From a crowded Hart field to a Justin Bieber snub, Nathan MacKinnon doesn't get his due

DENVER — Forty-three seconds. That is how long it took Nathan MacKinnon to score the goal that extended his home points streak to 35 games.

The fact he scored that quickly is a reflection of how MacKinnon is a perpetual threat. That he had a point in every home game entering the March 26 contest with the Montreal Canadiens while simultaneously leading the NHL in points is another way to measure what has made the Colorado Avalanche’s superstar center so indomitable this season.

Yet it was the way he scored the goal that offers insight into why this season has been the best and most consistently productive campaign of his 11-year career.

Ever since he first burst into the hockey world’s consciousness at age 14, many superlatives have been used to describe MacKinnon’s game. Now that he’s 28, one word that has been used quite a bit this season is patience. The goal he scored against the Canadiens to keep his streak alive was an example of that patience. Initially, the pass he played to Jonathan Drouin was deflected and appeared to be going out of the zone.

Paying attention to the puck meant nobody had eyes on MacKinnon. He used his surroundings to float in a space in the Canadiens’ zone that, with his speed, gave him the runway and time to get back on defense to prevent an odd-skater rush or to be in a position to place his opponents in a compromising spot if the Avs recovered the puck.

What occurred was the latter.

All it took was two passes before Canadiens goaltender Sam Montembeault was faced with a one-timer from an unmarked MacKinnon that was launched from the right faceoff circle.

This is what MacKinnon’s version of patience looks like.

“It’s crazy because for me when I watch hockey and when you’re a defenseman and you see him come, defensemen are going to sag back because they don’t want to get beat wide,” Drouin said. “I think that’s why he’s opened up with his playmaking. He has time to delay and it’s because the D are respecting him. It would be too if I were a defenseman.”

MacKinnon’s home points streak ended two days later against the New York Rangers. He followed that game up by scoring four points in a comeback win against the Nashville Predators that clinched the Avalanche’s seventh consecutive playoff berth.

The most points in a season in franchise history. The most points on home ice in a season in franchise history. A home points streak that finished second in NHL history behind Wayne Gretzky’s 40 games in 1988-89. A pair of 19-game point streaks in the same season, a first in NHL history.

These are more than just statements. These bullet points are ammunition for the questions that have been fired off about MacKinnon as of late. What is it about this season? Exactly what has MacKinnon done to be in position to have the best individual campaign of his career?

And, could this be the year MacKinnon finally wins the Hart Trophy that has tantalizingly eluded him?

“It’s just been a lot of work, I think, and there’s new things I just try to get better at,” MacKinnon said. “Also, I’ve been healthy so far. Knock on wood. Every year it seems like I get hurt and hopefully that doesn’t happen. I feel great. My body’s good. My mind’s good and things are just going my way for whatever reason.”

THERE IS NO question MacKinnon is the finished product. What that product is, however, is still a bit of a question. Is he a pure goal scorer? A playmaker? A power forward? Or is it that he’s all three at once, sometimes on the same shift?

MacKinnon had a moment in that game against the Canadiens when his multiple attributes were on display in a single shift. Upon entering the zone, MacKinnon had Canadiens defenseman Mike Matheson immediately in front of him. He deked the puck between Matheson’s legs before Kaiden Guhle came over to help by trying to poke the puck away. That’s when MacKinnon deftly lifted his stick and let the puck slide past Guhle before firing a backhanded shot on net.

The Ball Arena crowd’s reaction to his latest trademark moment gave MacKinnon, who already has a few nicknames, a new one in “The Wizard of Ahhs.”

“I think it is tough to describe him because he can do all these things,” Avalanche right winger Mikko Rantanen said. “He’s a shooter. He can be a playmaker. He has a lot of goals, but he also has almost 80 assists or something like that. I can’t even describe one type of player. He does all of it, which is nice.”

Zach Parise had another way to describe MacKinnon.

“A freak. That’s what he is,” Parise said.

Parise’s nine years with the Minnesota Wild allowed him to witness MacKinnon’s evolution from rookie to budding star to one of the NHL’s top players. After all those years playing against MacKinnon, now he knows what it’s like to play with him.

I remember coming into this building and being matched against their line,” Parise said. “And after the eighth shift of getting hemmed in your zone, you’re just like, ‘My God.’ I remember joking and I think it was to [Gabriel Landeskog]. I just jokingly said, ‘Will you stop? Will you stop coming on the ice against me?!?’ It was like every shift, those guys are flying down the zone and I can’t even breathe out here. It was tough. It was just like a different level.”

Parise said Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby was the standard as the NHL’s best player for several years. Over time, players such as the Edmonton Oilers’ duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov could be included in that discussion.

