Nathan MacKinnon is a deserving recipient of the 2020 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The Avalanche’s fiery superstar, however, is certainly not a quintessential choice.
Winning the award speaks to his maturation since he began his NHL career with the Avs at age 18 in 2014.
“I never thought I would win this one,” MacKinnon, 25, said of the Lady Byng after being awarded it Friday. “But it’s cool and I’m very honored.”
Given to the NHL player “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” during the regular season, the Lady Byng and MacKinnon don’t exactly see eye to eye.
MacKinnon, who is also up for the Hart Trophy (media) and Ted Lindsay Award (players) as NHL MVP, definitely has a high standard of playing ability. But he’s no Joe Sakic or Ryan O’Reilly, Colorado’s two other Lady Byng winners, and he had never before been one to consistently stay away from chippiness before the 2019-20 season began.
MacKinnon, who finished fifth in NHL regular-season scoring with 93 points, took just 12 penalty minutes in 69 games. He became the first player in Avalanche history to produce 90 points while sitting in the penalty box for 12 minutes or less, and just the third NHL player in the last 20 years with those numbers.
The Lady Byng is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the end of the regular season. If the voting was conducted during or after the playoffs, MacKinnon wouldn’t have been considered.
MacKinnon matched his career-low 12 penalty minutes with a dozen in just 15 playoff games when the stakes were much higher. He served an unsportsmanlike conduct minor in round-robin play against the Vegas Golden Knights, and interference and hooking minors in Game 3 of a first-round series against the Arizona Coyotes.
In Game 4 against Arizona, MacKinnon and Christian Fischer served roughing minors after the former threw the latter around like a rag doll in what nearly became a full-fledged fight.
A self-proclaimed “hot head” at times, MacKinnon is smart enough to know about wasted energy in a superstar’s body. In the regular season, he doesn’t need to deliver big hits and mix it up with opponents after the whistle. In the playoffs, his boundaries expand.
“It’s important to treat your opponents with respect, but also play hard, play between the whistles,” MacKinnon, the 2014 Calder Trophy winner, said after winning his second major NHL award. “It’s important that your coaches can trust you in key situations and you won’t take a minor and put your team on the penalty kill. Obviously, it’s amazing to win this award — some of the best players ever have won this award — so for me to also win this is very humbling and exciting.”
Sakic won the Lady Byng in 2001 after producing 118 points in 82 regular-season games, with just 30 penalty minutes. O’Reilly won the award in 2014 with 62 points and just two penalty minutes in 80 games.
Sakic was, and O’Reilly is, very mild-mannered. MacKinnon is not, but his incredible skating enables him to defend without reaching with his stick. He’s a puck-possession machine and, although he’s highly emotional, he’s not mean-spirited.
“With my skating, I try to use my legs to stick-check and things like that, and not take unnecessary minors,” MacKinnon said. “It’s a line you need to hover on. I respect my opponents. I don’t want to be dirty.”
He certainly speaks like a very worthy Lady Byng Trophy recipient.