A telling indicator of Nathan MacKinnon‘s unyielding competitive drive can be found, of all places, on the golf course.
“I was so bad at golf,” the Colorado Avalanche center said. “This was probably five, six years ago. I used to play with some of the guys and I’d get so mad that I was so bad.”
Asked for his handicap at that time, MacKinnon laughed.
“I don’t think you could put a number on it,” he said. “Maybe shooting 120, 130. I was horrible.”
So, he bought himself customized clubs, hired a swing coach and went to work on his game because being bad at anything competitive is unacceptable in MacKinnon’s world.
“Well, he’s a good player now,” said Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness, who, like MacKinnon and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, is a member of Ashburn Golf Club in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they all live in the offseason. “He hits it a mile.”
His handicap now?
“I’m probably a five,” MacKinnon said. “Not too bad.”
Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog said, “It goes to show you he’s a freak, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it.”
The story of MacKinnon’s golf game relates to his hockey career, and especially to the season he’s having.
He was never bad at hockey, but he has never been better than he has been this season, a continuation of the massive improvement in MacKinnon’s production and profile in the NHL that appears to have begun 10 games into the 2017-18 season.
“There was a game against [the Vegas Golden Knights] that the Avalanche lost 7-0,” Colorado television broadcaster Peter McNab said, referring to a game played Oct. 27, 2017. “They came back the next night to play to play the [Chicago] Blackhawks. I was doing the game between the benches, and it was like Nathan just said, ‘Enough. Enough of this waiting.’ It was like, bam, he just exploded.”
Through that loss to Vegas, MacKinnon averaged 0.68 points per game in 310 NHL games (211 points; 76 goals, 135 assists). He has almost doubled his production since, averaging 1.35 points per game in his past 191 games (257 points; 106 goals, 151 assists).
He has raised his game even higher this season with 1.47 points per game through 45 games (66 points; 27 goals, 39 assists), a 120-point pace that would shatter his NHL career high of 99, set last season. He is third in the League in scoring, behind Edmonton Oilers forwards Connor McDavid (71 points) and Leon Draisaitl (70).
The fans have noticed, too, voting him as captain for the Central Division in the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis on Jan. 25.
“I kind of hit a crossroads in my career when I was like 21 and we came in last place,” MacKinnon said of the Avalanche finishing with 48 points, the fewest in the NHL, in 2016-17. “I felt like I had to pick between being a great player and a decent player. I was an OK player with 50 or 60 points, 20 goals, but I felt like had a lot more in the tank than that. I guess I was right. I still feel like I can get better. I mean, I’m 24 and I feel like I’m just ascending, and hopefully I haven’t hit my prime yet.”
Imagine if he hasn’t.
“If he’s not in his prime now, I mean, what’s he going to score when he is, 170 points?” Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson said. “He’s on pace for about 120 now.”
MacKinnon insists he hasn’t changed his game this season, that he’s the same as he was in 2018-19, when he had 41 goals and 58 assists in 82 games, and the season prior, when he had 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists) in 74 games.
But there is a difference in how he feels about the Avalanche (25-15-5), believing they are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after losing to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Second Round last season. He said that feeling has affected his performance.
“I really haven’t had this feeling since I was in juniors, of really believing you can win,” MacKinnon said. “I think it elevates everybody’s game. You want to be a winner, and I think you play better when there’s a bigger goal in mind.”
McNab said MacKinnon’s drive is more noticeable this season.
“There’s no question about it,” McNab said. “Nathan wants to be the best player. He realizes with the surrounding crew that he has now that they’ve added [rookie defenseman Cale] Makar that he has that opportunity to show everyone that he is the best player. How many players do you know that can actually say, ‘If I play my best, I am the best player in the world’? Maybe three? He’s one of them.”
McNab called Crosby and McDavid the other two.
“I never thought it would happen because I had my two boys, I had [Joe] Sakic and [Peter] Forsberg, and I had put them up as these are the two greatest centers the Avalanche will have,” McNab said about the two Hockey Hall of Famers. “I figured other players would come in, but nobody would come close to matching them. Well, Nathan is there. His numbers this year may far exceed anything that Joe or Peter got.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said MacKinnon has learned how to play without linemates Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, another reason MacKinnon has kept elevating his play and production.
It happened last season, when Colorado played without at least one of MacKinnon’s linemates for the final 14 regular-season games, including three games without both. MacKinnon had 15 points (seven goals, eight assists), and the Avalanche went 9-3-2, clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth in their second-to-last game of the season.
“Nate put the whole team on his back down the stretch and helped lead us into the playoffs,” Bednar said.
It happened again early this season, when the Avalanche played 14 games without Landeskog and Rantanen from Oct. 30-Nov. 29. MacKinnon had 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists), and the Avalanche stayed above water, going 7-6-1.
“I think there’s an added pressure that he puts on himself to make sure things keep going in the right direction, and that confidence that he’s able to do that now is something that’s more visible,” Bednar said. “That’s part of his growth. It’s a confidence thing. It’s leadership. It’s maturity.”
That maturity has shown up in other parts of his game, including his aggressiveness with the puck.
MacKinnon led the League in shots on goal last season with 365 and is second this season with 210, two behind than Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin in one fewer game. He’s on pace for 382 this season.
He was eighth in shots in 2017-18 with 284, then an NHL career high after he took 251 in 2016-17 (tied for 16th) and 245 in 2015-16 (24th).
“I’m in good areas and I don’t want to pass up the shots,” MacKinnon said. “I find with my speed I get a lot of rush shots that sometimes aren’t great quality, but I think the toughest way to play defense is when guys shoot the puck and get it back. Usually when you get that second puck back it’s a lot more dangerous. I try to be aggressive, and with my aggressive mindset comes a lot of shots.”
MacKinnon is also one of the NHL’s most accurate shooters, putting 60.0 percent of his shot attempts on goal (210 of 350) and tying for sixth in the League among the 15 players with 150 or more shots on goal this season. He has attempted at least 91 more shots than everyone ahead of him on the list.
“He’s not forcing plays, he’s taking what’s there,” Bowness said. “If the shot is there, he’s taking it. He’s not looking for the extra play. He’s not looking for the pretty play. He’s taking the play that’s in front of him. If that shot is there, and he’s got a great release, he’s taking it.”
And if MacKinnon doesn’t score on the shot, he’s often creating rebound opportunities for Landeskog and Rantanen.
“Exactly,” Bowness added. “Those two other guys know how to read off him really well. They can sniff it out with the best of them.”
Then there is MacKinnon’s backhand pass, which McNab said has improved enough to become a weapon.
Those who were interviewed about MacKinnon also referenced his ability to get by defenders with either his speed or power moves. Bowness said it is enhanced by his improved decision-making regarding when to use which attribute.
“He’s like speed of a cheetah and the power like a bull,” Johnson said. “He’s just like a hybrid. He’s got all the attributes. He can power his way through you. He can skate his way through you. He can kind of do whatever he wants.”
On the ice and, apparently, the links too.
“I think it’s that addiction to perfection that just makes him who he is and makes him the superstar that he is today,” Landeskog said. “That’s just who he is.”