Damien Cox: Nathan MacKinnon can only hope the Avalanche of mediocrity is coming to an end in Colorado

Damien Cox: Nathan MacKinnon can only hope the Avalanche of mediocrity is coming to an end in Colorado
You can certainly start to wonder if the talents of this young Canadian hockey star are being wasted with a franchise seemingly stuck in a cycle of seemingly endless mediocrity.

And, no, we’re not talking about Connor McDavid.

Nathan MacKinnon signed a contract extension before his breakout season with Colorado last year.  (Michael Martin / GETTY IMAGES)

Nathan MacKinnon, drafted into the NHL first overall by Colorado Avalanche as a surefire superstar two years before McDavid was taken by Edmonton, is well into his sixth NHL season and has so far made the post-season only twice, playing in just 13 Stanley Cup playoff contests.

MacKinnon, now 23, arrived in Denver after the glory years of Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg were over, long after the Avalanche had ceased to be one of the NHL’s marquee franchises and top TV attractions in the United States, years after full houses and splashy payrolls were the earmarks of the franchise once transplanted from Quebec City.

These days, it doesn’t appear like the glory is coming back anytime soon.

After a good start to the season, Colorado is again fading despite the scoring exploits of MacKinnon and talented teammates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. All have 20 goals or more this season, and are averaging better than a point per game.

The Avs, who host the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, have lost seven straight games, including three straight in overtime. Teams like St. Louis and Chicago, once well behind the Avalanche, have either caught or passed Colorado, which now sits four points out of a playoff spot.

In many ways, the Avs are very much like the Oilers. Both teams have been blessed with a succession of high draft picks that should have guaranteed long-term success. Those picks included MacKinnon and McDavid, described as generational players by many, players who by now should have seen their profiles enhanced by substantial exposure in the Stanley Cup playoffs and major international events.

Instead, they have one playoff series win between them, and because the NHL turned its back on the Winter Olympics in 2018 and recently announced there will be no World Cup in 2020, these two haven’t had chances to show their talents in these major showcase events.

McDavid, because he plays in Edmonton, at least gets regular exposure on Hockey Night in Canada and on the country’s two sports networks. MacKinnon, playing in Denver, doesn’t get nearly the airtime during the regular season, which makes the lack of playoff games and international competition that much more meaningful.

MacKinnon is under contract for another four seasons. Rantanen, meanwhile, is headed for a monster pay day this summer as a restricted free agent that will almost certainly push him past MacKinnon as well.

MacKinnon failed to score more than 21 goals in a season form 2014 to 2017, creating speculation as to whether he’d be the player he was projected to be. That’s why he got the contract he did. But he exploded with 97 points last season, and has 74 points in 55 games this year. He’s a superstar who probably isn’t getting his due, like Marcel Dionne during the L.A. years.

There is no great moral to the story here, although both McDavid (eight years) and MacKinnon (seven years) might have committed for fewer seasons if they were to do it all over again. The answer for both is improved team performances. In that light, MacKinnon might have more to look forward to than McDavid.

The Oilers are a complete mess, having fired their coach and GM this season with no sign of improvement. A total housecleaning by owner Daryl Katz could be in the cards.

Colorado, meanwhile, has top defence prospect Cale Makar on the way, and owns Ottawa’s first-round pick this season as well as their own, which could be the ticket to landing shifty Jack Hughes or towering Kaapo Kakko in June. There is a degree of stability with Sakic having been in place in one role or another since 2011, and Jared Bednar now in his third full season as head coach.

Stan Kroenke, the Avalanche owner, and his son Josh, who runs the club, have expressed undying faith in Sakic. But missing the playoffs this year would be six seasons out of the post-season tournament in the eight years under Sakic.

The trading of unhappy Matt Duchene last season, which landed Ottawa’s first pick, seemed to restore confidence in Sakic, and the Avs went on to make the playoffs before losing in the first round.

But five wins in the past 26 games has soured everyone in Denver all over again.

“We’d love to make the playoffs,” Sakic said recently. “But you don’t want to slow down the building process.

“We love what’s coming and what’s going on here.”

The issue of the payroll, $11 million below the max, always resurfaces when the Avs struggle, and a quick look at the roster certainly shows an absence of accomplished veteran players.

It would be a fair question for a Denver fan to look at the Leafs, a team 30th in the NHL three years ago but now a consistent top-10 squad and wonder why the Avs keep spinning their wheels.

Colorado has high-end young talent and scores enough goals. Defensively, however, the team is in the bottom third of the league, and the goaltending has been wildly inconsistent. There’s just not the depth on the roster, particularly when Bednar plays his three big guns together.

All MacKinnon can do is be patient and hope Sakic’s vision pays off. It sure doesn’t look like the Kroenkes want to spend their way out of this cycle.

Perhaps MacKinnon can look at Sakic’s own playing career, which didn’t really take off until the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in his eighth season in the NHL, for encouragement.

By the end, Burnaby Joe did just fine. MacKinnon likely will too. Whether he ultimately has to leave Denver for that to happen remains an intriguing question.
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