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X-Factor: Rookie MacKinnon could be Avs' go-to guy

by Corey Masisak

The Colorado Avalanche could be without their top forward, the guy who was considered a Hart Trophy candidate early in the season, for the entire first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That would be a debilitating deficiency for nearly any team. So why might the Avalanche be able to survive long enough for Matt Duchene's knee to heal and for him to return to the lineup?

Rookie Nathan MacKinnon is the answer.

MacKinnon has concluded one of the best regular seasons by an 18-year-old in League history, and he might just be getting started. While other teenagers have waned near the end of their first season in the NHL because of the physical and mental grind, MacKinnon has added more responsibility since Duchene (and PA Parenteau) was injured and might be getting stronger.

First, there are the traditional numbers. MacKinnon is one of nine players in League history to record at least 20 goals and 60 points in his age-18 season (meaning he was 18 years old on Feb. 1). Six of the other eight did so between 1982 and 1987, otherwise known as the highest-scoring period in League history. The only other players to do it outside those years of exploding goal rates are Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Parenteau was injured March 10, and MacKinnon played more than 21 minutes in that game. Before Parenteau's injury, MacKinnon had eclipsed 20 minutes in ice time three times. He's done so eight times since, and logged at least 19 minutes in 11 of the 14 contests since Parenteau was hurt.

MacKinnon has spent time at center and on the wing this season, but with Duchene out he moved into the middle on one of Colorado's top two lines. The Avalanche have struggled with puck possession this season, but MacKinnon's individual numbers perked up with the move and the added responsibility.

His Corsi for percentage was 52 percent or higher in four of the first six games after Duchene's injury, but more telling was MacKinnon's CF percentage relative to his teammates. It was more than 20 percent better in three of the six games.

While he might need another offseason or two to build muscle mass and hone his body to NHL standards, MacKinnon's speed and skating ability are already among the League's elite. He set a new NHL record for consecutive games with a point for an 18-year-old, topping the old mark set by Wayne Gretzky.

The Chicago Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, but he can't match up against both of Colorado's top lines and there is no one behind Toews like MacKinnon. He could be Colorado's best player as soon as next season, and a great playoff performance here is not out of the question.

MacKinnon is still an 18-year-old, so it is possible he struggles in his first NHL postseason experience. He's no ordinary teenager though, and MacKinnon could be one of the biggest wild cards on any team in these playoffs.

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