GETTING BETTER WITH AGE
“I was talking with the coaching staff early on during training camp, and they called me a ‘Wine Guy’”, McDonald joked.
They weren’t talking about a bottle of red, or a bottle of white.
“They said I get better with age, and that’s how I like to look at it,” McDonald explained. “There are a lot of aspects of your career you can’t control, and my first few years didn’t quite go as I had planned.”
Although he begins his first year with the New York Islanders organization, McDonald, who enters his seventh professional season, believes he’s at the precipice of his career, ready to climb from the AHL to the NHL.
A glance at McDonald’s statistics reinforce his claim as a late bloomer; McDonald began his pro career with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 73 games with Springfield during the 2007-08 season. He repeated those same statistics over the next two seasons with the Falcons (22 and 23 poimts, respectively), but felt limited in his role.
“(Springfield) played me on the third and fourth lines,” McDonald said. “I’d look to kill penalties, I wasn’t really used on the power play, I wasn’t used in shootouts or overtime. I had four coaches in four years with the Edmonton organization. My fourth year, I was just on an AHL deal. For whatever reason, the coach saw potential in me, gave me an opportunity and I ran with it.”
McDonald is referring to his 2010-11 campaign with the Oklahoma City Barons, Edmonton’s new AHL affiliate after their time with Springfield ended following the 2009-10 season. That year, the New Haven, CT native exploded for an impressive 42 goals in 80 games with the Barons, a mark that led the league that season. McDonald had some impressive linemates to help him reach that mark, including veteran center Brad Moran and Alex Giroux, arguably the most prolific scorer in the AHL over the past decade.
“It was an honor to play with both of those guys,” McDonald said. “I learned more that year probably than I have in a long, long time. We played pretty much very game together as a line, which is unusual. Giroux was great with teaching me how to get into scoring areas…I really did listen to everything he had to say, and with his track record in the American Hockey League it’s hard not to listen. I always give those two guys a lot of credit because there’s no way I could have had that success without them.”
Fans of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were excited when Pittsburgh inked the 2010-11 leading scorer to a two-way contract last season. However, while McDonald did notch a team-leading 35 assists, he posted just 14 goals, one year removed from his 42-goal output in Oklahoma City.
“I’ve always been a scorer and shooter first, and Pittsburgh played a pretty strict system offensively,” McDonald explained. “As the year went on, I became more of a playmaker…found myself in more playmaking situations. (The system) didn’t allow for much offensive creativity and they’re very system oriented."
While McDonald would have much preferred to match the goal output in Oklahoma City, he’s realizing the pieces he’s added to his game over the years have led him to become a more complete hockey player.
“The year before I led the league in goals, and last year I led my team in assists,” McDonald said. “I’ve done been on a checking line, I’ve killed penalties, I’ve been a scorer and a playmaker. I was the leading scorer in the playoffs last year, and that’s what I like to do. But I have a lot of confidence in my game and know I don’t just need to shoot.”
Sound Tigers head coach Scott Pellerin echoed McDonald’s remarks, adding that what the first-year Sound Tiger may be asked upon to do situationally in the NHL would be different from his role in the AHL.
“In order to make it at the next level, he needs to be a reliable, 200-foot hockey player,” Pellerin said of McDonald. “The good thing is that if you can play defense and be an energy guy, check on the third line, but always have the offensive skills to play up in the lineup, you can be very effective. That’s the type of player that we want from this team so the Islanders have so much more depth when they call a guy up that they can fill all of those roles and give them the best chance to win hockey games.”
Pellerin also realizes that McDonald finds himself in a situation similar to his own not too long ago. Although he had stints with the Devils very early in his career, Pellerin found himself with New Jersey’s AHL affiliates for much of his first four seasons before finally breaking through to the NHL with St. Louis full-time in 1997.
“We were at very similar points in our careers,” Pellerin said. “We’re both college guys that came out of school a little later, and had chances to play in the NHL but had to earn our stripes and play in the minors. For me at the time, I remember I didn’t agree with it. But looking back, it was the best thing for me to find out what type of player I needed to be to get to he next level. He’s still young, he’s still developing and that’s what I think is exciting.”
Over the first few weeks of training camp and the regular season, including a preseason game and two regular season contests where McDonald has posted two assists, Pellerin has already been impressed by what McDonald has brought to the table.
“He’s right on track,” Pellerin said. “His work ethic in practice shows the commitment level that he’s decided to put forth to make himself a better hockey player. He’s progressed so much throughout his career and can play in every situation, be physical if he has to, shoot on the power play, be a net-front presence on the power play and even kill penalties. He brings so much to the game.”
With so many tools, McDonald knows that his opportunity at the next level will likely come sooner rather than later.
“Looking at (the Islanders’) track record, they give guys an opportunity to show what they can do, no matter who you are,” McDonald said. “A lot of guys on this team got chances to play up (with the Islanders) last season…I’m looking for that opportunity to prove I can play at that level.”