own freedom. It's helpful for him for dinners and stuff like that. I've been around for many years, so I should be able to advise him in some of those things. But I'm not his dad and I don't want to be his dad. I'm busy enough with my kids. He's 18 years old, and for me that's an adult. He has his own space in my house, he has his own door to come in and out as he wants. I'm not there to check on him."

MacKinnon is grateful to have a mentor like Giguere, and the two have been carpooling to games and practices, though MacKinnon said he eventually will turn in his rental car and buy a truck.

"I'm very fortunate that he took me into his home and it's been great so far," he said. "He made the offer and I jumped at it. I mean, he's played so many games and he's accomplished so much. I'm very thankful."

MacKinnon had three shots on goal and no points in three preseason games, but said he's 100 percent healthy, is getting acclimated to skating with McGinn and Parenteau, and is eager to get his NHL career underway.

"Every game has gotten better and better," he said. "I would have liked to have gotten a couple more games in, but I'm ready and I feel good. As a line we feel good. We've spent a lot of time together on and off the ice and I'm starting to realize what kind of plays they like to do and what they do in certain situations. We're starting to figure each other out and that's obviously very important."

MacKinnon will have a personal cheering section for his first three games. His parents and sister will attend Wednesday's opener, Friday's game at Pepsi Center against the Nashville Predators, and next Tuesday's road game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I know they're very excited," he said. "It's been almost a month and a half since I've seen them, so it's going to be nice. Yeah, it's the real deal now. It's about getting the two points and it raises the level of excitement to get the regular season started. It's going to be fun to play in my first NHL game."

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