Why Nathan MacKinnon is the best hockey player in the world


Kevin Bieksa, former NHL defenseman and current hockey commentary savant on Sportsnet, recently told a story about how badly Nathan MacKinnon wanted to punch people in the face.

They were representing Canada at the 2014 IIHF world championships. MacKinnon, 18 at the time, came up to him after practice, dropped his gloves and asked Bieksa to give him some fighting pointers. This was following MacKinnon’s Calder Trophy-winning rookie season, the year after he was selected first overall by the Colorado Avalanche.

“I said you’re a superstar. You don’t need to worry about fighting. But he said, ‘No, I want to be able to protect myself. I don’t want someone else fighting my battles,'” recalled Bieksa. “Right away I noticed the strength of the kid, but I also noticed the will. Fighting, to me, is about the will. And this kid has the will.”

In Game 2 of the Avalanche’s five-game elimination of the Arizona Coyotes, MacKinnon exerted his will on Christian Fischer. After Cale Makar was hit from behind, MacKinnon took a cross-check up high during an ensuing scrum. He responded by putting Fischer in a headlock and ragdolling him to the ice, like a Rottweiler mauling a chew toy.

“I think Fischer cross-checked the wrong guy in the face. You saw what Nate did to him. He absolutely manhandled him. Probably could have thrown 10 punches and then knocked him out,” was the assessment of Matt Calvert, MacKinnon’s teammate.

MacKinnon laughed. “I don’t know about that.”

Calvert’s point was essentially Bieksa’s point: Whatever Nathan MacKinnon wills into existence, it will exist. He has nine points in seven playoff games, after a regular season in which he was a Hart Trophy finalist. In those seven games, his reunited line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen has yet to be scored on and has a 70.69 expected goals percentage.

Our default setting as hockey fans is that Sidney Crosby‘s “Best Hockey Player In The World” crown has been passed onto the head of Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, a freak of nature who scores at will and makes plays at a tempo unmatched in NHL history.

But what if the crown remains in Cole Harbour. Nova Scotia, on the head of its second favorite son next to Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon?

Let’s first agree that McDavid’s offensive prowess is superhuman. He’s scored 321 points in his last 224 games since 2017-18, for a points-per-game average of 1.43, leading the NHL in both categories. Of that total, 219 came at even strength, also an NHL best. MacKinnon was third in points (289 in 225 games), points per game (1.28) and was sixth in even-strength points (188). Advantage: McDavid.

But defensively, MacKinnon has the advantage. Evolving Hockey’s metrics give him the nod in expected defensive goals above replacement and expected defense, which combines that metric with shorthanded defense per 60 minutes. Over a three-season span in the latter category, MacKinnon was at a minus-0.03 and McDavid was at minus-0.18. But the gap was considerable this season: MacKinnon was just on the plus side of the metric (0.03) while McDavid was not (minus-0.22). Advantage: MacKinnon.

Jared Bednar, MacKinnon’s coach, said he’s made a discernible commitment to becoming a better defensive player.

“He’s just elevated his games on both sides. He’s always been good on the offensive side. The importance he’s put on the defensive side of the game has just been outstanding. You don’t see that from all the star player, you know? You see it from some. But you don’t see it from all,” he said.

You saw it from Crosby, who is not only MacKinnon’s Cole Harbour neighbor but a mentor and friend. I’ve always felt Crosby’s greatest attribute is his aptitude. His former coach, Dan Bylsma, once explained to me how Sid would watch a play from another team on television, go to practice the next day, try it out around 10 times and then add that skill set to his repertoire.

“We talk about faceoffs and what he did with faceoffs. We talk about his shot, what he did with his shot. But there was an instance where the puck hit the end boards, and he was near the side of the net, and it came out and he had a chance to score and he missed it. The next day, he was out getting pucks to go off the end boards, to that area and he’d make a play. He did 15 pucks and he’s got it,” Bylsma told me.

Maybe it’s the Crosby influence, but MacKinnon has steadily gotten better on defense. He’s worked at it. The results are obvious.

“You take a look at the game and watch his shifts, and it’s the importance that he’s putting on the defensive side of the game. He understands that he is able to play great defense. It’s hard work, it’s commitment, it’s physicality, it’s doing all the things on the defensive side to help out our team offensively. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s intelligent. He’s able to shut down other teams’ top players because of that commitment. Their numbers reflect that. They’re not giving up scoring chances,” said Bednar.

The other difference between MacKinnon and McDavid is in raw tonnage. The Avalanche star is 6 feet tall and listed at 200 pounds. The Oilers star is listed at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds. You can’t stop McDavid because you can’t catch him. You can’t stop MacKinnon because you can’t stop MacKinnon.

