When Nathan MacKinnon hears his name called from the stage of Newark's Prudential Center at the NHL draft on Sunday, it will mark the end of a long, long wait. Whether he goes early—or whether he goes first—makes little difference to the 17-year-old center. He is simply looking forward to the moment when the speculation, hype and uncertainty will finally be over.
"People have been talking about my draft since I was 14 years old; it's been pretty constant," MacKinnon says. "So it's going to be cool when I just kind of get to start my career.... I'm not doing prom or graduation. My whole life, I've been thinking about June 30, 2013."
Such is the plight of MacKinnon, a prodigy out of Nova Scotia who was touted as the next Sidney Crosby when he was just a freshman in high school. Those lofty expectations were easy to pin on MacKinnon because he was an exceptional talent, but they also came naturally because he hails from Cole Harbour (pop. 25,161), Crosby's hometown. So is there something in the water of the Halifax suburb that helped it to produce an NHL superstar—the No. 1 selection in the 2005 draft—and another potential top pick within eight years? "I don't know," MacKinnon said last week. "Good pH levels, maybe?"
MacKinnon grew up idolizing the Penguins' captain. He had Crosby posters on his wall, a Crosby biography on his bookshelf, even an old photograph in a frame on his dresser that he had taken with a 15-year-old Crosby when MacKinnon's father, Graham, recognized the teenage phenom in the Halifax airport one day. Nathan was seven at the time. "Sid was my role model growing up," MacKinnon says. "I looked at him and said, If he can do it, maybe I can do it as well. He paved the way for kids from small towns who wonder if they can make it."
With Crosby as his inspiration, MacKinnon followed the same path to the cusp of NHL stardom: through Cole Harbour's youth leagues and, when he was 14, on to Shattuck--St. Mary's, the Faribault, Minn., boarding school that has helped develop a handful of NHL stars, including Crosby and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. In 2011, MacKinnon left Shattuck--St. Mary's for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he, like Crosby, impressed everyone with his speed and skill. In 2011--12, his first season, he scored 78 points in 58 games, leading the Halifax Mooseheads to the semifinal of the President's Cup and earning the No. 1 ranking from the NHL's Central Scouting service.
But following Crosby also meant living in the long shadow he cast. "At first I didn't know how to handle it," MacKinnon says. "I hated it. It's tough to live up to those expectations, and I was only a little kid at the time."
He's not exactly all grown up now—at 179 pounds he is still filling out his 5'11" frame—but MacKinnon has learned to deal with the constant comparisons with Crosby. "I knew I wouldn't be [compared with Crosby] if I were from Toronto, Moncton or anywhere else, but it's just the way it goes," he says. "I just realized I'm my own player, and I'm trying to be the best I can be. I think the worst thing you can do is try to be as good as him and do the same things as him. I don't think I'd be where I am if I tried to do that."
The adjustment has been made easier in part because MacKinnon now considers Crosby a friend. They've skated together in Cole Harbour during the off-season and share an agent, Pat Brisson, and a trainer, Andy O'Brien. MacKinnon got a text from his hero last month after he led the Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup, the coveted championship for Canadian junior hockey—and one trophy Crosby never got to lift.
Fittingly, the final pitted the Mooseheads against the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks and star defenseman Seth Jones, who had eclipsed MacKinnon midway through the season as the top prospect in the game, according to the NHL's scouting service. Jones, a native of Arlington, Texas, and son of former NBA star Popeye Jones, enjoyed a stellar rookie year, scoring 56 points in 61 games, and in January he led Team USA to the gold medal at the World Juniors tournament in Ufa, Russia. (MacKinnon and Team Canada finished fourth.) At 6'4" and 205 pounds, the smooth-skating blueliner had quickly become the talk of the hockey world.
The buzz died down a bit on May 26, when MacKinnon (who scored 75 points in 44 games in 2012--13) netted a hat trick and scored five points in a 6--4 victory. MacKinnon—not Jones—was the tournament MVP. "Every time there was a big game, whether it was the regular season or the playoffs, he played his best in the important times," Mooseheads coach Dominic Dumarche says of MacKinnon. "In that sense, he's a real gamer.... He's a competitive guy. The bigger the challenge, the better he gets."