Parise believed MacKinnon already was in that stratosphere before joining the Avs. But seeing him every day in practice instead of just the four annual regular-season Avs-Wild games gave Parise a greater appreciation for what MacKinnon was doing.

“There’s not a lot of guys that bring everything to the table, but bring it every game,” Parise said. “That’s what’s impressed me the most. I think it’s been contagious throughout the whole locker room, but it starts up top with him, Cale [Makar] and Mikko.”

Details are everything for elite athletes in any sport, and MacKinnon is no different.

A massive NBA fan, MacKinnon talked about how he listened to LeBron James’ new podcast and the biggest item that stuck with him was how the Los Angeles Lakers superstar stressed the need to go all-in on every aspect of one’s game.

MacKinnon was already that way. He’s arguably the NHL’s most well-known martinet when it comes to how seriously he takes nutrition. He has a performance rehabilitation specialist whom he credits with shaping his body. He appreciates rest to the point where there are nights when he’s in bed reading a book and falls asleep before 10 p.m.

He even applies this to morning skates and practices. It’s not enough that he’s practicing. He’s usually one of the first skaters on the ice and one of the last players to leave the facility. Even at practice, there are players who go through drills at gradual paces, whereas MacKinnon’s settings are seemingly only fast and even faster.

Pregame warmups are no different. MacKinnon goes through his individual routines as if there were someone with a clipboard and a stopwatch grading his performance.

MacKinnon’s need to be the best is the opening Avalanche coach Jared Bednar used to have a discussion with him about applying that commitment into the defensive side of his game. Bednar’s point to MacKinnon was that being a well-rounded forward who can check another team’s top line is only going to lead to more opportunities to regain possession.

“He has the ability, right? The quickness, the size, the strength, the smarts to be able to check,” Bednar said. “Really, the thing we try to sell to our team is the better we check, the more we are going to have the puck and the more we get to play with the puck and be dangerous offensively. That’s the sole purpose of checking the right way. Not just to keep the puck out of your net but to go create at the other end.”

Being a consistent two-way player has led to MacKinnon being trusted with so many defensive zone faceoffs that his statistics are in the neighborhood of venerable two-way centers such as Mikael Granlund, Roope Hintz, Sam Reinhart and even Crosby, per Natural Stat Trick.

“With Bedsy, he’s always pushing me to be the best I can,” MacKinnon said. “Even this season, a lot has been going on obviously. But there’s things we talk about every day whether it is 6-on-5 coverage or 5-on-5 coverage. Tracking, reloading, things like that. I’m definitely open to hear his opinion. I think he’s a great coach who’s always making me better for sure.”

IT’S BEEN 18 months since MacKinnon’s last Instagram post, while his most recent post on X came back in 2018, when it was still called Twitter.

“I’m not trying to be the cool guy on Instagram showing off different things,” he said. “I just want to be known for my hard work and dedication to the game.”

MacKinnon has no idea what’s being said about him, the season he’s having or if he and the Avs can win a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

But to suggest MacKinnon doesn’t pay attention to the world around him would be inaccurate — because he does. Especially when the conversation turns to what happened at the NHL All-Star Game back in February. More specifically, when he and Crosby posed for a picture with Justin Bieber.

Bieber stood between Crosby and MacKinnon with the pop star leaning closer to Crosby. The running joke on social media was that Bieber was going to crop MacKinnon out of the photo.

And then the joke became reality. Bieber posted several pictures from All-Star Weekend, including one of just him and Crosby, with the only vestige of MacKinnon being his right shoulder and his No. 29.

Others noticed. The most-liked comment on Bieber’s feed was about MacKinnon, with someone writing, “damn mackinnon got the crop.” It led to several responses ranging from, “what’d he ever do to you justin” to “i’m not even an avs fan and this hurts me lol.”

Another person chimed in to say, “but I mean … It’s Crosby …” followed by someone else stating “but its also mackinnon. Who eventually will be a hall of famer.”

So what does MacKinnon think of all this?

“Yeah, I don’t blame him,” MacKinnon said with a smile. “It’s Sidney Crosby! He’s an icon! A Canadian icon! I get it. I’m not like a household name. I know that, and that’s OK. It’s just funny to me. I’m not offended. Justin seemed like a nice guy.”

To MacKinnon’s point, Crosby is a future Hall of Famer who along with Washington Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin resuscitated the NHL post-lockout. Crosby has won three Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies and scored a gold medal-winning goal in the Olympics.

Bieber is one of the most popular musicians on the planet. He has 293 million Instagram followers, which would make his fans the fourth-most populous nation in the world behind China, India and the United States. All six of his studio albums went platinum at least once in the U.S. before he turned 30.

