Avs kid Nathan MacKinnon growing up fast in NHL rookie season

When Nathan MacKinnon joined the Colorado Avalanche, he moved in with veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Well, he threw his suitcase into Giguere’s basement, anyway. He lived out of his suitcase for weeks – until finally, in mid-November, his parents visited and unpacked for him.

It wasn’t that he worried he might not stay with the Avs. It was that he was still just a kid.

“That’s Nate,” laughed teammate Gabriel Landeskog. “ ‘No, my mom will do it.’ ”

MacKinnon is 18 years and 136 days old. He is so young he would be younger than half the Halifax Mooseheads if he were still playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He is so young only one NHL player is younger, the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, and only by one day. He is so young Giguere is twice his age, old enough to be his father. He is so young and talented he makes the Avs’ other youngsters sound like old geezers marveling at the next generation.

Listen to Landeskog rave about how strong and fast MacKinnon is on his skates, how well he protects the puck and stickhandles through traffic, how fun he is to watch. It’s hilarious. “Young guys coming up in the league nowadays, they’re so skilled,” Landeskog said. “I mean, I don’t know what they do growing up.”

Young guys coming up in the league? Nowadays? Landeskog doesn’t know what they do growing up? Landeskog is mature for his age – that’s why he’s the Avs’ captain – but come on. Just because he wears a beard doesn’t mean he’s grizzled. He’s still only 21 and isn’t exactly unskilled himself. Just 19 months ago he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Yeah. Kids today …

But Landeskog is right. Already MacKinnon is showing why he was the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft and has established himself as a Calder contender. He just racked up eight goals and nine points in a nine-game stretch, and he leads all rookies in points (29), power-play goals (seven) and shots (129). He’s tied for first in goals (15). He’s second in game-winning goals (four) and power-play points (10) and tied for fifth in assists (14), too. He has done it playing all three forward positions with shuffling linemates.

Laundry is one thing. But hockey is another, and MacKinnon has been ahead of the game for his entire short life. He grew up in the same town (Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia) and went to the same boarding school (Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn.) that Sidney Crosby did, and he was the most valuable player of the Memorial Cup last year, so he is used to attention and expectations and achievement. For the most part, he seems unfazed by the jump from junior to the NHL.

“Obviously they’re better players,” MacKinnon said, “but hockey’s hockey.”

* * * * *

MacKinnon hardly could have a better place to start than Colorado. He lives with and learns from Giguere, who played for the Mooseheads and billeted in Cole Harbour in junior before he won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy in the NHL. He fits into a dressing room that has nine other players under 26 and three others who were drafted in the top three overall – Erik Johnson (first in 2006), Matt Duchene (third in 2009) and Landeskog (second in 2011). His coach, Patrick Roy, made the jump from the QMJHL with him and knows him well.

Giguere is an affable guy with a wife and three kids – four, if you include MacKinnon. He has perspective on the game and on life, and he can help ease the kid not just into pro hockey, but independence and adulthood. He looks after him. He won’t say if he charges him rent (“that’s between us”) or share good stories (“the only good stories would embarrass him”).

“It took a little while for him to unpack his suitcase, but now it’s done,” Giguere said with a smile. “Because he’s in the NHL doesn’t change the fact that he’s only 18. He just turned 18 when he first started camp. Yes, he makes a lot of money, and he plays hockey with a bunch of men. But at the same time, we can never forget that he’s just young and everything for him is basically new.”

Quite a few of MacKinnon’s teammates have gone through what he is going through now. Guys like Johnson, Duchene, Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly broke into the NHL as teenagers, too, and not that long ago, either. They razz him, but they relate to him. They let him know he’s not alone and doesn’t have to do it alone. “He just adds to the deep pool of young talent we’ve got here,” Duchene said.

Roy, a Hall of Fame goaltender, returned to Colorado as head coach and vice-president of hockey operations early in the offseason. He wanted MacKinnon. The Avs drafted him over stud defenseman Seth Jones, even though they were already stocked with forwards and Jones would have been a great PR pick, having gotten into hockey in Denver while his father, Popeye, played in the NBA for the Nuggets.

MacKinnon had played against Roy’s Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL, and he had played for Roy in the Subway Super Series, an annual tournament between a team of Russian juniors and all-star teams from the Canadian Hockey League. Roy knew MacKinnon’s strengths – his skating, skill and hockey sense. But he also knew his weaknesses – defensive awareness, backchecking, positioning. He knew they would show up more in the NHL, and he felt he could help with the transition.

“I thought that was the part of his game that was missing,” Roy said. “But you know what? Nate wants to learn, and he wants to be better. He’s very open to teaching. … I try to push him because I know how good he is, and if I feel he has a couple of bad shifts, I’m going to let him know. He’s been responding well to it.”

* * * * *

MacKinnon will never forget his debut. Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf congratulated him. He caught himself watching instead of playing at times, and he still put up two assists in a 6-1 victory. At 18 years and 31 days, he became the youngest player to have a multi-point game in the NHL since 1944 when Ted Kennedy did it at 18 years and 27 days.

His first goal came in his fifth game, and it came in a 5-1 victory in Washington over the Capitals, a thrill for a kid who grew up loving the Caps’ rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had a goal and seven points in his first six games.

He cooled off after that. He wanted to do everything at warp speed and felt he had to do everything at warp speed, because this was the NHL and he wanted to show his stuff and everything was so fast. Because of injuries and line juggling, he bounced from his natural position, center, to the wing, and he bounced from one wing to the other. He was on the power play from the beginning, but he never had a chance to gel with consistent linemates.

But Roy said it was good for his development, because he could learn all three positions, and MacKinnon started to improve all over the ice. His defense is better, and his patience with the puck is better, though he is still working at it. “It looks like the game is slowing down for him now,” Landeskog said. “Maybe I should say he’s speeding up, because he’s certainly been playing well lately.”

It’s both, actually. MacKinnon isn’t doing everything at warp speed anymore, and that is helping him throw off opponents. “It’s important for me to change my gears – know when to slow the game down, know when to kind of speed up as well,” MacKinnon said. “There’s fast players in this league, but some of them aren’t successful because they’re always going one speed and it’s easy to contain them that way. Being very diverse and deceptive is huge when you’re skating, and that’s what I’m trying to do out there.”

For whatever reason, the puck is going in now. MacKinnon scored twice Jan. 4 in a 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. At 18 years and 125 days old, he became the youngest player in franchise history to have a multi-goal game, breaking the record O’Reilly set in 2009 at 18 years and 272 days. Then he scored twice again Jan. 6 in a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames. At 18 years and 127 days old, he became the youngest player in NHL history to score multiple goals in back-to-back games, breaking the record Dale Hawerchuk set in 1981 at 18 years and 204 days.

“It’s been the best year of my life so far,” MacKinnon said, “and it’s been a lot fun.”

That’s saying a lot, because he has accomplished so much already. But his life hasn’t been that long, and the key words are “so” and “far.” Good thing his parents got him unpacked. He’s gonna be here awhile.

“I think these are all positive signs,” Giguere said with another smile. “I don’t know how they’re going to turn out, but he sure has the package right now, so we’ll see if he grows up into something.”