Why the best is yet to come for Nathan MacKinnon

After a breakout season in 2017-18, Nathan MacKinnon wants to carry the Avalanche to even greater heights this season. Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

In the span of four seasons, Nathan MacKinnon went from the next big thing to "eh, maybe not." Which, it turns out, might have been exactly what needed to happen for the Colorado Avalanche star to become the next big thing.

"I think sometimes frustration and, for the most part, anger and embarrassment can be a good motivator," said teammate and linemate Gabriel Landeskog. "He wanted to prove that he was an elite player in this league, and he did that."

He had much to prove. In 2014, MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year with 63 points, but he didn't come close to repeating those results in the next three seasons, with 38, 52 and 53 points. That last campaign in 2016-17 was his professional nadir: 16 goals and 37 assists in 82 games. His star had steadily dimmed: no votes for any NHL awards, a third-liner for Team North America at the World Cup, a footnote to the drama about the present and future of teammate Matt Duchene, and all of it happening on an Avalanche team that hadn't made it back to the postseason since his freshman season.

At this time last season, Nathan MacKinnon was probably best known for a stellar rookie season and being that other guy from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, playing sidekick to friend and childhood idol Sidney Crosby in commercials for a doughnut shop.

Then it happened: 39 goals, 58 assists in 74 games, or 1.31 points per game. MacKinnon lifted the Avalanche back to the playoffs, finished second in the Hart Trophy voting to Taylor Hall and redefined his career by releasing an offensive barrage on the NHL that surprised even MacKinnon.

"I didn't even know I could do that," he told ESPN. "I had like 50 points the year before. I just wanted to establish myself as a solid hockey player, and I didn't know I could get that. Now I do. Now the confidence is there."

Ask his teammates and they'll tell you that confidence never exactly left him, even in those meandering seasons.

"He's always had the swagger. He was [drafted] first overall. He lit up junior. He won rookie of the year. He's always been this good in his mind," said defenseman Tyson Barrie. "He's got a unique personality. He's one of those guys that'll always shoot you straight, and he's always been like that since he was 17. He knows he's a great player. That's where the confidence comes from. The team follows his lead."

Barrie has been MacKinnon's teammate for the entirety of his NHL career, watching the young scorer's "happy hands" maneuver the puck in ways few others in the league can.

"There were games last season when it almost felt like you were back in minor hockey, watching him take on two defenders. He was dominating games last year. Some nights he looked unstoppable. And he was. He was toying with defenses," he said.

Because of that skill, MacKinnon was a "confident guy," on and off the ice, according to Landeskog. "But there's a big difference between confident and cocky. I wouldn't say he's cocky. He doesn't like to talk about his accomplishments. If you question him, he's not afraid to tell you what he sees and what he wants. Like telling us to give him the puck sometimes," he said, with a laugh.

"Which is obviously a fair point. Sometimes you have to play the hot hand."

MacKinnon has always passed off credit for his incredible resurgence to linemates Landeskog, the 25-year-old Swedish power forward who won the Calder in 2012, and 21-year-old Mikko Rantanen, a 6-foot-4 Finnish offensive engine. Their line has been one of the most dominant in the NHL for the past two seasons: In 77 games together since Oct. 2017, they're a plus-26 in goal differential at 5-on-5. In eight games this season, they've generated eight even-strength goals and surrendered just two.

Colorado coach Jared Bednar had a few questions about his team heading into this season, after his first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs as a bench boss. The play of that trio wasn't among them.

"If you know Nathan, and the drive that the top line has and the expectations put on themselves, there's nothing there that would make you believe that they're going to regress," he said.

Bednar, to his credit, helped foster that performance last season by changing the way MacKinnon was used on the power play, taking him from the middle to the left half wall. MacKinnon responded by having as many power-play goals (12) as he had scored in the previous three seasons combined, along with 20 assists.

"We always thought he would work well on that side. Unfortunately, some coaches saw it differently," said Barrie, tossing some shade. "But it's nice that we got it figured out. If you look around the league, the great scorers have their favorite spot on the power play to shoot. And now Nate's got that."

MacKinnon's start has been everything Bednar wanted, and perhaps even more: eight goals and six assists in eight games, putting him second in the NHL with 14 points, behind Auston Matthews (16) as of Monday.

"It helps prove that last season wasn't a one-off. That he can repeat that performance or better that performance," Bednar said.

The Colorado center was, of course, confident that there wouldn't be any falloff like there was after his previous best offensive campaign as a rookie. "No ... I was 19 years old. Different mindset. It's my sixth year now. I think the whole team had success my first year, especially offensively and especially on the power play. The second year was more of a struggle. I think that's what's hockey's mostly like. It's tough. It's a grind," he said.

Everyone handles the grind differently. Like many other under-25 players in the NHL, MacKinnon is playing copious amounts of "Fortnite" this season, building and battling in a virtual landscape with teammates such as Matt Nieto, whom he considers the best on the team. "He's fun to play with. We'll drop anywhere hot. We're not trying to chop wood for 30 minutes and then come in second. We're trying to get some kills early," MacKinnon said. "I get greasy sometimes, for sure."

There's also an anonymity that comes with playing a game like "Fortnite" that MacKinnon no doubt appreciates. He's a fairly private individual. He has taken a step back from social media, for example, as his on-ice fortunes have changed. His Instagram, previously vibrant, has been dormant since August 2017.

"I'm not off it, just not that active, I guess. I just don't see the point," he said.

His last photo on the Gram: MacKinnon giving a bear hug to his German shepherd, who is more than a dog to him.

"He's so smart that it feels like it's not a dog, it's a roommate. He's very sensitive. You know what he's thinking. You just watch his ears. But he's very emotional. It's not like one state all the time. But he's always happy to see me," he said. "He's a German protection dog. Like a police dog. They train them for three years before you can get them."

Sometimes it takes a few years before the animal can be unleashed.