Lemieux: Avs' MacKinnon playing beyond his years

The Colorado Avalanche surprised plenty of folks last season with their stunning about-face from their last-place finish in the Western Conference in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

With first-year head coach Patrick Roy at the helm, an absolutely outstanding rookie season from 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, and a banner year for goaltender Semyon Varlamov, the Avs grabbed the title in a stacked Central Division that included the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild.

While most people were gobsmacked by the Avs' success, former Avalanche forward and four-time Stanley Cup champion Claude Lemieux was not. Having played with Roy in Colorado, Lemieux knew that Roy's passionate personality would take the team places no one expected.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Lemieux told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. “I know Patrick is a good coach -- more than a good coach, a really good coach. I knew he would have a big impact. He’s so committed to the game, he’s so well-prepared, and he understands winning. He has been a winner for life and that only translates to being contagious to players.”

Lemieux said he actually expected the Avalanche to fare far better in 2013, but knew it was only a matter of time once Roy was hired. The Avalanche lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Wild, in a seven-game series, but gained valuable postseason experience. Lemieux hopes that will aid them heading into their 2014-15 campaign.

“A big part of the credit goes to Patrick with his ability to get the max out of players,” Lemieux said. “When he was a teammate, he was pushing everyone to the next level. This year becomes critical in truly evaluating where the team is going.”

A main factor will be whether MacKinnon can follow up on his success last season, which earned him a Calder Trophy. It’s not unusual for a star player to suffer a “sophomore slump,” but MacKinnon truly impressed Lemieux beginning with the first game of his NHL career.

MacKinnon looked nervous, Lemieux thought, but he steadily got better as the game wore on.

“He could have cut ice time down, but Patrick kept throwing him out there, throwing him out there. His philosophy is that these young guys are here to stay. I’m going to win or lose with them,” said Lemieux, who played for the Avs from 1995-2000. “MacKinnon was lost and running around in his own end, but then all of a sudden he utilized his gut instinct. He became very physical, used his speed, made some big hits. This kid is gonna be a heck of a great player.”

Lemieux, whose son Brendan is a prospect for the Buffalo Sabres, saw MacKinnon rise to the occasion in the playoffs during the Avs’ playoff series loss to the Wild in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

The newbie finished with two goals and 10 points.

“The men come to play and the kids go to bed during the playoffs,” Lemieux said. “And he was their best player in the playoffs.”

As much as it helps to have a bevy of young stud players -- Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, in addition to MacKinnon -- a veteran presence is necessary as well. The Avs addressed that need this summer, trading for veteran center Daniel Briere and bringing in marquee free agent Jarome Iginla, who tied for the Boston Bruins' team lead with 30 goals last season.

“I like that they did that,” said Lemieux, who now works with Ritch Winter at the 4Sports & Entertainment Agency. “I’m a big believer in having a third, and a third, and a third. A third of players with less than five years of experience, a third of players with five to 10, and a third of players with 10 or more. They were running really low with players of 10 years or more. That’s an important combination to have, because those young guys need that.”