The showdown between MacKinnon and Jones in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was the last good look that NHL scouts got at prospects before the draft, and MacKinnon's performance relaunched his candidacy for the No. 1 pick. His status was further solidified last week when Joe Sakic, the Avalanche's executive vice president of hockey operations, told The Denver Post that he was keen on taking a top forward over Jones with the first choice in the draft. MacKinnon is trying not to pay attention to all the chatter. "With Seth, going back a few years when I met him, [everybody else has always talked] about the draft, about how high we'll go and things like that," MacKinnon says. "But for us, we just want to have careers one day like everybody else."
"[Nathan and I] always talked about controlling what you can control," Ducharme says. "You can't control what the media are saying or what the scouts are thinking.... And I think he managed [dropping in the rankings after World Juniors] really well. Never did it affect him, being ranked first [and seeing it] as a positive thing, or being ranked second and seeing it as a negative."
MacKinnon is already a minor celebrity in Halifax, especially after winning the Memorial Cup. Now he's the one who is getting his picture taken with seven-year-olds. He's also learning about the drawbacks of fame. Last month, a 19-year-old from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, named Glenn Jarvis—who claimed to be the son of MacKinnon's third-grade teacher—tried to sell what he said was one of MacKinnon's spelling tests online. But after the Halifax Regional School Board disputed the claim, Jarvis admitted the whole thing was a hoax and took his ad down. (He has not been charged with a crime.)
"He tried selling it for 25 bucks," MacKinnon says laughing. "I could've signed a card for him and he could've sold it for that much. I don't know why he'd have to write down random words, and spell them wrong. I knew it wasn't mine. That's not my writing. And anyway, I wouldn't have gotten six wrong."
Whichever team takes MacKinnon in the first round on Sunday, he will remain identified with the most famous product of Cole Harbour, where the signs welcoming motorists read: THE HOME OF SIDNEY CROSBY. But it's not farfetched to think that one day they'll be repainted to say AND NATHAN MACKINNON TOO.
"I didn't know how to handle it," says MacKinnon of being in Sid's shadow.
An NHL talent expert sizes up junior Nathan MacKinnon
First off, you see he has explosive speed, astonishing speed for a player who is still filling out and in a few years will be a large man. His quickness isn't just in his legs, but it is also in his hands. He can get his hard and heavy shot off extremely fast, making his game even more unpredictable for opposing goaltenders. He's also very strong on the puck and is very difficult to knock over. The injury to his right MCL earlier this year [a minor strain suffered during the Mooseheads' 8--5 loss to the Moncton Wildcats on Feb. 8] on top of the run that Seth Jones and Portland went on hurt MacKinnon's draft stock just slightly. But his Memorial Cup performance (seven goals in four games) put him right back in the conversation about the No. 1 pick. He will be a force in the NHL.
Their Time Has Come
Forecasting the top five picks in the NHL draft
1. Seth Jones D—Avalanche VP Joe Sakic insists that he will take a forward, but the team that gave up the second-most goals in the West last season desperately needs to shore up its blue line. (Colorado defensemen also scored just five times in 2013.) The 18-year-old Jones (14 goals, 42 assists), a smooth skater with excellent hockey sense, is the logical choice.
2. Nathan MacKinnon C—Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the 2013 Calder Trophy winner, could use MacKinnon on his line—he's a playmaker who will look to distribute as much as he will to shoot. MacKinnon's defensive game needs work, but his willingness to be physical makes him one of the draft's top all-around prospects.
3. Jonathan Drouin LW—He was MacKinnon's linemate in Halifax last season, scoring 105 points (including 64 assists) and earning QMJHL MVP honors. At 5'11" and 176 pounds, the 17-year-old Drouin has the agility and playmaking ability to flourish in the Lightning's potent offense.
4. Aleksander Barkov C—At 6'2", 205 pounds, the center was a skilled two-way player (21 goals, 27 assists) with Tappara in Finland. His already astute hockey instincts will benefit greatly from the guidance of Predators coach Barry Trotz.
5. Valeri Nichushkin RW—He's still spindly at 196 pounds, but he will grow into his 6'4" frame and develop into a fearsome offensive threat for the Hurricanes. Nichushkin, 18, has already shown an ability to score in the clutch: He netted the overtime winner for Russia that denied Canada a place on the podium at World Juniors last January.
For complete coverage of the NHL draft, including breaking news and updates from Allan Muir on the Home Ice blog, go to SI.com/mag
LIAM RICHARDS/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP
CLOSING STATEMENT MacKinnon blew away scouts in the Memorial Cup final, netting a hat trick and two assists in a 6--4 victory.
FAST AND MOOSE In scoring 32 goals for Halifax in 2012--13, MacKinnon (22) exhibited strength, skill and, above all, speed.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED