December 21, 2023
Nathan MacKinnon's First-Star interview on the ice and scoreboard screens -- after the game. 
When the fact came up after the game that Nathan MacKinnon, now in his 11th NHL season, had scored his 300th career goal in the Avalanche's 6-4 comeback win over Ottawa, his  response was predictably self-deprecating.
 It was as if MacKinnon was asking himself: What took you so long?
On his own, he brought up the "slow start to my career. So it (number 300) should have been a while ago."  

I'll get back to that, but that 300-goal milestone was just part of the Ball Arena storyline Thursday night. 
It was the first-ever four-goal game for an Avalanche player since the franchise moved to Denver in 1995. Think of all the accomplished scorers -- including Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg,  Valeri Kamensky, Milan Hejduk, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and more -- who have worn the burgundy and blue. None of them did it, and that's almost hard to believe. I've covered them all, over 28 years, since the franchise's arrival, and -- frankly -- I just assumed somebody had pulled it off, but that I just had forgotten the specifics. 
Nope, they hadn't.
That was among the, well, avalanche of information that came from the team about MacKinnon's stunningly productive four-goal, one-assist against the Senators. It provided fodder for the argument that he might be headed for not just being a Hart Trophy finalist again, but that he might actually win it and be able to compare notes about the MVP experience with Nikola Jokic.   
It also was MacKinnon's first career five-point game. 

His second goal against the Senators, which came at 18:28 of the first period was No. 300. From there, he first added a power-play goal at 6:16 of the third, which set off the shower of hats and then nervousness through  coach's challenge from Ottawa's Jacques Martin, a former Avalanche assistant, for possible offside. (If the goal was disallowed, would everyone have gotten their hats back?)
 "I didn't see it," MacKinnon said. "I heard it was really close and it could have went either way. You're surrendering at that point. What can I do? So just sitting there waitiing." 
His fourth goal was an empty-netter in the final minute. 
It was like one of those television ads for a chef-of-the-future kitchen gadget. BUT WAIT ... THERE'S MORE! 
MacKinnon's consecutive-game point streak is now 17. So is his season-opening home-game streak. Only the recently retired Paul Stastny, who had a 20-game streak in 2006-07, has had a longer streak with Colorado. Earlier with the Quebec Nordiques, Mats Sundin had a 30-game streak and Peter Stastny, Paul's dad, had streaks of 19 and 18 games. MacKinnon now also has matched Sundin and Peter Stastny's 17-game home point streaks to open seasons.
 “Yeah, I’m just trying to play my best I can," MacKinnon said. "Like I always say, I thought I’ve had better games, I just got some goals tonight, you know? They just went in. I fanned on one, hit one off the shin pad, empty netter. Sometimes it feels easy, sometimes it feels really hard, so tonight was easy.” 

Through 33 games, MacKinnon has 18 goals and 35 assists, and his 53 points are second in the NHL to Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov, the 2019 Hart winner who again is having a terrific season and has 57 points.

