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Time for Nathan MacKinnon to Prove He is Elite

It was back in 2011 that Nathan MacKinnon’s name first became aligned with greatness.

Dominating the minor hockey league circuit in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia–home of the game’s premier talent, Sidney Crosby–MacKinnon racked up over 200 points in 50 games as a youngster, bringing praise from all corners of the hockey world and projections of a future first-overall NHL draft selection.

After a banner run that included elite performances for Shattuck St. Mary’s (where he posted 194 points in 98 games) and the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads (153 points in 102 games), those ambitious projections became reality when MacKinnon was tabbed with the first pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Canadian phenom continued to impress in his rookie season, posting 24 goals and 63 points to beat out Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

However, his sophomore campaign was a different story. After his Avalanche finished first in their division during MacKinnon’s rookie season, losing in the first round of the postseason in a tough seven-game match-up with the Minnesota Wild, the 2014-15 campaign saw Colorado quickly fall back to earth.

The team dropped to seventh place in their division and missed the playoffs. MacKinnon, sidelined by a broken foot, was limited to 64 games, and posted 14 goals and 38 points in that time (which projects to roughly 18 goals and 48 points over a full 82-game season). It was undoubtedly a step back from the young star, as he began to look less like Crosby and more like a middle-of-the-pack talent.

Colorado’s General Manager Joe Sakic–whose understanding of the game is well established due to his own Hall of Fame career–offered an interesting take on MacKinnon’s situation, saying the following to the Denver Post about his young star’s season:

“I think the league adjusted to him. I know he worked hard in the summer and I saw him skate. He really looked ready. But the league adjusted to him. They weren’t going to give him that open ice. We all saw what happened last year when he did have that open ice. They adjusted to him and it’s just a matter of him coming back next year and doing the same offseason stuff he did, but he’s got to learn to adjust to how the league has adjusted to him.”

Sakic knows a thing or two about that. The legendary centreman saw his career take the opposite trajectory of MacKinnon’s in his youth, as Sakic flipped the script and adjusted to the NHL before they adjusted to him at all. He potted 62 points in his rookie campaign with the Quebec Nordiques, before posting back-to-back 100-point seasons over the following two years, launching a career for the ages.

Suffice to say, if anyone knows how to stay at the top, it’s Sakic–who was racking up 100-point seasons all the way until the third-last season of his 21-year career, when he scored an even 100 at age 38. That being the case, MacKinnon would be wise to heed his GM’s advice and take a closer look at his game.

Even the best in the sport can see their offensive prowess shut down if their approach gets stagnant. Alex Ovechkin even suffered such a fate. After posting near or over 50 goals in each of his first five seasons, Ovechkin saw his numbers dip significantly between 2010 and 2012 as the league adjusted to his style and began defending him more astutely. As a result, the “Great 8’s” goal totals dipped into the 30’s for two seasons, despite him playing nearly complete campaigns.

Ovechkin’s coach at the time, Bruce Boudreau, offered up this familiar explanation of the Russian sniper’s dip in numbers:

“I think you tend to just imagine the goals you used to see, because they stood out more in your mind. Those opportunities aren’t there as much because everybody knows what he’s doing now – and they’re defending it well.”

But just as all of the game’s true greats do, Ovechkin adjusted. The following year, he posted 32 goals in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13, marking a return to his 50-goal pace. He potted over 50 tallies in each of the next two seasons as well.

All great goal scorers must adjust as defenders learn how to handle them.

Now it’s MacKinnon’s turn to do the same.

The accolades flew in when the young scorer was a fresh face in the league, but MacKinnon’s sophomore performance had him seem much more mediocre. The true test will come this season.

A quick look at some of the game’s other bright young offensive stars reveals that the third season is a crucial one in terms of breaking out and establishing dominance. John Tavares jumped from 67 points in his second season to 81 in his third. Tyler Seguin posted 67 points in his second season, and tallied 84 points in the next full campaign. Claude Giroux finished in the 70-point range in his second full season, and jumped to 93 in his third.

The list of examples goes on and on.

For a select few exceptional talents, there is no adjustment period. Generational scorers like Crosby, Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin were able to light it up right away and never look back. But for those who comprise the slightly lower level of the league’s top tier, the third season is key.

This is especially true for MacKinnon as he enters 2015-16 with many unsure of his true potential. He could be one of the game’s best, set to compete for scoring titles and remain an international mainstay. Or he could simply be above average, but not elite. Nothing is certain at this point, but the power is all MacKinnon’s when it comes to shaping the conversation.

His talent has never been questioned. Despite being only 20, MacKinnon is already one of the fastest skaters in the league, and his propensity to dig into the tough areas and go hard to the net allows him to bring a brand of offense that is much less likely to fall towards inconsistency.

But this only guarantees that MacKinnon will be good. For him to be great, he’ll have to do much more.

He’ll have to echo the performance of his former idol and current training partner, Sidney Crosby, and continuously adapt and adjust so as to keep opponents off-balance in their attempts to stop him.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain did just that in his youth. First finding himself consistently on the losing end of faceoffs in his early years, Crosby honed in during the summer and came back as one of the best in the league, upping his faceoff percentage from 51.3% to 56%. Considered a playmaker first and foremost, and not on the level of rival Ovechkin when it came to goalscoraring, Crosby again adapted, coming back to score 51 goals and 109 points to win the Rocket Richard Trophy.

The impressive feats of MacKinnon’s offseason counterpart have been well documented, and spending the entirety of his summer alongside the perennial All-Star should have a tremendous effect on MacKinnon’s potential.

He and his Colorado counterparts are certainly off to a good start. MacKinnon currently sits tied for second place in the league scoring race with five points through two games. While that means very little given how early it is in the 2015-16 campaign, it does suggest one thing: MacKinnon is already engaged and ready to compete at his highest level.

If he can continue to contend with the game’s top scorers for the rest of the season, he could very well find himself elevated into that top-tier group of scorers, and could finally regain his place among the sport’s brightest young stars.

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