The NHL's best and worst this week: How Sidney Crosby inspired Nathan MacKinnon to 'take less'

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As a good Canadian boy, Nathan MacKinnon should have known better. Earlier this month, his Colorado Avalanche were visiting the Toronto Maple Leafs, and in the visiting locker room, MacKinnon talked to a reporter from Forbes about his contract. MacKinnon said he has "no regrets" about inking his contract in 2016 that would pay him $6.3 million per year -- which turned out to be one of the league's best bargains -- and added, "on my next deal, I'll take less again."

The comments went viral.

"That blew up more than I thought it would," MacKinnon told me last week in Chicago. "I forgot I was in Toronto speaking. I'm used to being in Denver. If I said that in Denver it would have just been brushed aside."

Nonetheless, I wanted to know if MacKinnon stood by his comments. He did. Then I wanted to know something else. Did he get that mindset from the player he grew up idolizing, Sidney Crosby? The answer was yes again.

"We're really tight, he's like my brother -- my big brother," MacKinnon said of Crosby. "We get together in the summer and stay in touch during the season. I kind of just listen to whatever he tells me to do. Growing up, I was a huge fan of him -- the biggest fan you could find."

Crosby famously took $8.7 million -- an homage to his jersey number, 87 -- as his annual cap hit, below his market worth. And in turn, it helped the Penguins win multiple Stanley Cups. The 24-year-old MacKinnon took notice of the correlation.

"Absolutely," MacKinnon said. "I look up to Sid. That's kind of where I got it from. I tease him sometimes about it, but at the end of the day, [Kris] Letang and [Evgeni] Malkin wouldn't have [taken less] and who knows if they would have won another Cup after '09? They got guys like [Patric] Hornqvist, [Nick] Bonino, [Carl] Hagelin, [Phil] Kessel. If Sid took 12 [million] and Malkin took 12, then back then that would have crippled their team. Yeah, eight and a half [million] for Sid is ridiculous. Sorry, 8.7 is ridiculous for him. Best player in the world, especially when they were winning, he was a beast in the playoffs. But he took less and they won a lot.

"So that's where I get that mindset from. He's happy with what he has. He has three Cups. He's living a good life. He's fine. Trust me, he's fine."

MacKinnon's contract isn't up until after the 2022-23 season, but there's a reason he feels comfortable talking about it now, in another MVP-level campaign, where he trails only Edmonton's duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid for the league lead in points (MacKinnon has 53 through 36 games).

The injury bug has bitten the Avalanche. They missed MacKinnon's linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog for extended time, and more recently have managed injuries to their top two defensemen, Cale Makar and Erik Johnson. And yet, they've been able to string together wins. Part of it is because of MacKinnon's MVP-level play when his go-to wingers were out (in 14 games without both this season, MacKinnon had 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points). But part of it is due to the team's depth, a new facet this season.

"This is my seventh season, and I've never been on a team that might win the Cup or believes they can win the Cup," MacKinnon said. "In my previous six years, you say it, but you don't really mean it. You know deep down you're not going to win it. This year, it really feels like we have a chance."

So how does that pertain to his contract?

"Obviously, you want to be paid what you're worth," MacKinnon said. "But in a salary-cap world, what I might be worth might be too much for the cap, and I like having great players around me. We couldn't have signed [Pierre-Edouard] Bellemare or [Matt] Calvert or [Joonas] Donskoi. We have a lot of good players here. If Mikko and Landy both got hurt and we didn't have those guys, we would have struggled mightily.

"At the end of the day, I'm making a lot of money right now. I'm making enough money. And I'm happy."

Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn't like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

Emptying the notebook

If you watch the Avalanche, you'll see MacKinnon takes a ton of shots. In fact, the only player in the league who takes more is Alex Ovechkin. MacKinnon's total has gone up every season since his second in the league, and now that he's averaging 4.61 per game, he's on pace to break his personal best from last season and reach 378 by season's end. "I just try to be involved and be aggressive," MacKinnon said. "When I play my best, I do shoot a lot of pucks for whatever reason. I don't have the best shooting percentage out of everyone, but I do like to get a lot of pucks on net. I found when I do that, our whole line gets a lot of success."

Of Crosby, MacKinnon said: "He's a great guy, a funny guy. He doesn't give the media a ton, but he does have a ton of personality." So I asked MacKinnon how much his approach will be different, and how willing and comfortable he is to put himself out there. "I like doing that stuff when it's not me promoting it," MacKinnon said. "I'm not a big Instagram guy. I don't really promote myself. Maybe I should more. My agents would like that, I'm sure. But I enjoy doing TV shows. I've done some 'Trailer Park Boys' stuff, some different TV shows, a lot of commercials, like with Tim Horton's in Canada.

"I have a lot of fun doing that stuff, and I'm willing to put myself out there in that sense for sure. But I'm still not a big Instagrammer, I know it's the wave right now, but I just can't get into it."

The SM-liiga, or Finnish Elite League, announced new major punishments this past week to crack down on head shots. The rules were adopted at the board of governors meeting. As part of the sweeping disciplinary changes, all checks that are determined to be at the head will have an automatic suspension of a minimum five games. The disciplinary committee also has the ability to ban a player up to six games or nine months, depending on the severity of the head shot and injury to the victim -- which can go even longer, if the board of governors approves it.

What struck me in the comments from board chair Heikki Hiltunen was that he wants Finland to be on the forefront of safety in the international game. They're also setting up a "team of experts" to look into safety-enhancing rule changes and rule interpretations.

