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MacKinnon hitting stride as No. 1 center for Avalanche

Has 15 points in 16 games after adjusting to new role last season

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

STOCKHOLM -- Nathan MacKinnon brings up their names, the elite players, just a few from the Central Division, as he talks about what it's like being the Colorado Avalanche's No. 1 center.

"You've got [Patrick] Kane or [Tyler] Seguin or [Vladimir] Tarasenko matching up against you the whole night," MacKinnon said. "It's different. It's a challenge."

 

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What MacKinnon never thought about, at least not until he was asked about it for this story before playing against the Ottawa Senators in the 2017 SAP NHL Global Series, is if he wonders what the players he's matching up against are saying.

Are any of them worriedly muttering, "Man, I've got to go against MacKinnon all night."

"I hope so," MacKinnon said. "I think it should go both ways. That's what it's all about."

It's happening for MacKinnon, who is in his fifth NHL season but only his second as the Avalanche's top center. He has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 16 games going into Colorado's game against the Washington Capitals at Pepsi Center on Thursday.

After averaging 52.5 points in each of the past two seasons, MacKinnon is playing at a near point-per-game pace, putting him in the company of other elite centers in the NHL.

"When you see him across from you, you have to be ready," said Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who trains with MacKinnon in the offseason. "With the way he skates and his skill, he doesn't need a lot of time and space to make space. He has great hands, a great shot, but his speed opens up things. He's a dynamic player, and with all the tools he has he's tough to play against."

Video: COL@NYI: MacKinnon roofs rebound tally from in close

MacKinnon had a difficult adjustment to the No. 1 center role after he was handed it last season.

"First time I played against top players every night," MacKinnon said.

He spent his first three seasons playing primarily on the wing, but the move to center required him to look for his linemates more, use them to create instead of trying to use his speed and lower-body strength to play a one-on-one game.

"We found a little bit of chemistry there with Mikko [Rantanen] and [Sven] Andrighetto later on in the year," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. "We saw them starting to work as a three-man unit."

Bednar had to ignore the numbers because MacKinnon's production was down in the second half of last season (0.555 points per game in 36 games after the All-Star break vs. 0.717 points per game in 46 games pre-break) and Colorado was on its way to finishing with 48 points, the fewest earned in a season since the franchise relocated to Denver from Quebec in 1995.

"People think he's not [elite] because he hasn't put up elite numbers," Bednar said. "Last year, maybe that was rightfully so in the first part of the year, but I really think in the second part of the year he was getting there. I think this year he's there."

MacKinnon has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the past six games. His production is as much a result of being comfortable in his role as it is him using his linemates, Rantanen and Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog.

"Probably fair to say he didn't have enough help around him [last season]," Bednar said. "With our situation at times last year, it was easier to check him with one line or two lines and a pair and make his job more difficult. As we spend a little more time in the offensive zone we create a little more o-zone starts for him and you see the numbers are starting to improve."

MacKinnon doesn't want to think about what his numbers might look like at the end of the season, even though he's on pace to shatter his previous career high of 63 points, which he had as a rookie in 2013-14, when he won the Calder Trophy.

"I have a very process-orientated mind, so going into a game and thinking about getting points, for me, doesn't work," MacKinnon said. "I need to produce, but points come by playing well and that's what I'm trying to do."

MacKinnon has more responsibility off the ice too. He's a big part of the Avalanche's leadership group behind Landeskog; bigger now because center Matt Duchene was traded to the Senators on Nov. 5.

MacKinnon and Duchene rotated as the alternate captain from the forward group last season. He and defenseman Erik Johnson are the lone alternates this season.

"I need to improve as a leader and keep taking on more responsibility, but that comes with my on-ice play," MacKinnon said. "That's how I'm going to lead. Gabe is a good speaker and EJ [Johnson] talks. I like to do my leading on the ice. Playing well, I think that'll get the boys going."

It has gotten the rest of the League talking.

"Nate is going to push you when you're playing against him," Duchene said. "His weapon is his wheels, and that's something you have to look at. There are nights when you look across and you've got a good challenge in front of you. It's the case with every team in this League. Nate is [a challenge]."

Video: CHI@COL: MacKinnon picks the corner for smooth PPG

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