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LOS ANGELES – Nathan MacKinnon settled into his chair, hours before the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Los Angeles.
“You guys probably didn’t think an Avalanche was going to be here today,” he said.
Well, yeah, because everyone gets to have a player on the all-star team. But we get what he’s saying: The Colorado Avalanche are the worst team in the NHL with 28 points. They’re the worst defensive team in hockey, with a 3.37 goals-against average. They’re the worst offensive team in hockey, with a 2.02 goals-for average. With 33 points in 46 games, MacKinnon, 21, isn’t having an all-star season. But he’s the best of the worst.
“It sucks. I’ve never been in a position like this in my life,” he said.
“We didn’t expect this. We thought we’d be in the mix. I know we wouldn’t have won the division [this season], but I thought we’d have a chance to make the playoffs. Obviously, that’s not the case. So we’re just trying to get better, get ready for next season.”
Colorado’s season has been, for lack of a better term, an avalanche. The first snowball down the hill was coach Patrick Roy stunning the team with a resignation in August. AHL coach Jared Bednar was hired from the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters.
By December 1, they were 9-12-1 with 19 points. They’ve only gained nine points since then.
The things that the team assumed it could count on – offense and goaltending – let them down, especially the later, with Semyon Varlamov falling apart due to injury and without Roy in his corner.
MacKinnon said his team’s confidence is broken.
“We’ve been in games, but we can’t score. We score two a game, and we give up the most goals in the league, so that’s not a good combo,” he said. “We’re pretty fragile. I don’t want to beat up the team too much. We’re in a lot of games, but then we press the panic button too easily. Like in San Jose, when Marleau scored four against us in one period, in like eight minutes. That was a 1-1 game.”
The Avalanche are 2-22-1 when trailing after two periods, which is a polite way of saying that they’ve trailed entering the third period in over half of their games.
What hasn’t helped the Avalanche is what follows losing: Rumors about change. Big change. Trading Matt Duchene. Trading Gabriel Landeskog.
“Both guys want to be there. They want to figure this thing out,” said MacKinnon. They’ve been on trade rumors before. But it’s obviously pretty intense when you’re losing.”
And it’s not like the players aren’t aware of the chatter. Defenseman Tyson Barrie, for example, recently chirped TSN and ESPN insider Pierre LeBrun about reporting that he was was being shopped last season. “Stop stressing out the boys,” he said, joking with an underlying bit of truth.
For MacKinnon, it’s been a continuing education on the realities of the NHL. In his first season, the Avs had 112 points and MacKinnon won the Calder. To date, it’s his only appearance in the playoffs.
“We thought we were going to be a Cup team in the next five years,” he said. “Looking back on it, I took it for granted how hard it is to win. I came in, won 50 games. I thought I was going to win every year.”
So now that the Avalanche might not hit 50 points let alone 50 wins, MacKinnon is searching for silver linings.
“It could be a blessing. Eventually, I will make the playoffs. I will be on a winning team. Hopefully in Colorado that’ll happen for us,” he said.
He’s hoping that Bednar, who is trying to make the most out of this disaster, gets another crack at it next season. “I feel bad for Bedsy, to be honest. He’s a great coach, he’s very smart, he holds everybody accountable. He’s definitely not the problem,” said MacKinnon. “He’s going to be a great coach for us. He’s going to lead us to the playoffs next year. Turn this thing around quickly.”
MacKinnon said he’s spoken to Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic about how to process this kind of season, as both experienced it during their stellar NHL careers. How to deal with the disappointment of a lost season. How to maintain his own growth as a player as the Avalanche retool, reload and reconfigure.
Iginla, in particular, has been a sage for MacKinnon. And he lamented the fact that Iginla didn’t make the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players list, while joking about his own status.
“I think I was 101 this year. I got screwed,” said MacKinnon.
Despite these struggles, MacKinnon has a lot of career ahead of him. Who knows what the next top 100 list will look like?
“Hopefully the top-two pick we get this year will be in the Top 100,” he said, mining some laughter from a lost season.
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