Nathan MacKinnon is intense. It has helped make him the player he is, one of the best in the NHL. Three times in the past four seasons, he has been a finalist for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded to the most valuable player in the League.
But coming off the Colorado Avalanche’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Second Round, the center seems …
“I think we just need to let it go and move on,” MacKinnon said at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. “It’s tough to play when you’re angry for seven months. I’m in a good spot. I’m enjoying my life and excited for the season.”
That mindset might be key for MacKinnon and the Avalanche as they shoot for the Stanley Cup again in 2021-22, starting with their regular-season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks at Ball Arena on Oct. 13 (10 p.m. ET; TNT).
“I think for us as a team, it’s just remaining [even-keeled],” defenseman Cale Makar said at the Player Media Tour. “I think when something doesn’t go our way, we just … we kind of need to make sure that we stay calm and keep that even keel. And even going into the season, obviously you’re not going to win the Stanley Cup in game one or month one. It’s just trusting that process.”
It has been a long process for MacKinnon already. Since being selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Colorado has lost in the first round, missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs the following three seasons, lost in the first round again, and now has lost in the second round three years in a row.
Last season, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, only to run into the Golden Knights, who had tied them in points (82). They took a 2-0 lead in that series but lost in six games. In the aftermath, MacKinnon, who scored 13 points (eight goals, five assists) through the first six playoff games but was held to two assists in the last four, expressed frustration.
“There’s always next year,” MacKinnon said then. “It’s all we talk about, I feel like. I mean, I’m going into my ninth year next year and haven’t won [anything], so I’m just definitely motivated. Yeah, it just [stinks] losing four in a row to a team. It felt like last year was our first real chance to win, and this year I thought we were the best team in the League. For whatever reason, we just couldn’t get it together. I’m sure in training camp next year we’ll figure it out and dissect things and come back better.”
Before training camp, MacKinnon was asked what he could do to improve. Knowing his strength is carrying the puck through the neutral zone with speed, he said he spent the summer working on his down-low game so he could be stronger in the corners and create more plays for linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
Then he added this:
“Just being in the playoffs, staying composed, trying to help out the team as best I can, be more of a leader, because it’s hard to win,” he said. “It’s hard to get past really good teams. You know, the second round is tough. … Just trying to keep staying composed and push our team to another level.”
The process hasn’t been as long for Makar, who has been part of three playoff runs and two regular seasons shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also has a more flatlined personality.
In 2019-20, he won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, and last season, he was runner-up for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the League’s best defenseman.
He’s unsatisfied, yet patient.
“I think for myself I still have a lot to prove,” Makar said. “Really, internally, I don’t think I’ve really done much yet, so it’s just building off that. … Obviously my first three years, it’s been second-round exits from the playoffs with the team. Hopefully we can change that this year, but it just takes time.”
Makar is 22. MacKinnon is still only 26. Most of their teammates are in their 20s, too.
“We’re so young, and it’s a learning curve,” Makar said. “Not every team is going to win in their first three years of being great.”
The Avalanche lost goalie Philipp Grubauer and forwards Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Brandon Saad to free agency, had forward Joonas Donskoi selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, and traded defenseman Ryan Graves to the New Jersey Devils this offseason.
But they added goalie Darcy Kuemper, defenseman Ryan Murray, and forwards Darren Helm and Mikhail Maltsev. They have young players with potential, including defenseman Bowen Byram and forward Alex Newhook, who are each 20. They have the same core.
“We’re still as good as we were last year, if not better,” MacKinnon said. “We’re hungry.”
Makar said: “We knew last year we had the team to do it, and we know this year we’re going to have the same thing. That’ll be the expectation, and expectations shouldn’t add any pressure whatsoever. For us as a team, we know that that’s our goal, and expectations aside, we don’t expect anything less from ourselves.”
MacKinnon pointed to the Washington Capitals, who didn’t advance past the second round for 18 seasons before winning the Cup in 2018, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were swept in the first round as the Presidents’ Trophy winners in 2019 before winning the Cup in 2020 and 2021.
“You don’t have to change a lot,” MacKinnon said. “I think you just have to keep fine-tuning it when you’re close, in my opinion. I mean, hopefully that’s what it takes, because that’s what I think. I think we have the pieces to win. Historically, if you look at teams that win, I think we’re similar. We’re a really good team. We just have to get it done.”