UFA, RUSSIA – Nate MacKinnon has gone from a starring role with the Halifax Mooseheads to fourth-line duties on the Canadian world junior team and the 17-year-old admits it has been a bit of an adjustment.
"Yeah, for sure, going from 25 [minutes] a night to less is definitely different, but we won 9-3 yesterday, so we're getting plenty of offence and it's nice to see our first line take control and take the game by the throat," said MacKinnon, a top contender to go first overall in the next NHL draft.
MacKinnon centred a line with Barrie's Anthony Camara and Portland's Ty Rattie during Canada's thumping of Germany on Boxing Day.
"I think the toughest part is getting back into the game, but I'm adjusting and I think all three of us are doing a good job out there," said MacKinnon, who recorded his first world junior point on Wednesday assisting on Rattie's second-period goal.
MacKinnon was the focus of much attention during the team's selection camp earlier this month in Calgary where he wowed many with his speed and skill. He won a place on the team over older and more accomplished players and some expected head coach Steve Spott would have no choice but to find room for him in his top-six forward group. But that didn't happen. A lockout-loaded roster, particularly deep at centre, resulted in MacKinnon being pushed down the depth chart. And, once Boone Jenner serves out the last two games of his suspension, MacKinnon may find himself in the 13th-forward spot.
So, during Canada's week-long pre-tournament camp in Finland last week, Spott and his staff took MacKinnon aside to make sure they were all on the same page.
"I think the challenge for Nathan is it's a little bit of a different role than he's used to," said Spott. "He's going to have to play with some energy and some grit and be responsible defensively. He's bought in. We had a one-on-one meeting with him in Finland about that and he's been outstanding, cheering on [his teammates] and playing hard."
"I know that there's plenty of very talented players here," said MacKinnon when asked about the meeting. "At the end of the day, it's a tournament and the goal is to win a gold medal and it's not for individual success and, for me, I'm not worried about my draft status or anything like that. I'm very happy to be here and hopefully we can continue to win."
MacKinnon insists he has yet to feel the pinch of less playing time. Canada never trailed against the Germans so Spott had no need to lean heavily on his top lines.
"Honestly, I feel like we played a fair amount yesterday," MacKinnon said. "We got the lead and we rolled for the most part so I can't complain about ice time."
But his playing time may dip when Canada faces heavyweights like the United States (Dec. 30) and Russia (Dec. 31) before the medal round opens.
MacKinnon's Halifax linemate, Jonathan Drouin, has an inkling his good friend may find a way to move up in the lineup soon enough.
"I think he's really helping our team," said Drouin, who has secured a place on Canada's second line giving him a golden opportunity to impress the large number of scouts at the event. "He's a great skater and he does his role really well and maybe he'll jump up to the third line or first line or second line at some point."
And Spott also suggested that MacKinnon will play a more prominent role at some point in the championship.
"He's going to score a big goal in this tournament," Spott said. "I'm sure of that. It's just a matter of when."
Watch MacKinnon and Team Canada take on Slovakia on TSN and TSN Mobile TV, Friday at 4am et/1am pt.