There are less than three weeks remaining in the 2017-18 NHL regular season and teams are fighting for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the annual general managers meetings taking place in Boca Raton, Florida, this week, NHL.com is sitting down with some of the biggest names in the game. Today, Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic talks about their push for the playoffs and the play of center Nathan MacKinnon.
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The Colorado Avalanche are in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a 180-degree turnaround under general manager Joe Sakic.
It's once again a good time to be a hockey fan in Denver, unlike last March, when the Avalanche were finishing their worst full season (22-56-4) since the franchise relocated to Colorado in 1995.
The Avalanche finished with 48 points, the lowest total for an NHL team in a season of 80 or more games since the Atlanta Thrashers had 39 in 1999-2000. Center Nathan MacKinnon finished with 53 points (16 goals, 37 assists).
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Colorado has 86 points through 72 games (39-25-8), tied with the Anaheim Ducks, but holds the first wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference because it has played one fewer game. It trails the Minnesota Wild by four points for third place in the Central Division. The Avalanche are 7-1-3 since Feb. 26.
MacKinnon, a Hart Trophy candidate, has 89 points (38 goals, 51 assists), tying him for second in the NHL with Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov is the leader with 93.
MacKinnon, who leads the League with 1.39 points per game, has 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 15 games since Feb. 18.
MacKinnon, 22, and the Avalanche will try to stay hot when they play the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSCH, ALT, NHL.TV).
Sakic, not surprisingly, has been impressed, as he told NHL.com.
On what about the Avalanche has surprised him
"Well, they really compete. They come in the rink every day and work to try and get better. I've been impressed with [them] really believing in one another. It started in training camp, just setting the bar higher than expectations. They've done a tremendous job of sticking to it. Everybody goes through adversity, but they don't accept it. They keep going. They really believe in each other. They've been a fun team to watch. They're exciting. They're fast. They play fast. And it doesn't hurt when Nathan MacKinnon is playing at a whole new level. He's really taken it upon himself to become that leader and really carry the group. There's not many players in the League that can do what he's doing for our club."
Video: Sakic on GM Meetings, MacKinnon's stellar season
On whether trading center Matt Duchene on Nov. 5 triggered MacKinnon into that leadership role
"He was coming before that. Earlier in the year he wasn't putting up the same points that he is now, but I thought he was playing really well on both ends of the ice. … After the trade, he just continued that. It started a little bit before [the trade], but yeah, when you take out a real good player out of your lineup everybody else has to step up and he's taken off and really become the player I know everybody was expecting. Maturity-wise, everything about him away from the rink and on the ice, both practices and games, he knows what he can be and he's taken that leadership and taken off."
On whether MacKinnon's jump this season had been building
"You could say that. We all know what type of player he is and how competitive he is. I think probably for him to realize that he doesn't have to go 100 miles per hour all the time, he learned that. What I like about him is, especially last year near the end of the year, he really took to the challenge of playing against other team's No. 1 centers and learning. He's become a much more complete, 200-foot player. Obviously, we know how fast he is, but with how strong of a skater he is and how strong of a player he is, he really wants to be not only the best offensively but an excellent two-way player. That's what he is becoming and that's what I love about him."
Video: DET@COL: MacKinnon goes top shelf with backhander
On whether the Avalanche are ahead of schedule
"We're still going through the process. Right now, the guys are playing really well and hopefully we can continue this, but you see a team like Nashville comes in and [it shows] you've got to get better and get to another level. But this has been a great start. Nobody was expecting this, the team to play this well, but the most important thing is the players, they believe it and they're doing it."
On defenseman Erik Johnson returning Sunday after missing 13 games with an upper-body injury
"Oh, it's huge. I mean, he's a stabilizer on the blue line. He's so valuable to our team. He plays over 25 minutes a night. The guys did a tremendous job of when he was out of sticking to it and everybody contributed. I give credit to the D-men. They all had bigger roles and they all stepped up to the challenge, but it's good to have [Johnson] back there to settle everything down. The one good thing you can say is I guess he had some rest and now he can be fresh and get those minutes back."
On his emotions regarding Colorado's turnaround
"Oh, it goes day by day now. But I enjoy it. Yeah, what a difference a year makes, really. This year, it's just been fun to see this group of kids come in, and not even only the kids, but our veterans who came back from last year with totally different attitudes to compete and be driving forces for our team and leading by example. The way you see the group and how it's come together, whether it's the team bonding or whatnot, this is a group that really cares for one another and you can see it. For me, it's been fun watching them play, but also we're scoreboard-watching. This is the best time of year to do that being a hockey fan. I know I'm a general manager, but I'm still a hockey fan and the race around the League has been fun to watch."