With Sunday’s news that Luke Schenn’s bad fall in Saturday’s game has landed him on the injured list, the Flyers had to figure something out for their blue line for the coming week. Radko Gudas still has a game left on his suspension, and Mark Streit remains out for at least a couple more weeks.
Enter Andrew MacDonald, who is back with the Flyers after spending the first two months of this season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the AHL. MacDonald figures to at least have a couple weeks stay ahead of him, with Schenn’s recovery forecast to take about that long. He’s hoping the time spent with the Phantoms helps him in his return to the NHL.
“Obviously last year didn’t go great,” MacDonald said after Monday’s practice. “That being said, I had a good mindset coming into camp this year. It kind of caught me off guard. That being said, I got a good opportunity down there to play a lot and really just realized what I’m capable of.”
When the pieces of the Flyers roster had fallen into place at the end of training camp, Ron Hextall wanted to find a way to keep Scott Laughton and Brandon Manning with the big club, and sending MacDonald to the Phantoms was the eventual solution. It was no small consideration – MacDonald is in just the second year of a six-year contract that carries a five-million dollar cap hit, and on Monday he acknowledged that it was a factor in his performance a year ago.
“Certainly the expectations go up quite a bit,” MacDonald said. “Last year it definitely weighed on me a bit. It’s difficult to go from making the league minimum to 5 million – you’re going to put a lot of pressure on yourself and expect a lot, and when things don’t necessarily go the way you want, it kind of weighs on you. That being said, it’s part of being a professional. You have to step up and do your job. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out so great so far, but now we’ll see what happens.”
MacDonald skated with Michael Del Zotto on Monday, which is a pairing that was in use for parts of last season.
“Luke and him were kind of rotating a bit last year, so we’ve got a little bit of experience with each other,” MacDonald said of Del Zotto. “He does well out there, and you just try to complement him. I feel like if we can just move the puck up to our forwards’ hands as quick as we can, we’ll be all right.”
Head coach Dave Hakstol will be coaching MacDonald for the first time, but he’s seen him in training camp and is familiar with his skillset.
“We’re happy to have Mac back here,” Hakstol said. “He’ll do a good job. He had a great practice today. He’s going to bring that stability of a veteran defenseman. He’s a good puck-mover, he’s competitive, dependable in terms of defending. Those are the things that are valuable on our D-corps.”
As for what’s next with MacDonald, he realizes the upcoming time with the Flyers will be an audition on whether or not he stays. It could also be an audition for him to establish his value with other teams, because the Flyers have an interesting time ahead of them when it comes to their blue line, and trades could be a part of the consideration. Even though MacDonald has been in the AHL, more than $4 million of his cap hit has remained on the Flyers’ books. Shayne Gostisbehere has been extremely impressive since coming up after Streit’s injury, and once Streit and Schenn are healthy, Hextall is going to have to re-solve the same puzzle he had in the preseason as far as keeping the roster the way he wants it and fitting it under the salary cap.
“I can’t look at it as any other way, really,” MacDonald said. “I’m here based on injury and suspension and stuff, but it’s a good opportunity and I’ll just try to take advantage of it.”
BONDS WITHIN THE RANKS
Sam Gagner hasn’t played since November 23, when he fell on his face – literally – on his third shift of the game against Carolina. He was checked into the corner boards by Brad Malone, and as the two continued around the curve, the momentum of the hit turned Gagner around and then dropped him to the ice such that he was unable to catch himself in any of the traditional manners.
“It was kind of an unlucky play,” he said Monday. “My hands were tied up too, so there wasn’t any break in the fall – it was just all my face.”
Later in the period, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare challenged and engaged Malone in a fight in response to the hit. It came one game after Gagner went after Alex Chiasson in Ottawa after Chiasson ended Scott Laughton’s night with a hard hit. The next time out, Claude Giroux fought Nick Leddy of the Islanders shortly after Leddy boarded Michael Raffl. Two games later, Luke Schenn took on Dylan McIlrath of the Rangers after McIlrath clobbered Nick Schultz. Most recently, it was Brayden Schenn seeking retribution on behalf of his brother after Michael Chaput knocked the elder Schenn from the game in the loss to Columbus.
There’s a pattern there, and it was started by Gagner. Before he sought that pound of flesh from Chiasson, the Flyers had only four fighting majors all season through 19 games, according to hockeyfights.com. In the eight games starting with that Ottawa contest, the Flyers have had 10 fights. Some have been just in the course of the game, like in New Jersey when Scott Laughton fought Bobby Farnham for being Bobby Farnham. But at least five of those have been players standing up for their teammates.
For all the talk about the purpose of fighting in the game – changing the momentum, keeping other players from taking liberties with your guys, or what have you – one thing that’s for certain is that it can bring a team together when done under circumstances like the Flyers have been doing it lately, when they’re done in solidarity for one another.
“I think it has to be that way,” Gagner said. “At the end of the day it might not show up in that game or the next game… but it just shows your teammates that you’re there for them. Over the long haul it creates a lot of camaraderie in the room and helps your group move forward. I texted Pierre after that game and just said thank you. There’s been a lot of that in here, and I think it helps you rally around each other.”
As for Gagner himself, he’s hoping his return isn’t far off.
“I’m feeling better,” he said. “Hopefully not too much longer here. I think the team’s playing well and it’s something you definitely want to be a part of, so I’m looking forward to getting back.”