“Franchise savior” is a cruel and overzealous label to stick on any teenage athlete, and yet it’s inevitable that almost any No. 1 overall pick—in any sport, not just hockey—will be pressured to live up to the expectations set by those terms. Rarely if ever is the team picking first not in dire straits, and rarely if ever is the player selected before all the others not hailed as a can’t-miss talent with Hall of Fame potential. The desperation of the franchise, and the gifts that the young prospect has displayed at lower levels of competition, combine to create an unmanageable level of anticipation whose ultimate hope—a title for the beleaguered team procured chiefly through the incredible play of its new leader—almost never comes to pass. In the NFL, only once since the 2005 draft has a first overall pick won a title with the team that drafted him (Eric Fisher of the Chiefs). In the NBA, only LeBron and Kyrie have made it happen since Tim Duncan. And in the NHL, nobody since Steven Stamkos, picked first in 2008, had managed to complete that final step into saviorhood until Nathan MacKinnon pulled it off on Sunday night.
MacKinnon wasn’t quite the consensus pick for the Avalanche when they held their first and to-date only top pick back in 2013. Plenty speculated that Denver’s own Seth Jones, who eventually went fourth to the Predators, would be the better fit. But the Avs at this time were both bad on offense and bad on defense, and the then-braintrust of Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic opted to address the former and draft MacKinnon, a prodigious scorer for his hometown Halifax Mooseheads who at just 17 years old scored seven goals in the Memorial Cup and won tournament MVP.
“He’s an electrifying player,” Sakic said back then. “He’s the most explosive player in this draft.”
And more than anything, the Avs needed a spark. They were winners from the moment they left Quebec for Colorado in 1995, as they swept the Panthers in the following spring’s Stanley Cup Final, appeared in three of the next four conference finals, and won the Cup again in 2001. But over the rest of the decade, as that glorious generation defined by Sakic, Roy, and Peter Forsberg aged out of the league, the playoff runs became shorter, and then the playoff appearances became less of a sure thing. And finally, by the time the 2013 draft rolled around, the Avalanche had missed the postseason for three straight years and had just finished dead last in the Western Conference. Once a cornerstone of the NHL in spring, they had tumbled into obscurity.
MacKinnon is far from the only lottery pick that helped the Avalanche to the Cup—their hit rate on first-rounders over the last decade has been spectacular—but as the only one to ever go first, he’s always carried an extra burden. There is, after all, no Wikipedia article listing all the players ever drafted second overall. (It also didn’t help that MacKinnon hails from the same city as Sidney Crosby.) But rather than sputter to a start as an 18-year-old making the transition to NHL speeds, MacKinnon helped light up the Avalanche in his rookie season. Slotting in with a high-scoring band of youngsters that included Ryan O’Reilly, Gabe Landeskog, and Matt Duchene, the Avalanche rocketed to the top of the division, falling in a seventh-game overtime against the Wild in the first round but at least coming away with a Calder Trophy for Nate.
It was not a linear path from there. While their top picks regularly found plenty of success, the Avs continually failed to make smart decisions in the later stages of the draft, and that lack of anything besides inexperienced potential stars led them to miss another three straight postseasons, with the resignation of Roy as coach and the arrival of Jared Bednar behind the bench coming chaotically just before the start of that last and ugliest season, in 2016–17.
MacKinnon, too, was hitting a wall. At the end of his fourth season—that ’16–’17 flop—his rookie totals for goals and assists remained his career highs. He was no longer a teen who blew away all his peers but an ordinary forward putting up numbers that only served to make him the most productive player on an abysmal team. That offseason, MacKinnon later said in 2021, ended up being a turning point for his commitment to greatness.
“I just was sick of being average,” he said. “I knew I was better than a 50-, 60-point guy. So I dialed in everything: my nutrition, my body, my mind. I just tried to check all the boxes.”
That sort of intensely serious devotion to getting as much out of his body as possible makes MacKinnon an easy target for jokes—see the kerfuffle over his alleged health-conscious tyranny over the Avs’ locker room food and pre-game meals. But it’s undeniably gotten him results. Starting in 2017–18, MacKinnon blossomed into a franchise scorer on a team that was no longer a laughingstock, topping 35 goals and 90 points in one, two, then three straight years as the Avalanche made it to the first round and then back-to-back second-round Game 7s. This was where MacKinnon truly became “explosive” and “electrifying” as Sakic once prophesied, showcasing more and more often his stunning uncatchable quickness and his assured lethal finishing until he and his team, once bottom-feeders, became can’t-miss TV. (Well, at least outside of their home market.)
The COVID-shortened 2021 season saw the Avalanche win the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since they took home Stanley two decades prior, with MacKinnon anchoring the top line amid a stacked roster of homegrown superstars and, finally, some savvy acquisitions. That season, though, ended with yet another second-round heartbreak, this time a blown 2-0 series lead against the Vegas Golden Knights. And while there was still so much to like about the Avalanche’s chances heading into 2021–22, MacKinnon displayed a growing awareness of his inability to deliver what everybody wants most out of No. 1 picks.
Even though he was slowed by injury in the regular season, his age-26 year was yet another great one. Finishing second on the team to the healthier Mikko Rantanen in goals and points, Nate led the Avs to another top seed in the West. And this time, all the way to the Final, they barely showed any signs of faltering. MacKinnon scored in every game as the Avalanche swept the Predators. He was quiet in the team’s six-game disposal of the Blues except for maybe the greatest hat trick in a losing effort I’ve ever seen. Then he rebounded with a goal in three games of the Avalanche’s conference-final sweep of Edmonton. And in the heavily hyped showdown against the two-time defending champs, after his first 16 shots on goal were stymied by Andrei Vasilevsky, he managed to grind out a critical deflection in Game 4 that helped boost the Avs into a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Given MacKinnon’s high standards, he might have been a little annoyed with himself if that was all he contributed to Colorado’s long-awaited return to glory. But he took center stage in the decisive Game 6. Artturi Lehkonen’s game-winner arrived off an improvised recovery pass from the man himself, but before that came the game-tying one-timer that snuck by his nemesis Vasi and gave Colorado a badly needed foothold on the road. (Individually, it also helped him stay third behind Gretzky and Lemieux in the all-time points per playoff game leaderboard.)
MacKinnon stayed melodramatically stoic until the end, claiming during a second intermission interview that he had “no emotions. Nothing to be happy about.” But after the Avs held off the Lightning for the entirety of a scoreless third period, he finally got to let it all out. Fittingly, he shared the moment after the horn sounded with Erik Johnson, who was drafted first overall by the Blues in 2006.
In an interview during the celebration, after Andrew Cogliano said something cryptic to him about the number 87, he explained that he knew the Avs were going to win when his hotel room number reminded him of Crosby. As important as the diet and the workouts and the natural gifts and the mental toughness has been for MacKinnon’s incredible career, maybe you don’t get this far without also believing in fate.
Crosby isn’t off the hook yet, though. “I’ve been the drunkest guy at two of his [Cup parties],” MacKinnon told reporters. “So he better be the drunkest guy at mine.” Today, however, the two of them aren’t just drinking buddies, or Nova Scotians, or even just elite hockey players. Now they both know what it’s like to save a franchise.