Nathan MacKinnon is bent on making his game airtight, knowing the pressure that comes with being everybody's first overall pick.
It was just less than a year ago there was a great Haligonian hue and cry when the hometown phenom — Cole Harbour, N.S.-raised, raising the Halifax Mooseheads out of malaise, wears No. 22 in homage to Frédérik Cabana, whom parents Graham and Kathy MacKinnon billeted a few years back — did not elicit an invitation to try out for Canada's national junior team camp. MacKinnon was lighting up the league at barely 16, but his game still need fine-tuning. Now, as the fulcrum of a Mooseheads team which is first overall in the QMJHL, that seems to be happening. MacKinnon's shored up his defence and is winning faceoffs at a 54 per cent success rate, which are indicators of how serious he is about both cracking Team Canada's lineup as a 17-year-old and ascending to the NHL last season. Achieving the former would make MacKinnon the youngest forward to wear the Maple Leaf since John Tavares in 2008.
"I'm just looking to have overall solid game," says MacKinnon, who has 18 goals and 32 points in 20 games for the Mooseheads. "I don't want to have any flaws, there's always going to be things to work on but I don't want any major flaws. I don't want to prove anything to be honest. Just play my game."
MacKinnon's quickness and offensive vision are nonpareil among 17-year-olds. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 179 pounds, he also goes into puck battles like a piranha. That innateness to make his teammates better was evident last Friday in Gatineau, when he seemed to need only one stride to go from the middle of the offensive zone to overtake a defender in a race along the boards, then circle inside the blueline before teeing up Detroit Red Wings second-rounder Martin Frk for a cannonading shot.
Meantime, MacKinnon seems to be grounded about dealing with the media attention that comes with being everyone's No. 1 pick while the NHL is in a labour shutdown. It's just another eerie, coincidental similarity between him and Sidney Crosby, who was in his draft year in 2004-05 with the Rimouski Océanic. There really is nowhere a junior hockey wunderkind can hide, but MacKinnon has added media attention since he's a Maritimer who plays in the region's hub city.
"He's pretty mature about that," Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme says. "It started last year. He's used to it. We know it's important for our team, it's important for Nathan. We want to give everyone a fair chance but at the same time we try to manage it so he can be concentrating on what he needs to do.
"He has improved a lot on the little things with and without the puck," Ducharme adds. "He's maturing a lot with his game and the way he reacts to the play."
Meantime, MacKinnon says he's gaining from the fact he and linemate Jonathan Drouin are going through their draft year together.
"It's a lot of fun. For him, he's a very dynamic player who makes great plays out there. He's a very easy player to play with. We're very close, probably the closest friends each other has on the team."
1. How much has your friendship with Seth Jones enriched this experience, having the spotlight on you?
"It's fun going through this with friends whether it is Jonathan [Drouin] or Seth, to share this journey to the draft with them. At the same time, we are focused on the Mooseheads and winning every night."
2. How much are you anticipating your acting debut on Mr. D (MacKinnon and former Mooseheads captain Cameron Critchlow recorded scenes this summer for an episode of the CBC comedy that will air in early 2013) and what it was like being on camera?
"It was a lot of fun. Gerry Dee is a very funny guy and the cast was great. I'm excited to see it." (You aren't nervous to see yourself on TV?) "I am, a little bit. But I guess we'll see ... it's pretty funny, they do all these takes from different angles so we were there for a while."
3. What do you trace your admiration of Kobe Bryant back to? He plays in a different sport in a market four time zones from Halifax.
"I've always been a basketball fan, watching him perform in the playoffs year after year and coming up big year after year is pretty amazing to watch. Even though he plays a different sport you can apply that to your game — stepping up at big moments."
4. Your father (Graham) got experience running the marathon, your mother (Kathy, who once swam in the Canada Games) works in community recreation. How has their expertise been passed along to you?
"I've got good athletic genes from the start. My parents are both very athletic people. Their expertise is not hockey, necessarily, but they're two very strong people, two very supportive parents who have helped me along the way."
5. Do people at your high school give you your space?
"It's fine at school. They're my age, I grew up with a lot of the people so they don't really treat me any different."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet .
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