How is Andrew MacDonald being used as a Flyer?

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

It's been three weeks since the Flyers acquired Andrew MacDonald. In what role has Craig Berube been using him in Philadelphia?

On the day before the NHL trade deadline, the Philadelphia Flyers traded for Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders. The Flyers hoped that MacDonald, a workhorse, big-minutes defenseman for a struggling Islanders team, would help to solidify a starting six that was in a constant state of flux throughout the season.

We at BSH were openly not thrilled with the MacDonald trade. But nine games in a Flyers uniform is certainly not enough time to make any sweeping generalizations about a player and the possibility of him succeeding long-term as a member of the orange and black.

However, we can analyze his role so far as a Flyer, which is just beginning to emerge.

Most expected MacDonald would have far fewer responsibilities in Philadelphia as compared to New York, where he was expected to carry the load (along with Travis Hamonic) in all situations. And coach Craig Berube has already begun to exhibit some tendencies in his handling of his new defenseman. Things like ice time, defensive partners, most frequent teammates, and opposing matchups can give us an understanding of how both Berube and the Flyers organization view MacDonald as an asset now and moving forward.

The MacDonald-Schenn pairing... and others

From his first game as a Flyer, Andrew MacDonald has been primarily paired with Luke Schenn.

Schenn, a slower, physical defenseman, was likely chosen as a complement to the faster, more agile MacDonald. And since the acquisition, Schenn has spent almost none of his even strength ice time away from MacDonald.

But unlike Schenn, MacDonald still receives occasional shifts with two other Philadelphia defensemen: Mark Streit and Braydon Coburn.

Despite being NYI teammates with Streit since breaking into the league in 2008-09, MacDonald was only paired with Streit during the 2009-10 season, barely spending any time with him during the rest of his tenure as an Islander.

But the Flyers clearly see some potential in the pairing, as MacDonald has been given the occasional extra shift with Streit, usually finishing with about three minutes of 5v5 ice time with him each night.

MacDonald also has received an average of about two minutes of even strength ice time per game with Braydon Coburn, who has long been a 5v5 workhorse in terms of minutes for Philadelphia.

But Coburn is beginning to get some competition in that regard.

The Flyers are giving MacDonald less minutes than NYI did -- but not that much less at 5v5

In New York, Andrew MacDonald was right at the top of the Islanders' time on ice charts each night, ranking second in 5v5 time on ice with 19:23 minutes per game, and first in overall minutes per game with a whopping 25:25.

As a Flyer, MacDonald has received almost five less overall minutes per game, dropping to 20:31 on average.

But most of that dropoff has come from a decrease in his special teams role. MacDonald is still receiving 18:10 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game as a Flyer, a slight decrease, but a number that would still rank him in the top-60 among NHL defensemen.

Most importantly, since being acquired by Philadelphia, he has led all Flyers defensemen in even strength ice time.

Player 5v5 Time on Ice Per Game Total Time On Ice Per Game
Andrew MacDonald 18:10 20:31
Mark Streit 18:06 20:13
Braydon Coburn 17:53 22:30
Nicklas Grossmann 15:51 18:16
Luke Schenn 13:14 15:16
Kimmo Timonen 12:51 21:05

MacDonald still falls in at third place in total ice time among Philadelphia defensemen. But despite being paired with Luke Schenn on what is supposedly the third pairing, MacDonald is still getting enough additional ice time at 5v5 to rank him ahead of players like Coburn and Streit.

He may not quite be the workhorse he was in New York. But don't let the eye test fool you, MacDonald is not being used by Craig Berube as a typical third pairing defenseman.

Despite the minutes, the matchups have been easier

In addition to leading the Islanders in minutes, MacDonald was also given particularly tough matchups by his coaches. When on the ice for faceoffs, MacDonald was more often than not facing a draw in the defensive zone, and his shifts were likely to come against top line competition.

In Philadelphia, that has definitely changed.

Team MacDonald Offensive Zone Start Percentage MacDonald Quality of Competition
New York 46.5% 29.10%
Philadelphia 52.4% 27.70%

Since becoming a Flyer, MacDonald has been given more faceoffs in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, and is facing weaker competition overall.

Also, since the quality of competition metric can be skewed in small samples by one particularly difficult or easy game, it is important to note that as a Flyer, MacDonald has never once ranked higher than third among Philadelphia defensemen in the single game quality of competition statistic. He usually falls in at fourth or fifth.

The Flyers may be giving MacDonald a fair amount of minutes, but he's definitely been more sheltered so far in Philadelphia than in New York.

The forward factor

But how are the Flyers managing to give MacDonald more even strength minutes than any other Philadelphia defenseman, yet still mostly avoiding matchups against top line forwards?

By keeping a very, very close eye on the forward groups that he plays behind.

Berube has been very open that Sean Couturier is his shutdown center, tasked with skating against top lines and preventing them from scoring. And while he hasn't discussed it in detail, it is also very clear that the line centered by Brayden Schenn faces the weakest competition out of the primary three lines, as they are generally used as a one-way scoring threat.

So does MacDonald receive more minutes with the defensively-oriented Couturier line, or Schenn's line of scorers?

Schenn's line, of course. And it's really not close.

Center 5v5 Minutes Spent with MacDonald Total 5v5 Minutes since MacDonald Trade Percentage of 5v5 Minutes spent with MacDonald
Brayden Schenn 60.8 120.2 50.58%
Michael Raffl 27.9 85.9 32.48%
Claude Giroux 44.6 139.8 31.90%
Sean Couturier 28.2 131.6 21.42%

Since the trade, Brayden Schenn has seen over 50% of his even strength minutes come with Andrew MacDonald on the ice. The percentages are dramatic enough that it's unlikely to be a coincidence - Berube clearly prefers to use the MacDonald-Schenn pairing when the Lecavalier-Schenn-Simmonds line is on the ice.

On the other hand, the Flyers are doing everything in their power to keep Sean Couturier away from Andrew MacDonald. The new defenseman has spent almost the same amount of 5v5 ice time with 4C Michael Raffl as Couturier, despite Couturier receiving over 45 more minutes of even strength time over the same period.

Intuitively, this decision by Berube makes sense. On the depth chart, the MacDonald-Schenn pairing ranks third, and a coach wants to use his best defensemen against an opponent's top forwards.

But Berube seems to want to take advantage of MacDonald's ability to play big minutes despite being on the third pairing. So his solution has been to keep him as far away from Couturier as possible so MacDonald avoids the tough matchups, while getting him out there as much as possible with the more sheltered Schenn line.

It remains to be seen if this continues. Since the acquisition, the Flyers have played mostly home games (seven home, two away) so Berube has had more control over his matchups.

If he continues to try to use MacDonald as both a big minutes and a sheltered defenseman, opponents may react by trying to trap MacDonald on the ice against top lines more than Berube would hope.

Berube's reaction to that should tell us even more about how he views his new defenseman, both now and in the future.

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