Nathan MacKinnon said the best player in the NHL was on the ice at Ball Arena Monday night.
No, it wasn’t an outburst of egoism.
He meant the Oilers’ Connor McDavid.
Sometimes, MacKinnon is just too modest.
I had asked the Avalanche center about whether he still gets a charge out of playing against his fellow No. 1 overall NHL draft choice.
“Any time you play the best players in the world…” MacKinnon began, then paused to clarify. “He is the best player in the league in my opinion. Guy wins the scoring title every year. He’s amazing. It’s always fun to play against Sid [Crosby], [Auston] Matthews, even [Leon] Draisaitl. Any time you get to play against those guys, it’s a lot of fun.”
This was shortly after MacKinnon’s goal at 52 seconds of three-on-three overtime — with McDavid on the ice for the Oilers — gave the Avalanche a 3-2 victory, extending their latest winning streak to four.
MacKinnon’s 22nd goal of the season came off a slick setup pass from Cale Makar, who collected his eye-popping 49th assist.
“It’s OT,” MacKinnon said. “I kind of got tangled up with McDavid and the puck was loose. Two guys go for it for them and Cale [Makar] makes an unreal play. . . I managed to score.”
The kicker to the McDavid-MacKinnon matchup is that McDavid has been among the “generational talents” who went No.1 overall in the draft and were cited as what MacKinnon needed to aspire to be in the early up-and-down years of his career after the Avalanche claimed him at the top of the 2013 draft.
I wouldn’t have blamed him for resenting McDavid, or at least bristling at the comparisons after McDavid went first overall in 2015. Be more like McDavid. McDavid this, McDavid that. I wasn’t the only one who kept bringing it up about MacKinnon. But he not only handled the challenges from all corners of the hockey world; he used them.
He became that generational talent, too. He has been a finalist for the Hart Trophy three of the past four years, and the most notable miscarriage of justice was when the Devils’ Taylor Hall was the choice in 2018. MacKinnon should have won it that year. The other winners were Nikita Kucherov in 2019, Draisaitl in 2020 and McDavid in 2021.
This season, that translates into 22 goals and 46 assists in 48 games for MacKinnon. Since he returned after suffering a broken nose when taking a hit from (oh, the irony) Taylor Hall, now with Boston, on February 21, MacKinnon has10 goals and 10 assists in 12 games. That includes his goal and assist against the Oilers Monday night.
I also asked him whether the game had been exciting for him, too. For the sellout crowd, it was one of the more entertaining nights of the Avalanche season.
“A little bit too exciting,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously fun for people to watch, but we have to be a little tighter in the second. Great first and third. Everything was self-induced in the second, which is good, but we don’t want to do that too much.”
The NHL trading deadline passed six and a half hours before the opening faceoff, and MacKinnon was enthusiastic about the deals Joe Sakic made both last week and then on Monday.
“I thought it was great,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously, the players we traded, the prospects, we’re so deep right now, it’s going to tough for those guys to play for three, four years, and we’ll all probably be gone in three, four years. We need to win now and that’s the message Joe is sending to all of us, the coaching staff. Not that our plan was any different, but everyone’s all in and we’re excited to get [Artturi] Lehkonen, Mans [Josh Manson], Sturmie [Nico Sturm] and Coglie [Andrew Cogliano]. Amazing additions, everything we need. So we’re really excited.”
MacKinnon was decisively reprising Avalanche themes during the franchise’s glory years. Stanley Cup or Bust. Win or fail. Go for it. And remember, this the same MacKinnon who after the Avalanche’s second round elimination last season said: “I’m going into my ninth year and I haven’t won —.”
The deadline has passed.
The Avalanche lineup has been tweaked.
We’ll see how much it has been improved.
“It’ll be good to have some team meetings and get to know the new guys and integrate them quickly.” MacKinnon, a noted hoops fan, said. “You know it’s a late trade deadline. Basketball was like a month ago. We have like 18 games left to get together quickly and get ready for the playoffs.”
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here