While he’s an offensive defenseman, an end-to-end rush isn’t something that happens every game for the current Florida Everblade.
“I wouldn’t say normal,” he said, laughing. “If there’s an opening I like to try and jump up. I’m not going to try and make a high-risk play, but I don’t know, it kind of worked out tonight.”
Signed as a free agent out of the QMJHL by the Florida Panthers, the 21-year-old started the season with the AHL Rochester Americans, who also house Buffalo Sabres prospects. MacDonald was sent down to the ECHL after playing 11 games, and being scratched for several more.
=”MsoNormal”>“Up in Rochester I was kind of in and out of the lineup, I didn’t think I was playing bad, but there were some good players there and you’ve just got to wait your turn I guess,” he explained. “[The Panthers] said there’s no point in you sitting in the stands. It’s not going to help you. Come down here and get some ice time, develop as quick as you can.”
And MacDonald is getting a lot of ice time – in fact he estimated he’s getting close to 20 minutes a game with the Everblades.
“In the end I think it’s going to help me a lot more,” he agreed.
MacDonald’s on the top defensive pairing with Chris Dyment, which he said was going really well.
“[Dyment] played the last four years in the American League, so he brings a lot of experience to the table. He’s 27 years old, so it really helps – makes the game a lot easier for you.”
MacDonald, a staple on the penalty kill and seeing some time on the power play as well, said he only made small adjustments to his game as he turned pro this year.
“I think you can’t take as much risk in pro because everyone’s good,” he said. “If you make a turnover, they’re going to bury you. You can’t be too high risk. You don’t want to change your game because you want to do what got you here, and stick to basics – keep it simple. I hold onto the puck, I try and get a good clean pass, but if it’s not there, I’ll throw it off the window.”
But this much offense is a relatively new phenomenon for him. MacDonald had a dramatic increase in production in his overage year in 2005-06, putting up 45 points in 58 games, nearly triple the year before.
“I was undrafted in the Q, so my first two years they were giving the draft picks a little more time,” he explained. “But as time went on, I kind of earned my position there. Once I became an overager, I started getting on the power play more. Things just clicked.”
MacDonald wasn’t drafted into the NHL either. Part of the reason was that NHL teams were looking for different kinds of things in 2003 – attibutes found in players like Dion Phaneuf and Braydon Coburn.
“At the time, my draft year, it was all these big rugged defensemen who clear the front of the net and throw bodies around and that’s not really my game. I guess the game changed. The new rules kind of helped me. I can’t complain right now.”
Another part of the reason he went undrafted was that he wasn’t playing at a high level in his first year eligible, and in his second, wasn’t playing many minutes. After failing to make his hometown QMJHL Cape Breton Screaming Eagles as a walk-on, he played for the MJAHL Truro Bearcats in 2002-03. Not surprisingly, he went unselected in what was a good 2003 draft year.
“Back east, there’s not a lot of NHL scouts watching tier II,” he noted.
MacDonald made the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads in 2003-04, but didn’t play much. He could have been drafted into the NHL then, but as he said, “There’s not much point in drafting a guy who doesn’t play a lot at 18.”
And, probably most importantly, MacDonald wasn’t as good of a player back then. He imporoved over time, working his way up the depth chart, from seventh defenseman in 2003-04, to the team’s No. 1 defenseman in 2005-06.
“My 19-year-old year, I had a pretty good year, I played against the top lines, with Alex Picard who is with Philadelphia now. Then it just seemed to all come together.”
Does all of this recent improvement make him a late bloomer?
“A lot of people say that about me,” he acknowledged. “My defensive game never really came together – I’m still working on it, obviously – but it came together my 19-year-old year more so than my 18-year-old year. I just started to understand the game a lot more.”
On the small side at 6’0, MacDonald has such a presence on the puck you wouldn’t notice his lack of height unless you saw it listed somewhere.
“Pushing. Pushing 6’0,” he laughed at himself. “I am sometimes when they measure. I’ve got hair sticking up,” he said, taking off his hat to demonstrate.
