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Bolts' MacDonald doing what it takes to stay in NHL

by Brian Hunter

Craig MacDonald spent the past decade in the minors before getting an opportunity to play for the Lightning. Craig MacDonald video
Craig MacDonald holds the distinction of being one of the final draft choices of the Hartford Whalers. A fourth-round pick in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, he never played a game in a Whalers jersey, but he certainly has made the rounds in his professional career.

MacDonald first made it to the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Whalers' successor, during the 1998-99 campaign, and played 58 games over parts of three seasons with the club. Brief stints with Florida, Boston, Calgary and Chicago followed, but during that time he never played more than 35 NHL games in a season.

The minors were MacDonald's home for most of the past decade, and while bouncing from places like New Haven, Cincinnati, Lowell, San Antonio, Omaha and Norfolk might not have been what he envisioned while dreaming of a hockey career as a youth, the willingness to stick it out always was there.

"There have been times I've thought, 'What am I doing here?' I want to go back to school someday," MacDonald said. "But I've always loved to play. There have been bumps in the road – I've been sent down a number of times, and getting that call's never easy. But the last few years things have kind of clicked, where I have the confidence I can play here."

Still, MacDonald needed another opportunity, which he received when the Tampa Bay Lightning called last summer. After winning a job in training camp as a fourth-line center, he survived a brief trip back to the AHL in November, but soon returned to stay.

He has played in a career-high 59 games, setting personal bests for assists (nine) and points (11), while filling all sorts of roles as injuries and trades changed the face of the Lightning.

MacDonald's perseverance to make it in the NHL has led the Tampa Bay chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association to nominate him for this year's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

"Right from training camp the coaching staff put me in a spot to succeed," MacDonald said. "They want me to be the type of guy who brings energy, wins faceoffs, is a physical presence and a forechecking presence, gets involved in the penalty killing."

In other words, MacDonald has punched his ticket to becoming an NHL regular by being a jack of all trades. His desire and his work ethic haven't gone unnoticed in the Tampa locker room, including by his coach, John Tortorella.

"It's a dogfight for guys like Craig every day," Tortorella said. "They're constantly moving, being traded. It's a tough life. They have families. My respect for him has grown as the year has gone on, with how he has handled himself. He should feel very happy about how his year's come along, because he certainly wasn't a lock to be here.

"He was really signed as a guy to fight for a fourth-line position or to start in the minors. He showed he could skate, take faceoffs. He's turned into one of our better penalty killers, and he's good in the room. He's not a young guy … he knows exactly what he has to do: Work hard and pay attention to every detail. He's done whatever he's had to do to help the team, whether it's playing one minute or playing 18-19 minutes in a game."

And despite spending almost the entire season with the Lightning, there still have been obstacles to overcome. MacDonald lost nine teeth and endured four root canals after he took a puck to the mouth in December.

"He had his face ruined and he didn't complain," Tortorella said. "He was back out there the next day."

Perhaps MacDonald's only regret this season will be that it ends too soon. Only four years removed from the franchise's first Stanley Cup, the Lightning will miss the playoffs, preventing MacDonald from adding to the seven NHL playoff games he suited up for with the Hurricanes, Flames and Bruins.

With a nucleus that includes Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and an influx of young talent like new goalie Mike Smith, the potential for a quick turnaround exists.

"We've done a lot of good stuff, we just haven't quite finished off teams," MacDonald said. "But you look at our core guys, we have some superstars. We just have to fine-tune some things here."

Although these final regular-season games don't represent a postseason tune-up, they remain important for players like MacDonald, who want to leave a lasting impression heading into next season.

Whether MacDonald has a leg up on a roster spot remains to be seen, but Tortorella didn't disagree with the idea that a player who has had to earn every shift in every game possesses the hunger and self-motivation a coaching staff seeks.

"That's what I like about Craig, he assesses himself well," Tortorella said. "When he does something wrong, he knows it, there's not much I need to do as far as talking to him. He knows where he stands and he brings the right mindset as far as fighting and doing the little things."

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