As a young player looking to crack the NHL, would you rather be with the Edmonton Oilers or Pittsburgh Penguins?
The Oilers are in the midst of a heavy rebuild and might tie a league record this summer with their third consecutive #1 draft pick. Meanwhile, the Penguins are loaded with veterans and have never missed the playoffs since General Manager Ray Shero took over in 2006.
Colin McDonald, a 27-year-old winger out of Hartford, CT, has spent time in both organizations and found the answer wasn’t quite what he expected.
“When I started with the Edmonton organization, they were the worst team in the league so you would think they needed some call-ups and it’s the right organization to be in,” McDonald says. “It never happened for me.”
McDonald was a second-round pick of the Oilers in the 2003 draft and spent much of his career with the team’s AHL affiliates in Springfield and later Oklahoma City. He appeared in two NHL games during the 09-10 season, but couldn’t find a niche for himself in Springfield as the team repeatedly finished last in the AHL and shuffled coaches in and out of town.
The low point for McDonald came after that 09-10 season when the Oilers only offered him a minor-league deal. McDonald accepted the offer, but wasn’t shy about voicing his frustration in an interview with Copper and Blue’s Lisa McRitchie last March.
“I was upset with the way things went this summer, only getting an AHL deal,” he said to McRitchie. “I told myself I was going to play with more of a chip on my shoulder and I took it personal for them not giving me an NHL contract. I was their second-round draft pick and I thought that they gave up on me.”
With a chip on his shoulder and a fire lit under the blade of his stick, McDonald exploded last season with 42 goals for the Oilers’ new AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City.
“I’m trying to prove myself and don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting things to go quite this well, but everything happens for a reason,” he told McRitchie in the midst of the career year. “I’ve always been a late bloomer at every level, in every sport, and hopefully this can be one of those stories where I get a chance.”
Because of his outspoken displeasure (or perhaps because the Oilers didn’t want to foul up their ‘Fail for Nail‘ campaign by retaining a 42-goal scorer), Edmonton didn’t give him that chance and let McDonald head to free agency in the offseason. McDonald knew his extraordinary offensive stats were partially a result of playing with talented OKC linemates Alexandre Giroux and Brad Moran, but he was happy it put him on the radar of teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“To not get an NHL contract last year was tough and I just told myself I was going to try to have some fun,” McDonald says from the locker room of Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center. “I was given the opportunity to play with some good guys right off the bat and was able to produce and kind of continue that all year. Obviously it opened up some doors for me this offseason.”
McDonald signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Penguins that pays him $525,000 at the NHL level. Despite a strong training camp, he started this season in Wilkes-Barre and earned AHL All-Star honors before finally making his Pittsburgh debut on January 6. McDonald has no points in four NHL games so far this year, but he’s shown grit, the poise to make plays instead of dumping the puck, and the ability to create scoring chances for teammates.
In his first game as a Penguin, McDonald (38) drove the net hard and occupied the attention of the Rangers’ Marc Staal (18), allowing Ben Lovejoy to walk in alone on this goal:
The unselfish play is not one you’d typically expect from a big-time goal scorer, but McDonald says that style of hockey is more representative of his skillset than picking corners on a goalie with a nifty wrist shot.
“I think I play an all-around solid game,” he says. “One thing I was nervous about coming into this year was guys looking at my stats from last year and seeing all the goals. I’m not your typical goal scorer. Last year I was just on a line where I was playing with two very good players and my only job was to get them the puck and get open. Down in Wilkes-Barre, and even my first three years of pro prior, I’ve enjoyed killing penalties, shootouts, four-on-four, power play. I like to be that guy to play in every situation and they’ve given me that opportunity here.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said he didn’t get fixated on stats and instead appreciates the versatility McDonald can add to the lineup.
“Colin is a guy that broke out last year, but he’s not really a goal-scorer type of guy. He’s a gritty guy that plays a good up-and-down wing game. He’s good in the tough areas around the net. He has the ability to score goals, but in Wilkes-Barre he leads the team in assists. He’s not really a point-getting type of guy, but he’s getting those points. He’s a really solid player, good in defensive situations…”
In other words, Bylsma was trying to say he does a little bit of everything.
McDonald credits the staff in Wilkes-Barre and throughout the Penguins organization with taking his game to a new level this season.
“I came from an organization where in my four years with Edmonton I had four different coaches in the American League. For three of them, it was their first year as a coach at the professional level. I just felt like it was hard to develop there. Coming here, it’s completely different. I wish I could’ve started my career here. Just from top to bottom it’s so organized and so professional and everyone’s on the same page.”
One specific example McDonald pointed to was the identical on-ice systems employed by Bylsma and Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes. He said when the systems vary, it’s difficult for a player to focus on learning new on-ice responsibilities and also deal with the emotions and distractions that come with an NHL recall. That hasn’t been the case in his two call-ups this season.
“When I get up here [to Pittsburgh], there’s really not much I have to adjust. In the past with Edmonton, there was two different systems so you were forced to learn a new system within 24 hours after getting called up. That’s hard to do. Most guys play their best when they’re not thinking, just playing and reacting.”
McDonald knows it won’t be easy to crack a veteran-laden Pittsburgh lineup that’s always looking to add new pieces (the Penguins claimed Cal O’Reilly off re-entry waivers on Wednesday), but he’s happy to be in a situation where he can develop as a player and someday earn that opportunity full-time.
“I just need to take it on day at a time and I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true. You can’t look too far ahead. You’re not going to be at your best every night, but it’s about how you bounce back the next day.”
“Last year was a big step for me and it was a confidence boost for my career. I know I can play at this level and I’m ready to take the next step. I’m just trying to take advantage of being here and I’d like to stay here for years to come.”
Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com | Twitter: @MikeColligan