“He’s extremely tough to play against. Super-skilled but also strong. He can win battles. He’s the complete package,” said Avs winger Joonas Donskoi, a former opponent turned teammate.

Then there’s his engine. Someone asked MacKinnon if he could be effective in back-to-back playoff games after playing the majority of the third period in Game 2. “That’s why I win fitness testing every year,” he joked.

Look, McDavid, 23, is one of the most incredible talents of my lifetime. He’s only going to get better. MacKinnon, 24, is the total package now.

I asked Bednar: Does MacKinnon care about being the best player in the world? Is that something that drives him?

“It’s a tough question. Do I think it matters to him? Yeah, I think it matters to him. I think he wants to be the best. Deep down,” he said. “And when I say, ‘be the best,’ I don’t know if it’s compared to every other player in the league. I think it’s him wanting to be the best player that he can possibly be. That’s the way he should look at it.”

Of course, there’s another way to establish greatness: Be the one lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

“When I talk about being the best, I’m not talking about the best individual player in the world or wanting the accolades. I think that’s just icing on the cake if it happens,” said Bednar. “I think it’s about wanting to win the trophy we’re all here trying to win.”

The Avalanche have a better chance than most, if MacKinnon wills it.

The at-home arena experience

Without the opportunity to watch playoff hockey in the arena, we’re all left trying to re-create that vibe in our homes. What if we had a little help to that end? What if some of the sounds and smells from playoff games could be transferred to our home through the magic of gross perfumes and annoying commentary?

In other words: What if HockeyIsBack.com was an actual marketplace, and not just a hilarious parody? (Warning: Some adult language on the site.)

It’s the website of a fake hockey company called Hockey Corp. Worldwide USA that sells products to help replicate the in-stadium experience at home. The twisted minds behind it are the guys that created all of these Boston Bruins Bear commercials that were all the rage a few years ago. Maybe your life needs $20 beer, an album with tracks like “Shoot the puck!” and a candle that smells like beef. Maybe not.

I asked site co-creator Greg Almeida what the heck we’re looking at.

Why do this?

Almeida: “Well, the world kind of sucks right now. And long story short, we could all use a laugh. This homage to the in-stadium experiences — that we all actually kind of love and can relate to — is just a small way to fill the void of not being able to watch playoff hockey in person.”

What “product” is the most essential to re-create the arena experience and why?

Almeida: “That’s a very subjective question, as each of us take in the games differently based on personal preference and geography. For example, a game in Pittsburgh may have a higher proclivity toward ‘Floor Urine’ while a game in Arizona may sport more ‘Trash Tattoo’ sightings [assigning these cities purely at random, of course]. The safest, most universal answer is probably the ‘Twenty Dollar Beer”‘ [for $21]. We’re all intimately familiar with spending a small fortune on mediocre beer at a game in arenas all across North America.”

Our favorite touch on this goofy site: “Credit cards, PayPal and Venmo not accepted. Traveler’s Checks only.”

Three questions about these inescapable Stanley Cup playoff commercials

1. Where did Ryan Whitney and Paul Bissonnette get their limes? I’m more than willing to accept that two former NHL players would toast glasses of vodka after an impromptu skills competition at the local rink. But slices of lime aren’t exactly prevalent at a snack stand filled with week-old popcorn and vile coffee. Did they bring their own? If so, were they presliced, or did they use their skates?

2. “Taxidermy” looks nothing like “Tax Attorney,” does it? I realize that Broadway legend Idina Menzel read that wrong (“OH YEAAAAAAH!”), but the latter of these choices is two different words. Also, it doesn’t make sense: The misinterpreted lyric is “following her dreams into taxidermy,” so the intended lyric is “following her dreams into tax attorney”? Forget the grammar; who dreams of being a tax attorney?

3. If it turned out Martin Brodeur left a Jennings Trophy in his rental car, would he bother to pick it up? I mean, he’s got five of them. Guess at least two are bookends, one’s a doorstop, one’s a flower pot. The other one’s disposable, in theory. Certainly not as important as a solid coffee mug, that’s for sure.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I begin the podcast talking about the Lightning’s series win over the Blue Jackets, and then hand out quarterfinal superlatives. Jonathan Marchessault weighs in on his Golden Knights advancing to the second round over Chicago, and life in the Edmonton bubble. ESPN NFL Analyst Damien Woody explains how he became an Islanders fan, and what type of hockey player he would be, had he played. Plus he answers the age-old question: Would Bill Belichick have been a great hockey coach? Plus, Jack Edwards earns the “Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs” treatment this week. Review, subscribe and download here.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Columbus Blue Jackets

They couldn’t pull off another stunner against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Jackets added the right amount of chaos to this restarted season. Their quarterfinal series was entertaining, including that instant-classic five-overtime Game 1. Joonas Korpisalo, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Seth Jones saw their stocks soar. Most of all, they handed Toronto an extensional crisis, which is always fun.

