The Islanders right wing has dressed for eight different teams in three leagues over the last five years, including three different stints in the National Hockey League. In that time, he’d led the AHL in goals one year, led another team in assists and scored his first NHL goal in just his second game in 2009-10 with Edmonton. But coming into this season, McDonald discovered a new role that would help him finally break through to make an impact at the NHL level.
The 28-year-old signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Islanders last summer but after the lockout postponed his chance to make the Islanders roster out of Training Camp, he took on a leading role with the Islanders American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport. McDonald played on the top line with the Sound Tigers, a position usually counted on to put goals on the scoreboard, but he says the Sound Tigers staff told him to focus on something else.
“I remember one talk I had specifically with (Bridgeport Assistant Coach) Eric Boguniecki and (Islanders Player Development staff member) Eric Cairns,” McDonald said. “They told me they did not care how many points I had in the American League while the lockout was going on. They kept reiterating that they wanted me to play physical, and that they needed that up at the NHL level. I talked to Brent Thompson after one of the games, and one thing he had written down in his notes was ‘physical play.’ I just trusted them and that if I took care of my end and did what I was asked, that I would get a chance. They definitely followed through with everything that they had to tell me.”
Relied upon to generate energy for his Islanders teammates, McDonald has been in the lineup for 21 of the team’s 23 games (missing two due to suspension), after playing just seven career games in the world’s top league prior to this season.
“Every day is a tryout for me,” McDonald said. “I haven’t had an opportunity like this yet in my career. I hope I can play here for a number of years. Some of that is beyond my control, but I’m trying to control what I can. I want to earn the trust of coaches and management so hopefully they see me as an important part of this team for years to come.”
McDonald has played with several different line mates on the Islanders this season, but the unit of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and McDonald has enjoyed success – and received praise – in recent games from the Islanders coaching staff and media alike. In the Islanders 6-3 win Tuesday against Montreal, McDonald registered his first-career multi-point game, assisting on Michael Grabner’s goal and scoring an empty-netter to ice the contest.
The New Haven, CT native certainly enjoys seeing his name on the score sheet, but his teammates rely on him more for the energy and spark he provides.
Right Wing - NYI
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 8
SOG: 29 | +/-: -4
“He plays a physical role,” Cizikas said. “He was like that in Bridgeport and he’s brought that up here. It’s great to have him on our line. He’s a great energy guy and you know what he can do with the puck. Colin, [Matt Martin
] and I all have that kind of chemistry and we work well off each other. It’s easy to play with him.”
McDonald has out-hit all but Martin among his Islanders teammates over the last three games, including six in 13 minutes against the Canadiens. Besides upping his physical presence, McDonald credits his improved skating ability and staying mentally sharp for getting him to the right places on the ice to frustrate his opponents.
“I used to spend quite a bit of time in the summers with skating instructors, trying to get quicker and faster,” McDonald said. “I don’t think it’s a weakness anymore, and it’s definitely not something that’s holding me back from making it. One thing I try is to not take myself out of a play just to make a hit. Of course, some of that is your skating ability, but a lot of it is anticipation – knowing where that puck is going so you can be on time to make that hit.”
Cizikas, a rookie, attributes some of McDonald’s success to his veteran savvy.
“He’s been playing pro hockey for six years and I think that definitely shows,” Cizikas said. “He’s learned where to be at the right time and done a good job in that regard. He’s put defenders in less than favorable spots and made them pay.”
That attribute will be relied upon Thursday, when the Islanders and Rangers square off at Nassau Coliseum. Last time the two teams met on Feb. 14, McDonald scored his second goal of the season, kick-starting the Islanders out of a 2-0 deficit towards a 4-3 shootout win.