Had the Philadelphia Flyers not made a surprise run into the playoffs, Colin McDonald's season would be easy to evaluate. He was named captain of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in October, had a brief five-game stint with the big club in late November and early December following a Sam Gagner injury, and spent the rest of the regular season in the minors.
Then, Sean Couturier and Scott Laughton got injured in the Flyers' first round series against the Washington Capitals, and the coaching staff quickly decided that McDonald was the right fit for a physical playoff battle.
|Age||31 (September 30, 1984)|
|Contract Status||Signed through 2017-18 for $637,500 per season (two-way)|
McDonald would appear in three playoff games against the Capitals, mostly playing on Philadelphia's third and fourth lines. The 31-year old forward scored no points (in his defense, the Flyers only had three total goals in those games), but he did contribute 13 hits, delighting those who believed that Philadelphia was losing the physical battle in the series.
Unfortunately for the Flyers, that's basically all that he provided in the postseason. His 34.48% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 was a team-low (for players who completed at least one full game), and the bottom-two lines were noticeably weaker with McDonald in the lineup versus Scott Laughton.
But it's hard to blame Colin McDonald too much. After all, there was a reason why he played 51 games in the AHL in 2015-16 versus only five in the NHL -- he was pretty far down the organizational depth chart. To his credit, McDonald is a useful forward at the lower level -- he scored 32 points in 51 games with the Phantoms and finished with a positive even strength on-ice Goals For Relative to his teammates per AHL.prospect-stats.com. He's far from a liability in that league.
2015-16 Regular Season Numbers (click button to expand)
|Games Played||Goals||Assists||Shots On Goal|
At the NHL level, however, McDonald is essentially a fourth-line checker, with a heavy emphasis on the "checker" aspect. Real-time hit totals tracked by the league are far from perfect, but a player doesn't luck into averaging three hits per NHL regular season game played in his career. McDonald may not bring much scoring (45 points in 145 NHL games) to the table, but if a team is looking to up their physical presence, he's the man to call.
The real question is whether McDonald's playoff call-up was caused simply by a desire to add that physical element, or if his appearance against the Capitals hints that his stature in the organization is trending upwards. And it's true, he was signed to a two-year contract extension back in late February, keeping him property of the Flyers through the 2017-18 season. Clearly Flyers general manager Ron Hextall was satisfied enough with his leadership and performance in Lehigh Valley to commit to a few more years of having him on the books, at the very least.
Still, it's tough to see McDonald fitting anywhere with the Flyers organization except as a key forward for the Phantoms. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde are locked up for another season, and Ryan White and the front office have expressed mutual interest in a new contract for the fourth line's only pending free agent, so there isn't an open spot there. In addition, McDonald's underwhelming performance in the playoffs reminded everyone that he is overmatched in a third line role at the NHL level alongside more skilled players like Nick Cousins or Matt Read.
Most likely, Hextall and the Flyers see McDonald as a mentor of sorts for the young forward prospects that will begin flooding the team's AHL affiliate, with Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Radel Fazleev part of the first wave next season. McDonald also is fully capable of filling in for one of VandeVelde or White in case of injury if Philadelphia is looking for more of a traditional fourth line bruiser to fill in for a brief stint rather than a green rookie.
The Flyers could certainly do worse than Colin McDonald as a quad-A "swingman" of sorts for the next two seasons. Both his extension and McDonald's surprise playoff appearance implies that the organization viewed his 2015-16 season a success, but it's hard to imagine that they were so impressed as to set aside a spot for him on the opening night roster of the big club in 2016-17. Instead, expect Colin McDonald to have little more than a longshot chance to make the Flyers at training camp in September.