Small Center Comes Up Big
It was only training camp, but to Andy McDonald it looked more like the great unknown.
Here he was, in his fourth full season, needing to prove himself again with the Mighty Ducks -- the only NHL team he has known but far different from the one he played for before the league staged its 310-day lockout.
There was a new general manager and a new head coach, and there were some new teammates.
And McDonald was unsure of his place after a debilitating concussion kept him out of the playoff run that took the Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals and also led to a subpar season in 2003-2004.
So what did he do? What he has always done. Work.
Now the 28-year-old center is heading to the playoffs with career highs in every offensive category.
“It’s almost like you’re coming to a new team,” he said of that September training camp. “You don’t know how much they know about you. I didn’t have a great season the year before so I wasn’t in a great position coming into training camp.” In 79 games, he had nine goals and 21 assists.
“You try to show what you can do early and prove yourself,” McDonald said. “Usually, there isn’t much time for that.”
Turns out, he didn’t need much. McDonald is virtually at a point-per-game clip in what has been a breakout year, and he is one reason the Ducks have surged. Already, he has 31 goals and 49 assists for 80 points, a team record for a center.
Yet there has been little fanfare -- until now. As the Ducks’ No. 1 center, he is leading the team toward the playoffs and putting himself into the spotlight.
McDonald, quiet by nature, prefers being under the radar.
“I like the idea of laying low,” he said.
Given his sudden success, that may be harder to do.
“The teams we’ve played against many times, they know about him,” Teemu Selanne said. “I think he’s still an unknown name around the league. But not for very long. He’s doing the things that will get him noticed.”
As the Ducks are peaking, so is McDonald. He recently set a team record with points in 14 consecutive games and has 12 goals and 15 assists in the last 20 games as the Ducks have gone 14-5-1.
“He makes unbelievable passes and he’s a good skater,” Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. “Reminds me a little bit of Paul Kariya by the way he plays. We’re sure happy we have him.”
Success for McDonald has been not only a matter of talent but of right place, right time.
Last summer, when the lockout ended, the NHL reinvented itself, installing rule changes that would eliminate obstruction and open up scoring. The result: skill and speed dominate the game now, not muscle.
“The new rules have helped Andy McDonald,” Duck General Manager Brian Burke said. “There’s no question about that in my mind.”
“The intention of the rule changes is to give the skill player more of an opportunity to do what they do,” he said.
“There isn’t as much clutching and grabbing and I’m able to get to free ice more often. I can jump into holes without getting dragged down.”
As his point total has grown, so has his confidence.
“There’s a lot more of a comfort zone for himself,” Duck Coach Randy Carlyle said. “The one thing you can always say about Andy McDonald is that even though some nights you don’t expect every player to be at 100%, he’s given you 100% effort every night.”
While his speed and skating ability put McDonald at an advantage, it wasn’t until he replaced Sergei Fedorov on the top line that his season took off.
Fedorov was traded in November, and McDonald has since dispelled any doubt -- 51 of his points have come in the second half of the season -- while forging a productive partnership with the rejuvenated Selanne.
For Carlyle, it took a leap of faith. Though injured, Fedorov was a proven All-Star playmaker and scorer. With McDonald, the Ducks were putting their then-erratic offense on the shoulders of their smallest player.
“It’s always a concern when you have a player who’s historically never been that type of player, who’s never scored more than 10 goals” in a season, Carlyle said. “He’s having a career year. There’s a lot of factors but in reality, it’s because he’s gone out and earned it.”
The question, according to Burke, wasn’t whether McDonald was good enough to fill the hole up top but whether his 5-foot-11, 186-pound frame could hold up to the punishment.
An All-American out of Colgate, McDonald always possessed offensive ability but also had a history of concussions.
The worst occurred Jan. 9, 2003. The Ducks were in Colorado and in the second period, McDonald took a hit to the head.
McDonald, who was playing well with 21 points in 46 games, stayed on the ice. “At the time I didn’t think it was that serious,” he said. “It was a hard hit but I didn’t lose consciousness. I finished my shift and I didn’t have to leave the game. I tried to come back two weeks after the hit and I kept having lingering symptoms. It wouldn’t go away.”
His season was over, his career derailed.
Ultimately diagnosed with a damaged optic nerve, McDonald could not work out. Bright light hurt. Headaches were constant.
“The frustrating part is there isn’t a whole lot of help out there for you,” he said. " ... I spent seven months doing nothing. It was hard.”
His agent, Steve Bartlett, remembers how hard.
“Andy was pretty bummed out about it,” he said. “He couldn’t function on a daily basis.”
Then it got worse. The Ducks made that surprising run to the finals -- without him.
McDonald’s place on the Ducks now figures to be secure. A restricted free agent after the season, he will probably get a raise from his $627,000 salary.
But McDonald only wants one thing: to see the Ducks make another run to the finals.
This time, with him.