DENVER - Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon just turned 18 and lives in the basement of teammate Jean-Sebastien Giguere's home. Fellow rookie Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators is 19 and lives in an apartment with his mother, Amy. They are still just teenagers dependent on parental figures in making their way in life right now.
Their teams, though, are unusually dependent on them right now.
Jones is logging more minutes than a teenage girl on her cell phone for the Predators, while MacKinnon is playing top-six minutes for coach Patrick Roy with the Avs. Sure, the NHL has trended younger the last few years, but for two teams to rely so much so soon on players their age is still unusual.
And yet, it doesn't seem to be fazing either a bit.
|Jones vs. MacKinnon, by the numbers|
On a team that featured Shea Weber and Ryan Suter together for a few years—two players with distinctly different but perfectly complementary styles—Jones is being called a hybrid of both. Power and finesse, all in one package.
At an average of 25 minutes, six seconds per game entering Wednesday, Jones ranked 12th among all players in ice time. Jones, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft who instead fell to the giddy Predators at No. 4, led all rookies in that category by more than four minutes a game.
Inside the visitors’ dressing room in Denver before a game Wednesday night against 2013 top pick MacKinnon and the Avs, Jones practically ho-hummed his way through describing how he’s been able to put in yeoman minutes despite being just a kid who can’t legally buy a drink.
“I’m getting a lot of opportunity right now and happy where I’m at. It just feels like hockey,” Jones told Bleacher Report.
During a game in which he stood between the benches to add color commentary, Avalanche TV announcer Peter McNab marveled at how Jones never even seemed out of breath on the bench after long shifts.
“No, not true,” Jones said with a laugh. “That is definitely not true. I’m definitely feeling it out there sometimes. But, I mean, it really doesn’t feel all that much different here. Like I said, it’s just hockey.”
Weber, who lost the Robin to his Batman when Suter bolted Nashville for bigger bucks, has that “I won the lottery” feeling again with Jones as his defensive partner.
“He’s been great. We’re lucky to have him,” Weber said. “He’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
Asked if he could have played as many minutes as Jones when he was a rookie, Weber said, “No, probably not.”
“A lot of guys with a few years in the league can’t do that still, but he’s just adapted so quick,” Weber said of Jones, who has a real shot at making the U.S. Olympic team. “You definitely forget he’s only 19. He doesn’t seem it at all.”
Jones was a minus-two with no points in Nashville’s 6-4 win over the Avs. A bad night, right? Hardly. He played nearly 27 minutes and broke up several plays, including stripping the puck from red-hot Avs center Matt Duchene on a dangerous rush down the right side late in the game. Nashville goalie Carter Hutton allowed a couple of soft goals, otherwise Nashville would have likely won in a rout.
"His reach is so long. I thought I had him a couple times, and then that stick comes in and the puck's gone," Avalanche winger P.A. Parenteau said. "He's going to be a real good player. He's not all that physical, but he probably doesn't need to be."
Over in the Colorado dressing room, MacKinnon takes his share of good-natured razzing about his peach-fuzzed face and affinity for video games and rap music. One of his favorite rappers is Nate Dogg, and that just happens to be the nickname most still call him.
“He’s mostly on his laptop, playing his games or surfing the ‘Net,” Giguere said. “Just like most, well, kids his age.”
Think about it: Any normal kid his age is probably just in the middle of their senior year of high school, filling out college applications or getting ready to fill applications for summer jobs at Wendy’s or mowing lawns for pocket change.
MacKinnon already is a millionaire, flying first class on private jets and skating on the top line with Paul Stastny and Gabe Landeskog. With veteran Alex Tanguay on the shelf for a few weeks with a knee injury, MacKinnon was asked by Roy to move from his natural center position to right wing. The native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia responded with a goal his first game at the new and position in a win over Montreal Saturday before a quieter night against Jones and the Preds (no points, no shots).
MacKinnon and Jones, by the way, are good friends. Forget about any blood-feud storyline between the two.
"He's a great guy," MacKinnon told Bleacher Report about Jones. "We've gotten to hang out quite a bit at times through various functions and he's really nice. He's a great defenseman."
Jones says virtually the same thing about MacKinnon.
"He's going to be a great player," Jones said.
Roy is playing MacKinnon more in selected spots during a game, keeping his ice time down when the Avs have a lead they want to protect. But otherwise, the Avalanche are arguably every bit as reliant on their top pick as the Predators are with theirs. Both are playing leading-man roles as kid rookies, though MacKinnon probably has more of a longer runway to begin his career, with so many other good young forwards already on the Avs.
“We just want Nate to be Nate,” Roy said. “He’s learning more and more, and the key thing is that he’s open to learning more. He wants to take what we teach him and use it to his advantage. We’re very happy with him.”
On Thursday, Roy said he would move MacKinnon back to center on the third line, a move the youngster said, "I'm happy with."
Many still wonder how Jones ever became a Predator. A lot of Avs fans would still like to know the answer to that. But it’s not like they are taking to the intersecting streets of Speer and Wewatta outside the Pepsi Center asking that question in a plaintive wail.
The Avs are 12-2. Their guy, MacKinnon, has nine points in his first 14 NHL games. He’s going to be a stud scorer in this league for a long time, everyone believes. But absolutely nobody believes the Avs will be a truly serious threat to win a Stanley Cup again until they add a stud defenseman or two. And, wow, is it hard not to drool a bit at the early numbers of Seth Jones.
So some wonder if the Avs might not do things differently if they had a chance to do the draft over again. Not so, says Sakic. Don't forget, too: MacKinnon had just come off a monster MVP showing in the Memorial Cup for Halifax against Jones and the Portland Winterhawks.
“Look, they’re both going to be great players. Seth is going to be a great player. But for us, we wanted Nate and we’re real happy to have him.
“That was a draft where you really couldn’t lose with any of the first few picks.”
Adrian Dater has covered the Avalanche and NHL for the last 18 years with The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.
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