In much the same way that Sidney Crosby reinforced his status as a No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, 16-year-old phenom Nathan MacKinnon has a chance to strengthen his own case as the top draft-eligible player next summer when the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament kicks off next week.
MacKinnon is one of 40 CHL players participating in a selection camp, which kicked off Friday in Toronto. Twenty-two players will be selected to participate in the annual Under-18 tournament - which will be the beginning of a special year that could capped with him being picked No. 1 in the 2013 NHL Draft.
"It's really exciting, we have the best 40 guys in the country here and everybody is working towards putting that maple leaf on," MacKinnon told TSN Radio 1050. "None of us have represented the country internationally, so everyone's really excited for it."
MacKinnon and Crosby have been linked from an early age. Both are natives of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and have had similar junior careers thus far. Both played their minor hockey with the Cole Harbour Red Wings before moving on to Shattuck-Saint Mary's prep school in Minnesota. And they were both taken with the first overall pick in the QMJHL Draft with immediate success playing junior hockey as 16-year-olds.
When asked about the relationship he has with the Penguins captain, MacKinnon had nothing but positive things to say about his hockey hero.
"Growing up watching him handle himself both on-and-off the ice, he's definitely really admirable," he said. "I've got to know him on a personal basis too and my perception of him hasn't changed one bit - he's definitely someone you can look up to."
MacKinnon is hopeful his all-around style of play will enable him to crack an NHL lineup as soon as possible.
"For me to create offence, I need to get hard on pucks and go hard to the net, so I think I bring some grit to my game along with skill," he said. "Working on that complete package is something that everyone says, but obviously I'm really trying to have a really translatable game to the NHL and making it as soon as I can."
Despite the comparisons to his hero and all the hype about being a potential No. 1 overall pick, MacKinnon remains focused on making his first under-18 team.
"With all the talk, it obviously comes up in my mind a little bit," he said. "But obviously I'm not really worried about how high I'm going to go. (I'm) definitely focusing on one thing right now and that's making the Canadian U-18 team and hopefully getting our fifth straight gold medal."
Canada's under-18 team will be led by Kingston Frontenacs head coach and former NHL defenceman Todd Gill. MacKinnon said he has been impressed with Gill so far.
"He seems like a hard-nosed coach," MacKinnon said. "Definitely a lot of experience, definitely someone you can learn a lot off of and hopefully bring Canada gold this summer."
A young 16-year old - born on Sept. 1 - he was barely 16 when he put up 31 goals and 78 points in his first season with the Halifax Mooseheads. Not much was expected of a young Moosehead team in 2011, but led by MacKinnon's 13 goals and 28 points in 17 playoff games, Halifax advanced to the QMJHL's conference finals.
MacKinnon is also excited for what the coming year has in store and is expecting the Mooseheads to build upon their success of last season. The Mooseheads are expected to contend for a Memorial Cup berth in 2012 and should they make it, MacKinnon will again be linked to Crosby - who also led his Rimouski Oceanic to the Memorial Cup in his second season of junior.
"We're a young team with a lot of potential for this year coming up," he said. "We overachieved last year, so that's always fun – to prove a few critics wrong."