Still, it’s not like MacKinnon isn’t accomplished. He’s also a Stanley Cup champion who could win more before his career ends. He’s a seven-time NHL All-Star who has two 100-point seasons and has been in the top six of Hart Trophy voting five of the past six seasons — and he could potentially win the award as NHL MVP this season.

Everything he does on the ice is inescapable. MacKinnon is among those players who has become appointment viewing, whether it’s because someone wants to watching the Avs or checking out social media just to MacKinnon’s latest highlight. From his neutral zone entries to his goals to his assists to just the pureness of his technical ability as a skater have helped him become more of a topic of conversation over the years.

From MacKinnon’s perspective, life is good. Being in Denver means he can walk his new dog, a 25-pound Cavapoo. He had a German Shepherd named Cox that he loved so much that Cox was the logo for his fantasy football team. But Cox required more attention than MacKinnon could provide and now lives with MacKinnon’s parents. MacKinnon smiles when admitting that his new dog used to travel by bag when she was smaller, but now they go on walks to coffee shops and other places.

Living in a place where he’s not the most famous person allows MacKinnon to go to the grocery store in peace. He can wear a hat, a hoodie and joggers with nobody doing a double-take to ask, “Was that Nathan MacKinnon?” It makes him laugh to know that he blends in with everyone else even though he’s one of the best in the world at his profession.

“I guess I just don’t think about myself like that,” MacKinnon said. “I just don’t. I can’t control what people think and we’re not in the biggest market ever and I’m not posting a lot. I don’t know. I’m just living my life. I love my life and I like my privacy, I guess.”

ON SATURDAY, McDAVID authored a three-point game that had everyone talking about his Hart Trophy odds. Come Wednesday, that conversation shifted to Kucherov being the Hart favorite because he just had a three-point game. Only for MacKinnon to score three points the next night, opening the debate all over again.

This exact scenario also happened between March 30 and April 4.

This year’s Hart Trophy race is one of the tightest in years.

Lately, the Hart voting has been largely uncompetitive. McDavid captured the Hart last season by receiving 99.54% of the first-place votes. In 2021-22, Toronto Maple Leafs star center Auston Matthews had more than 61% of the first-place votes, and McDavid was a unanimous choice in 2020-21.

The most recent close race came in 2019-20, when Oilers star forward Leon Draisaitl garnered 53.5% of the first-place votes and 77% of the possible total points. The player who finished second received 28.2% of first-place votes and 68.35% of the possible total points.

That was MacKinnon.

Even when Kucherov won in 2018-19, he was almost a unanimous selection. He received 95.9% of the first-place votes.

In 2017-18, then-New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall won the Hart with 1,264 points (77% of the possible total points) with the next-closest vote-getter receiving 1,194 points (72.8%).

Again, the runner-up was MacKinnon.

Could it be that way again this year? Or is this the year MacKinnon finally wins the Hart?

Strong cases can be made for multiple players. Kucherov remained the constant for a Lightning team that struggled at times but is in the playoffs for the sixth straight season. He had four months in which he scored more than 20 points.

McDavid was crucial to the Oilers overcoming a slow start that saw them lose eight of their first 11 games before a coaching change was made. Since then, the game’s most dominant player has showed his ability to create for others is just as dangerous as his scoring ability as he became just the fourth player in NHL history to finish with 100 assists in a season with Kucherov later joining him as the fifth player to reach the century mark in assists.

That’s not even accounting for what New York Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin has done to help his team finish as the top seed in the East. Or the fact Matthews not only lead the NHL in goals (69) and entered the final game of the regular season with a chance to become the eighth player ever to score 70 goals in a season.

An argument could be made for what David Pastrnak has done to provide stability to a Boston Bruins team that faced questions without Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

And with the Penguins in contention right until the end of the season, some have said Crosby should at least be in the discussion.

MacKinnon told ESPN last year that one of the things he learned as a two-time Hart runner-up was to not be consumed with how others voted. Having that mentality has led to MacKinnon taking a more relaxed approach whenever he’s asked if this could be his year.

Especially with MacKinnon being serenaded with “MVP!” chants at Ball Arena going back to January.

“I want to be the best I can be, but I just truly can’t control who votes for me,” MacKinnon said when asked about the Hart Trophy. “I’ve been in this position before and it hasn’t gone my way, I guess. Everyone has their opinion and the things they like. It is what it is.

“Obviously, winning a Cup is the most important thing to me and that’s what drives me. I don’t think an individual award could drive me to the way I am. There’s such amazing players in this league that to be in the conversation — that’s great, but we’ll see.”

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