MONTREAL – Set to assume a leadership role this fall, Mark MacMillan is relishing his opportunity to take another step forward in his hockey career at the University of North Dakota.
Thrust into a more prominent offensive role with the departure of several of the squad’s top snipers in 2013 graduates Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Carter Rowney, the 21-year-old has high expectations for his Junior year after finishing fifth in team scoring for a second consecutive season.
“I think I’ll be a go-to guy this year, and that’s something I want,” affirmed the Penticton, BC native, who registered 13 goals, 25 points and a plus-11 differential in 41 games last year. “It’s maybe a little more pressure on my shoulders, but I think to be a better player, you have to learn to play under pressure and perform out there in all key situations. I’m looking forward to doing that.”
As is long-time North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol, who has seen the 6-foot, 170-pound forward progress steadily over the past two seasons under his watch. Hakstol, who has directed the likes of Jonathan Toews, Matt Frattin, Travis Zajac and T.J. Oshie during his nine seasons in Grand Forks, believes MacMillan’s competitiveness and sense of accountability have been instrumental in his pupil’s success in the collegiate ranks so far.
“He’s grown into that [leadership role]. He’s earned that over time. That’s not something you’re just given as a player,” mentioned Hakstol, noting that MacMillan possesses many of the intangibles necessary for success at the NHL level, including a keen hockey sense and an insatiable will to succeed. “You earn those opportunities, and I think [Mark] earned those opportunities last year. You want that in a player. I’ll use the term – ‘He’s not afraid to play.’ He wants to be in those situations and those are the kinds of guys you want on your bench and in your locker room. They want to be out there when the game is on the line, and I think Mark is one of those guys.
“I’ve seen just [steady improvement in] his overall preparation, mentally coming into games and being able to relax and focus on the job at hand,” added the North Dakota bench boss. “We’ve seen him grow from a left winger as he’s gained more experience at this level back into a centerman role. He’s a good offensive player, but he has to make sure that he has a really sound two-way game. He’s got to be reliable in all areas of the game. We expect another jump in terms of his production this year, and hopefully that’s the track that we’ll see from him.”
The former BCHL standout understands, however, that while he has made significant headway on the mental side of the game, he still has plenty of work to do to up his durability and become a more imposing force for North Dakota at both ends of the rink.
“I think the biggest thing for me is the same thing it’s always been: I’ve got to continue to put weight on and continue adding strength to my body which will translate on the ice, too. It will improve my skating and down low I’ll be able to win more battles,” explained MacMillan, who has put on 20 pounds since being selected 113th overall by the Canadiens in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. “[My progress] has been huge since the draft. I know the strength has come a long way for sure. I think my first year in [Canadiens development] camp I was the lowest guy on the bench press test, and this year I was in the top half. That’s a big improvement and it’s something that I’m going to look to continue working on.”
The entrepreneurship major will do that with the help of Canadiens nutritionist Melanie Olivier, who, along with MacMillan’s nutritionist at North Dakota, has put a plan together for him to follow in conjunction with his weightlifting program to help him bulk up.
Having made several trips to Grand Forks to observe MacMillan’s play this past season, Canadiens director of player development Martin Lapointe knows the versatile pivot’s focus will go a long way towards helping him overcome the challenge that lies ahead.
“I think his work ethic stands out, first and foremost. It’s outstanding. He works hard on and off the ice, and he’s got character. Those two things are really important for the Montreal Canadiens organization,” praised Lapointe, who characterized MacMillan as a player who leads by example, but still has significant room to add to his frame. “If he gains the strength and the mass that he needs, he’ll be quicker and he’s going to be a pain to play against. He’s always in your face. He thrives on that. He’s not scared of traffic and going into tough areas. That’s what makes Mark MacMillan attractive.”
When it comes to defying the odds and overcoming obstacles, MacMillan has all the inspiration he needs. Having played spring hockey alongside Canadiens sophomore Brendan Gallagher growing up, watching his childhood friend storm onto the NHL scene has provided added incentive to stay the course and strive for more responsibility in 2013-14.
“Obviously, when you look at a guy like that, it’s pretty impressive what he did this year, how he took control of his opportunity and what he was able to do with it,” said MacMillan, who was selected 34 spots ahead of Gallagher in 2010. “It’s been fun watching him progress and seeing what he did. It’s kind of something that me and other young guys can look at and take inspiration from, and hopefully we can do the same kind of thing.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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