TAMPA - Nathan MacKinnon might be hockey's version of a five-tool player.
Speed, skill, grit, vision and hockey sense.
And when it comes to important games, MacKinnon raises his level of play, just as he did at this year's Memorial Cup tournament, where he was named MVP after helping Halifax to a championship. His performance at the Memorial Cup raised his stock even higher and led many scouts to believe that MacKinnon is the top-rated prospect, displacing defenseman Seth Jones, after he scored seven goals and 13 points to lead all scorers and registered a hat trick in the championship game.
MacKinnon also had a hat trick for Canada in the gold-medal game at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, the World Under-18 championship, in the fall, to finish the tournament with six goals in five games.
Former Calgary general manager Craig Button, now scouting for TSN television, is among those who have MacKinnon ranked as the top prospect.
"His determination along with his skill allows him to impact the game and to do so at the most important times, as evidenced in the Ivan Hlinka gold-medal game and also the Memorial Cup championship game,'' Button wrote in his scouting report. "Nathan has a burning desire to make a difference in the game, and more times than not, he's successful."
A product of Shattuck St. Mary's high school in Minnesota, a powerhouse program that lists Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews among its famous alumni, MacKinnon seems almost a lock to be taken with one of the top two picks Sunday. The 6-foot, 180-pound native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, is an elite potential franchise center.
"MacKinnon is a simply fantastic prospect who has all the tools a GM would want in a high draft choice," according to Cory Pronman at Hockey Prospectus. "MacKinnon is an elite skater, and possibly a generational one, easily the best in this draft class. He has an unbelievable first few steps, and he generates a ridiculous amount of power from his legs. His puck skills are high end, as well as his offensive vision. MacKinnon is not simply a north-south kind of player; he has a ton of offensive creativity, including the ability to dangle defensemen laterally, or make quick, precise feeds. ... There are almost no weaknesses in MacKinnon's game, and he possesses a lot of skills that are in the upper tier. He projects as an elite NHL forward."
One of the intriguing aspects to MacKinnon's game is that he is not a finesse player who relies solely on his skill. That's where the grittiness comes in to play. He is willing to dig in the corners, he does not shy away from contact and he will take on defenders one-on-one.
Combining that elite skill with his drive and grit make MacKinnon a diverse player.
"He can play the game any way you want to play it," Lightning director of scouting Al Murray said. "I think if you ask him, he views himself as a power forward who plays with skill, and if you talk to a lot of people, he's a highly skilled forward who plays with power. His skating is elite, his hockey sense is maybe a notch down from (teammate Jonathan) Drouin, but not far, and his competitiveness is a real strength for him. He's been a terrific player."
As a rookie with Halifax in 2011-12, MacKinnon scored 31 goals and had 78 points in 58 games. This season, in 44 regular-season games with the Moose, MacKinnon had 32 goals and 75 points, to rank fourth overall with an average of 1.70 points per game in the QMJHL.
"He should become the best goal scorer of the top group (of prospects), and has the type of shot that can just overwhelm and handcuff even world-class netminders" according to Kyle Woodlief, founder of Red Line Report scouting service, in his rankings published in USA Today. "He also has tremendous wheels combined with a powerful core that makes him extra difficult to remove from the puck."