Nathan MacKinnon continued his bid to end his rehabilitation at the NHL level by skating Monday for the first time since the Avalanche’s 5-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 2.
MacKinnon, who has been sidelined since that date with the right shoulder he aggravated during the last week of April, practiced with his teammates for the first time since taking a puck to the face from Detroit forward Thomas Vanek that May 2 contest.
He participated in a limited, individual workout and stopped by the dressing room post game to meet with media and run through the plays on video. MacKinnon was seen no-hiking through a variety of drills — but that was merely for entertainment purposes.
MacKinnon has still not been cleared to take contact in practice. It is a heavy lift — though manageable — to say the least. In other words, he is far from ready to take the ice for an NHL preseason game in the next few weeks.
However, that is not the only hurdle. MacKinnon had, for the first time since that May 2 ice, a full practice of no-shoulder shots and a full day of skating on his own. According to RealGM.com, no one has been skating with contact in such ways.
While the good news is that MacKinnon hasn’t appeared to regress since training camp opened in September, coach Jared Bednar continues to caution caution before diving head first into summer conditioning for his top wing.
“It is not in anyone’s best interest to get him back to being in full game shape,” Bednar said on June 14. “We have a series of steps we are going to need to take.”
There is a lot that goes into getting players of MacKinnon’s level back into NHL form. Start with the obvious. He is both 22 years old and coming off of a postseason appearance in which he led all players in total ice time with 22:26 per game, an average of just 2:02 fewer than linemate Mikko Rantanen.
MacKinnon’s disappearance also coincided with the arrival of Semyon Varlamov as the Avalanche’s starting goaltender. Denver was a bit of a lost cause by the end of April and goalie play was the reason. Despite that, Bednar lauded Varlamov for his 20-win campaign and said he should be the goalie his team has for the foreseeable future, barring a mishap of some sort.
The other key to getting MacKinnon and other elite players to play at their best is conditioning. Practicing is only half the battle. In order to get back to that point, a goalie must play multiple games and practice them in keeping up with the schedule demands.
There are already plenty of players on rosters locked out of team contests. The Wild, Flames, Golden Knights, Lightning, Flames, Flames, Stars, Avalanche, Sharks, Bruins, Sabres, Devils, and Islanders are all set to begin training camp this month or in the coming weeks without their top players.
MacKinnon and the Avs will have to wait that long to begin the fight.