Since Jan. 1, only one player has more points than Nathan MacKinnon, and that’s Connor McDavid.
With 45 points in 29 games, MacKinnon has been red-hot. The thing is, he’s been doing most of that damage at even strength. In that same time-span, he is NHL’s leading even strength scorer, with 36 points. He also leads in goals (17) and shots on goal (117) at even strength.
Right now, he looks unstoppable.
I asked five of MacKinnon’s current teammates what it’s like to actually have to defend against MacKinnon in a game. They might all be his teammates now, but they’ve all had the unfortunate task of trying to slow him down as members of the opposing team before joining the Avalanche.
The responses I got were interesting, and a lot of fun. Needless to say, they’re all happy they only have to face him in practice now.
Having played nearly 1,100 NHL games, Johnson has seen it all. And he’s had to face MacKinnon many times in his career, including a few this season with the Blackhawks.
He described what it’s like to go head-to-head with MacKinnon in a game.
“I mean, it’s tough,” Johnson said. “Obviously, speed kills, right? He’s got that in spades. He’s as tough as they come one-on-one, and he’s got a great skillset, right? Like, he’s got a great shot, great speed, size, strength, and all of that stuff, so he’s a handful. He’s as tough as there is.”
Tougher than McDavid?
“Oh, man. I mean, they’re very similar, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “You know, both of them can handle the puck at high speeds. That’s what makes them so dangerous. They’re dynamic at that speed. There’s a lot of guys that have, maybe not the same speed but similar speed, but they just can’t handle the puck quite like they can. So yeah, there’s definitely similarities. I mean really, as a defender, you’re just hoping to keep them to the outside, try to play the percentages, and hopefully give them a bad angle shot, or not as quality a chance as they would like. That’s really as much as you can do. Good players like that are going to get opportunities. They just are.”
There might be no one that knows MacKinnon more than Nieto. Not only have they been teammates on and off for years, but they still play Fortnite together away from the rink.
When I asked Nieto what it’s like to have to defend MacKinnon, he just shook his head.
“Oh, man,” Nieto said.
Then, he continued.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I mean, a guy like that, you’re really not going to strip of the puck, and if you’re too aggressive, he’s just going to burn you. So, it’s more just trying to contain him and keep him to the outside. But, you know, he’s so dynamic. It’s not an easy task at all.”
The newest addition to the team, Eller has had to go head-to-head with some of the best out East. That includes Sidney Crosby, who Eller would be very familiar with.
When I asked him what it’s like to play against MacKinnon, he did not hesitate.
“I think he’s the hardest player to defend in the league,” Eller said.
Pretty high praise. He explained why.
“He’s fast, but he’s, like, powerful too,” he said. “He can beat guys with speed and strength, which, I think, most guys kind of have one or the other. And then, he can do four cutbacks, and he’s still (full speed). The starts and stops that he does can really, really wear guys out. The stopping and starting all the time with him, it’s extremely hard. He’s extremely fast, and quick, and strong. So, I always thought he was probably the hardest guy to defend.”
Eller made sure to add one more thing.
“It’s nice to be on the same team as him.”
The veteran Hunt has bounced around the NHL a fair bit, but all of his 278 career NHL games have come in the Western Conference. The team he’s played the most games with is Minnesota, so he’s had his fair share of run-ins with MacKinnon on the ice.
Hunt shares the same thought on what it’s like to defend MacKinnon that I’m sure a lot of NHL defensemen do.
“It’s insane,” Hunt said.
He was almost in awe of MacKinnon, and went on a little more.
“He’s so good, and so quick,” Hunt said. “And he has such a good shot, to where you get yourself stuck in between. If you go too hard at him, he’ll spin off and use his unbelievable skills. If you give him too much time, he has a lethal shot and he can score from almost anywhere. Terrific player.”
Toughest player to defend in the league?
“For sure, he’s up there, probably top two,” Hunt said.
Hunt didn’t want to say if MacKinnon or McDavid is tougher to play against, but said what everyone is thinking.
“They’re both just so freaking fast,” he said.
Then, Hunt went on to talk about something that is often overlooked. MacKinnon isn’t the Captain of the team, but he does set the standard in the organization of what is expected of you. That doesn’t just mean on the ice, but off it as well.
“I learned so much from him, just from playing with him,” Hunt said. “Just how he takes care of himself. So much stuff that you can learn from him.”
A big reason why Cogliano is in Colorado is MacKinnon. The superstar asked Joe Sakic to go out and get the veteran forward at the trade deadline last Spring. The move for MacKinnon’s workout buddy paid off, and Cogliano signed an extension over the summer.
Cogliano has played his entire career in the Western Conference, so he knows all too well what it’s like to go up against MacKinnon.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Not easy.”
“When he gets pucks through the neutral zone,” Cogliano said. “To stop, and try to defend (him), is pretty much near impossible. He and McDavid are pretty much the two guys in the league that you can’t defend that way.”
He finished with this.
“He’s just one of those guys, that, at times, it just isn’t possible to defend him,” Cogliano said.
Luckily, these five don’t have to worry about going up against MacKinnon in a game anytime soon.