Ducks' McDonald finds his form
By Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
April 17, 2006
Andy McDonald has been dreaming of a Disney-like fantasy ending since he was out for the last 29 games of the 2002-03 season and the playoffs with post-concussion effects, when the Mighty Ducks went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the New Jersey Devils.
While that memory might have been a little fuzzy for McDonald, the Strathroy, Ontario, native, has clearly established himself as the team's No. 1 center and displayed an ability to produce on offense that many NHL fans never expected.
What the 5-foot-11, 186-pound center has brought to the Mighty Ducks this season is a player whose skates sparkle when he turns on the after-burners. He's nifty with the puck, helping set up Teemu Selanne with pull-you-out-of-your-seat passes. And he's very, very smart.
He clearly took center stage after the team traded Sergei Fedorov to the Columbus Blue Jackets in November. But this was never a test, not a quiz comparing Fedorov with his star potential for an off-the-rack NHLer whose career-highs were 10 goals and 30 points. This 28-year-old Colgate graduate isn't a raggedy Andy. He has stepped into Fedorov's spot and over the last five months, the only center to have more points is Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. In 81 games, McDonald has 33 goals and 50 assists.
"Chemistry is more than just a feel," said Selanne, who reached the 40-goal mark for the fifth time in his career and first since 1998-99 thanks to McDonald. "It's funny what you remember about players. When I first saw Andy (at the Mighty Ducks training camp in September of 2000), he had all the tools you need to be a great player. Speed, heart, intelligence. It was just a matter of time that he believed in himself. He takes pride in making plays and he's got great speed. And we all know, speed kills."
Selanne has performed some pretty astounding magic for the Mighty Ducks over the years with linemate Paul Kariya. But none of those early Anaheim seasons, in spite of the numbers that twosome put up, have been more impressive than McDonald's collaboration with Teemu after Fedorov was traded back in November.
In evaluating what McDonald has done this season, it's clear that there's nothing that says your big man in the middle must be a big man.
Joe Sakic (5-11, 195), Pavel Datsyuk (5-11, 180), Saku Koivu (5-10, 181) and Chris Drury (5-10, 200) have done quite well in their careers overcoming that "too small" reputation to stand the heavy checking in the big show.
"His effort and battle level make it seem like he's playing with a couple more inches and 10 pounds more when he plays against the bigger centers in the NHL," said Mighty Ducks General Manager Brian Burke. "It's definitely not a hindrance the way he works out there at a consistently high level every game."
Not when you get that "I'll-show-you" mentality when people keep telling a heart and soul player like McDonald that he's too small.
That's also where McDonald's smarts come in. He graduated from Colgate with a degree in International Relations. But he also had some international acceptance to work on out on the hockey rink. To that end, he was the ECAC Player of the Year in 1999-2000, his senior season. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's Player of the Year. And he put up some mind-numbing statistics at Cincinnati in the American Hockey League before being promoted to the NHL.
Clearly, McDonald has battled some long odds, and succeeded. He was once considered a too-small, undrafted product of a school that wasn't a hockey power. He also overcame a pretty fierce wallop to his head by rugged Colorado defenseman Adam Foote in January of 2003 that rattled him so severely he wondered if he'd ever play again. It took Andy almost a full calendar year before he felt right again after the concussion.
"Everybody goes out of their way to make you feel a part of it at Stanley Cup time, but the reality is you're not," McDonald told me, his voice slowing down for a minute while he reflected on the great run that he missed out on. "The symptoms weren't even going away later that summer. It wasn't that I was dizzy, but the lights affected me and the noise."
And what good is a hungry-to-do-well hockey player who can't enjoy the bright lights in the NHL and the noise of the fans when he does something well.
"My biggest trouble was with my eyes," McDonald recalled. "I had trouble tracking and focusing, even as late as July of 2003. I started panicking when there was no change. I started to question myself. Like, am I done with hockey?"
Now, there no quit once again in this fireball center who more than tripled his career-high in goals and was closing in on the same triple stratosphere in points down the stretch. You can bet he'll more than triple his annual salary of $627,000 when his contract runs out on July 1.
While many NHL players bided their time during last season's lockout, McDonald felt he needed to play and regain his confidence after the concussion and a nine-goal, 21-assist performance in a non-playoff 2003-04 season. It wasn't up to the standards Andy was reaching for. So he packed up his equipment and headed to Ingolstadt in the German Elite League, where he matched his 30 points from 2003-04 in just 36 games -- getting 13 goals and 17 assists.
"I wanted to prove a point to myself and the rest of the hockey world," McDonald said. "And I think I needed to have fun playing hockey again, which I did, while gaining a lot of confidence in my game -- especially contributing offensively and scoring goals. It helped me get on the right track for this season."
And the days when each shift might have been considered a pass-fail test are over. Even though he worried about trying to show a new general manager -- Burke -- and a new coach -- Randy Carlyle -- what he could do, that classic Andy McDonald work ethic won over both bosses quickly.
"Give me a player who goes out there and earns his ice time by never taking a shift off -- or a practice off -- and I'll give him all the playing time he can handle," Carlyle said.
You won't find a harder worker than McDonald and the flash-and-dash skills he has displayed in zig-zagging through opposing defenses with the ever-talented Selanne by his side have helped the Mighty Ducks show off the best record in the NHL from January 1 on.
Still, there's another test in front of McDonald and the Ducks -- and that's the playoffs, where McDonald's NHL biography shows zero playoff games.
"You're judged in the playoffs by your hard work and passion for the game -- and Andy has proved his critics wrong throughout his career, so why should this be different?" Los Angeles Kings center Craig Conroy told me recently, after we watched the highlight of a highlight-reel goal that McDonald set up for Selanne down the stretch.
"I sometimes have to rub my eyes to make sure I'm not dreaming, because, in a lot of ways, especially the speed and quickness areas, he reminds me of the way Paul Kariya played for us," veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere told me earlier this season.
And this Mighty Ducks run is also a reminder to Andy McDonald what he missed down the stretch in 2003.
This time, he's already been a big part of Anaheim's turnaround.
I'm so happy for him! Well mostly happy for him. I don't like that Petr seems to have passed his Sharks mojo to Andy, and now he's the one who's always scoring goals against us. I was so sad he was concussed for that run in 2003. :(
Tonight is Sharks Stripping Night, aka Fan Appreciation Night or whatever. The important thing is guys will be taking their jerseys off! :D I will try to make it home in time for the game. Going to listen to the Thrashers game on radio. I'm tempted to record the game on the TiVo, cos' like, what if Marian scores 5 goals or something??? *waffles*