I asked my good friend Sami Hoffren, who moved back to Helsinki this year to cover the Finnish Elite League, how this was all being received in Finland. He said that the board of governors didn't consult the players before their decision, which the players did not appreciate. "But most players understand that's something they had to do," Hoffren said.

On Hockey Night in Canada on Sunday, it was reported that the Capitals and Braden Holtby will table any contract talks until after the season. Sportsnet's Elliott Friedman pointed out that it's not unusual for Washington to give out contracts over the summer for similar players (T.J. Oshie is one example). But I get the sense the Capitals are comfortable moving on from Holtby, and opting for the cheaper and younger option in Ilya Samsonov next season (he's 22 and has another full season on his entry-level contract). But we'll see how the season plays out.

What we liked this week

  • Don't look now (who are we kidding, it's Toronto, everyone in hockey is looking), but the Maple Leafs have won four straight games -- and are 10-4 under Sheldon Keefe -- to move into the second Atlantic Division playoff spot. They're tied for the most wins in the league in that span, and averaging a league-high 3.71 goals in that timeframe, too. And hey, they even won a game by starting a goalie not named Frederik Andersen. Big things happening up North!

  • Things haven't been going great in Columbus this season -- besides suffering through the great comedown that was the all-in 2019 postseason run, the Blue Jackets have been barraged by injuries. But here's something to take solace in: Joonas Korpisalo has had a few strong starts lately, including becoming the first goaltender to shut out the Caps this season.

What we didn't like this week

  • Here's some sobering truth about the Los Angeles Kings. They might have won some Cups, but they have made poor financial decisions since (and locked up too many aging players to bloated contracts) and continue to pay for it:

  • Speaking of dependence, the Sabres are becoming scarily so on Jack Eichel, who has scored a point in every game in which he has played since Nov. 16 (just let that sink in). Buffalo was without its captain for one game this week, and the Sabres looked hapless and unorganized in a 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Eichel is back, but the Sabres are back outside of the playoff picture. To get back in, GM Jason Botterill might need to acquire scoring help on the trade market. In a perfect world, the Sabres (hamstrung by carrying multiple players on LTIR) will look to unload defenseman Zach Bogosian in a deal. He has been unhappy after being a healthy scratch often this season, due to Buffalo's surplus in defenseman.

  • Speaking of players asking for trades, according to several reports, Lias Andersson has asked out of the New York Rangers organization. Larry Brooks of the New York Post reports that Andersson has been suspended by the Rangers after leaving the AHL's Hartford Wolfpack following his trade request. It has been a frustrating three years for the 2017 No. 7 overall pick, who has not looked comfortable at the NHL level (especially when he was demoted to a fourth-line role), and has not produced when he has been sent down, either. A fresh start is likely needed, but his value is not very high right now. Andersson recorded just one assist through 17 games this season, averaging less than 10 minutes per game. GM Jeff Gorton will shop Andersson's name around the league, but can't do anything until the holiday roster freeze is lifted on Dec. 27.

Three Stars of the Week

Noel Acciari, F, Florida Panthers

Have yourself a week, Noel Acciari. A pair of hat tricks against the Senators and Stars meant the former Boston Bruin matched his 2018-19 goals total in just two games. He had seven goals and an assist for eight points in three games this week.

Jonathan Huberdeau, F, Florida Panthers

Two Panthers on the list? Hey, the Panthers had a great week, with three wins (including against playoff-positioned teams in the Canes and Stars) as they climbed back into a top three spot in the Atlantic. Huberdeau, one of the league's most underappreciated forwards, had a whopping 10 points in three games.

Roman Josi, D, Nashville Predators

Perhaps no Preds player is having a better season than their captain and average minutes leader Josi, who also happens to be their leading scorer (33 points, while being tied for the team lead with 13 goals). Josi had six goals in four games this week, as Nashville went 3-0-1.

Games of the Week

Monday, Dec. 23: Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs (ESPN+)

This one could provide offensive sizzle. The Canes get pucks on net as well as any team in the NHL (they average 33.9 shots per game), while the Maple Leafs are averaging nearly four goals per game since Sheldon Keefe took over. If Andrei Svechnikov can do another lacrosse goal -- this time in the hockey media capital of the world, Toronto -- you may never stop hearing about it.

Friday, Dec. 27: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche

To be honest, any Central Division showdown has become a must-watch for me. The division is that good and the competition in the middle is that tight. The Avs have separated themselves into the top tier, so this could be a good measuring test for the Wild. I'm still not sure what to make of the Wild, who gutted out an impressive 8-5 win over the Coyotes this week, but also looked listless in a 6-0 shutout against the Jets.

Saturday, Dec. 28: Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins (ESPN+)

This is the second of a back-to-back between these clubs, which means we'll have the potential for carry-over drama -- especially with it being a rematch of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The Pens are tied for an NHL-high seven wins this month, without Sidney Crosby. Meanwhile, both of these teams have interesting goaltender situations brewing. Predators veteran Pekka Rinne lost his job to Juuse Saros for a stretch earlier this season, and it looks like the Penguins' Matt Murray might have lost his to Tristan Jarry now.

Quote of the week

"Offense is like a cat. It comes and goes. Sometimes you lose it for a while, and then it comes back. Well, defense is is like your dog. He's loyal. He's always by your side. He's always backing you up." -- Calgary Flames interim coach Geoff Ward, who sounds like he might not be the best cat owner in the world.