Losers: Arizona Coyotes

After the Coyotes lost Game 4 to Colorado 7-1, coach Rick Tocchet called it a “debacle” and said “I know everyone’s going to say that we have no chance in the next game, but I’m looking for some character from some guys.” They failed the character test miserably, losing 7-1 again. Yes, they were banged up. Yes, the Avalanche are the vastly superior team. But what a brutal way to skulk out of the bubble.

Winner: Robin Lehner

Longtime readers know I’m not a fan of the handshake line. Most of them are phony and the worst kind of performative sportsmanship. They’re cruel, too: Is there anything more humiliating than having to shake the hand of the men who bludgeoned, crushed your dreams and took money out of your pocket? That established, Vegas goalie Robin Lehner’s bro-hug fest with the Blackhawks, after eliminating the team that traded him at the deadline, was genuinely moving. I’ll allow it.

Loser: Postseason officiating

A player texted me the other day about postseason officiating: “Every game, it’s insane how different and inconsistent it is. It’s been terrible.” No kidding. Standards for obstruction shift game to game. A hard hit one night is a five-minute major the next. As is tradition, teams in dire situations during series are helped along by power plays, or a lack of penalty kills. Did Pierre-Luc Dubois know he could have just clubbed Brayden Point with a lead pipe before the latter’s series-clinching goal, and not gotten whistled for it?

Winner: Rick Peckham

Fare thee well to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s play-by-play voice since 1995 (!), who called his final game for the team, a game that just happened to feature a series-clinching overtime goal.

Loser: Jack Edwards

Oh Jack. The Boston Bruins announcer placed his loafer in his pie-hole when he claimed Carolina star Andrei Svechnikov “bit off more than he could chew” when Zdeno Chara injured him. “What NBC hasn’t shown yet, regarding the unfortunate injury to Svechnikov: the Carolina wing playing hobby-horse, riding Chara on the back apron of the goal. You poke the bear, you take your chances,” he tweeted. One problem: It was Sebastian Aho that rode Chara behind the net, not Svechnikov. The announcers even said it at the time. No bears poked. No biting or chewing. Just a bad take on Svechnikov.

Winner: Legacy

If the measure of a man is how he’s remembered, then Dale Hawerchuk had quite the life. The Hockey Hall of Famer died of cancer at 57 this week, leading to an outpouring of emotion from those who played with him, those who coached him, those he coached and those who competed against him. Said Jets star Mark Scheifele, who played for Hawerchuk as a member of the OHL’s Barrie Colts: “Everything he said, everything he was explaining to me, just went straight to my heart. ‘I want to go play for him and he’s the right decision to come play here.’ It was almost like God telling me this is your path and I want you to take it. He was everything to me, that’s for sure.”

Puck headlines

  • Tuukka Rask told WEEI’s Greg Hill why he left the Bruins in the bubble. “I can tell you that he got a phone call in the bubble from his wife, because there was a medical emergency with their daughter,” Hill said. “Basically, the kind of situation where I believe Tuukka Rask did what every parent would do and was obviously very concerned. It was suggested they seek medical help.”

  • An interview with Jimmy Carson, who was traded for Wayne Gretzky and reacquired by the Kings a few years later. “It’s funny, [owner] Bruce McNall told me, I’m going to get you back. You hear it, and you don’t really believe it, but okay. So, when I came back, it was a totally different feel, everything that I had remembered, it was different. There was more media, everything was centered around Wayne, it was media galore.”

  • Sad news: The University of Alaska-Anchorage plans to drop hockey after this season.

  • Frustrating news: The New York State Amateur Hockey Association said last week some of its players tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a skills clinic in New Hampshire and playing in a tournament in Connecticut. Some players are “very sick,” the association said, and have passed the virus to family members.

  • Brendan Gallagher had a Brendan Gallagher night against the Flyers. “That’s the Gally we love, and that’s what he can bring to the team,” said coach Kirk Muller. “He brought the guys into the fight tonight. He’s a competitor, he plays hard and he works for every goal he gets and I thought he had an exceptional game tonight.”

  • Tim Hortons is delaying the release of its Hockey Barbie in order to “rush the production of a Black version of the Barbie doll, which comes with a Tim Hortons jersey, helmet and hockey stick.”

  • Down Goes Brown offers up the 25 most painful first-round losses of the cap era.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

How playing without fans is influencing wins and losses, from a lack of momentum to struggles with self-motivation.

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