 MacKinnon's coach, among others, has taken notice. 
 "He's playing out of his mind right now, in my opinion," said Jared Bednar. 
MacKinnon is 28. As with mentioning that this is his 11th season, I'm not telling you anything there you didn't know, right? But it's still a little jarring. He has been here since 2013-14, Patrick Roy's first year behind the bench. In the wildly unstable, scapegoat-the-coach NHL, MacKinnon has played for only two head coaches, and that hasn't hurt.       
 Even Bednar during this run has mentioned the path of MacKinnon's career and the burden of expectations that -- to varying degrees -- come with going at No. 1 overall..
Yes, at age 17, he was the No. 1 overall choice in the 2013 draft and then was the Calder Trophy winner in that Avalanche's kismet 112-point season in 2013-14, also their first with Sakic at the top of the hockey operation. Co-author Adrian Dater and I told the story of that season in Save By Roy, and it also featured extensive profiles of the individual Avs, including the teenaged MacKinnon. It remains an intriguing read today because of the considerable foreshadowing. (At left: MacKinnon as an Avalanche rookie. Photo by Jerry Mellman.)    
But the point easy to downplay now is that 2013 wasn't considered a draft guaranteed to yield one of the NHL's "generational" players. Aleksander Barkov and Seth Jones were bona fide alternatives for the No. 1 pick. Barkov especially had at least one major proponent in the Avalanche organization. MacKinnon was not a no-brainer for that spot, and Roy's affinity for him as an opponent in the QMJHL was a significant part of the decision.     
He wasn't a "generational" talent.
 He has become one. 
After that promising rookie season, he seemed to stagnate, and his 16-goal season in the Avalanche's dreadful, 48-point 2016-17, their first year under Bednar, was the nadir. He was in the first season of a seven-year, $44.1-million deal, and expectations had been raised. I wrote about five columns that season and early the next saying MacKinnon needed to be better for the franchise to get back on track. 
He didn't dodge that. Not at all. That's why his "slow start" remark he made about his career Thursday night especially drew my attention.  
As that horrible 2016-17 season wound down, he told me in March: "I'm embarrassed by how many goals I have this season."
He also seemed to acknowledge that Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the No. 1 overall picks in 2015 and '16, respectively, were on that generational level -- and he, at least not yet, wasn't.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself and I always have,” MacKinnon told me thn. "I always felt like I was under the spotlight as a kid, and growing up in the same hometown (Halifax, Nova Scotia) as Sid (Crosby), there was always, ‘The next Sidney,’ which is tough. Hopefully this is just a down year. . . Being the No. 1 overall pick, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that and I definitely have to be better, that’s for sure.”

He acknowledged of McDavid and Matthews: “They’re No. 1 overall picks and they’re having lots of success. Hopefully I will …”

MacKinnon paused there to correct himself.

“No, I will be better than this,” he said. “I’ve scored 25 goals a couple of times, or close to it, and last year, I got hurt at the end of the season, which was too bad, I felt like I was having a solid year. But, yeah, those guys are great players and hopefully I can be at their level soon.”

 He's there. He's gone from good to great. He's on the same elite level as McDavid, the Hart winner in 2017, 2021 and 2023; and Matthews (2022).

 MacKinnon's progression accelerated long ago, shortly after that nightmare year. He was among the three Hart finalists in 2018, 2020 and 2021. He should have won in 2018, but it went to New Jersey's Taylor Hall. But since, he's continued that improvement, been on a Stanley Cup champion, and gotten past the frustration stage of his career.

Infamously, after the Avs' 2021 second-round playoff elimination in six games against Vegas, he said: "I'm going into my ninth year next year and I haven't won shit. So, I'm just definitely motivated, and it just sucks losing four (games) 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. But for whatever reason, we just couldn't get it together. I'm sure in training camp next year we'll figure it out, dissect things, and come back better." 

That was after the Avs' third consecutive second-round playoff exit.

He lifted the Cup a year later. 

And on an individual level, he's still improving.

He has become one of the league's most breathtaking players, literally in the sense that when he's carrying the puck up-ice, you inhale in anticipation of what you might see. 

There also was a time when if MacKinnon had a big night, the reaction was: Why can't he do that every night? 

Now, he darned near is. 

 Nathan MacKinnon's career stats


Hart Trophy winners during Nathan MacKinnon's career

2014 -- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh

2015 -- Carey Price, Montreal

2016 -- Patrick Kane, Chicago

2017 -- Connor McDavid, Edmonton  

* 2018 -- Taylor Hall, New Jersey

2019 -- Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay

* 2020 -- Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton

* 2021 -- Connor McDavid, Edmonton

2022 -- Auston Matthews, Toronto

2023 -- Connor McDavid, Edmonton 

* = Nathaniel MacKinnon was one of the 3 finalists

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