But in talking about height, he was quick to bring up the names of Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer – both small defensemen in the NHL.
“I don’t feel like I’m small,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m getting pushed around out there.”
Nor does he appear to be. Sufficiently physical along the boards, MacDonald is a good skater who stays very tight to his man defensively. He gets pucks through to the net from the point. One minor area to work on is to be crisper with passes – soft ones will be picked off at a higher level.
MacDonald likes living in Estero, the beachfront home to the Everblades, but said “sometimes it’s a little too much coming out of the rink and it’s 85 degrees — you start sweating.”
When he was sent down, he moved in with Martin Tuma, a fellow Panthers defensive prospect. “He’s up right now in ‘Roch’ so I’m bacheloring it right now,” MacDonald said. “I don’t mind it. I kind of like doing my own thing, making my own meals, so it works out alright.”
This summer, both MacDonald and Brine participated in Making the Cut: Last Man Standing, a Canadian reality TV show in which 36 hockey players compete for a $250,000 endorsement contract and representation from an NHL agent.
It won’t be until the end of May when the show wraps up that the world will know who won. But MacDonald is doing just fine on his own without the extra help.
He was signed by the AHL Hartford Wolfpack at the end of last season, although he didn’t get into any game. But he said the experience helped him start on a good foot this year.
“I think it gives you an outlook on what you have to do, what it takes to be there,” he said. “Going into the room with those guys who have NHL experience, it doesn’t hurt that’s for sure. I enjoyed my time there, skated every day even though I didn’t get to play.”
Then this summer he signed with the Panthers, one of several NHL teams who expressed some interest.
“I talked to Philadelphia, and the Rangers obviously — got a call from Hartford. Tampa Bay. A few other teams I can’t remember. But Florida came knocking and I’m happy to have a three-year deal.”
In a prospect pool lacking in quality defensemen, MacDonald certainly has the opportunity to rise quickly with the Panthers.
The mental game
MacDonald has only been playing hockey for a living for half a season now, and is still seemingly counting his blessings.
“I always wanted to be [a professional player] and always thought I would, until I was about 13, 14,” he retold. “And then once I got older, I was like ‘oh, probably not.’ I started to question myself. And then I got into major junior and I was like ‘yeah, I’ll play this out and then go to university.’ Then after my 19-year-old year and my 20-year-old season, I had a pretty good year and said ‘yeah, maybe.’”
He was questioning himself the most at around age 15 or 16 when he didn’t get drafted into major junior. He was intending to go the NCAA route instead. “I thought, I’ll just try to get into college and play there and get an education out of it,” he said.
But in the end, what MacDonald got out of it was an NHL contract. Little by little, he’s seeing the future possibilities unfold. One eye-opener was his trip to Panthers training camp.
“I’d say the biggest thing that changed is when I went to main camp, and I actually stepped on the ice with Marty Gelinas, Olli Jokinen, Todd Bertuzzi and those guys. I was just like ‘whoa.’ And then as the practice went on, you’re just like ‘maybe I can play here someday, hopefully.’ It takes a lot of talent and a lot of work, but hopefully someday it will work out,” he said.
Observing the top of the food chain helped drive home what he needs to do to move up.
“They bring the same game every single day because they know if they don’t, their job’s going to be gone because there are guys waiting to step in,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing – bringing the same game every night.”
A very unassuming player, it was when MacDonald talked about his day-to-day motivation that he revealed the most.
“I’m from a small town, like 400 people, so there are a lot of people who are doubters. You kind of want to get there for them, just shove it in their face maybe – but there’s a lot of people back home that are hoping that I’ll get there – you want to do it for them. Not only yourself, your family, your friends. For all the guys who tried and didn’t, you just want to try and get there.”
Things are going well for him right now. He’s getting a real opportunity to show what he can do and at just 21 years old, time is on his side.
“I’m happy where I’m at. Last year at the end of the season I didn’t think I was going to have anything, and went to Florida’s rookie camp and got signed with them. I’m very thankful for that. Now I’ve got three years to make something happen.”
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.