2017-18 Player Review: Andrew MacDonald continues to post poor results
MacDonald has been on the Flyers’ roster for five seasons now.
When thinking of words to describe Andrew MacDonald, fan-favorite won’t come to mind. MacDonald, 31, will be entering year five of his six year, thirty million dollar contract next season, and will likely continue to be a target of fans’ criticism moving forward. However, a change in usage could go a long way in both improving the team’s play and also taking some of the heat off of him.
Since joining Philadelphia back in 2014, MacDonald has consistently received middle or top pairing minutes alongside a multitude of partners, and one thing has remained a constant — the results just haven’t been good enough. Basic stats will paint MacDonald in a positive light this season, with a career high in goals and his best offensive production since joining Philadelphia, but his underlying numbers tell a different story.
By The Numbers
|Games Played||Goals||Assists||Points||PIM||Shots on Goal||Shooting Percentage|
Six goals and twenty one points, coupled with a plus-8 rating, are undeniably good numbers for someone that the hockey world views as a “shutdown” defenseman. However, the numbers don’t look as impressive when you take a deeper look.
While all six of MacDonald’s goals came at 5-on-5, his primary points per 60 minutes was at its lowest since the 2014-15 season. This was because he had just two primary assists all year long, one at 5-on-5, but hey, points are points, right? It’s not like offensive production is what he gets paid for anyway. The more worrisome numbers show up when taking a look at his on-ice differentials.
5v5 On-Ice Stats
|Score-Adjusted Corsi For %||SA-Corsi Relative||Corsi For % RelTM||Score Adjusted-Expected Goals For||SA-Expected Goals Relative||Goals For %||PDO|
The Flyers had seven defensemen that played a minimum of 200 minutes at 5-on-5 this past season, and MacDonald’s -3.47% CF rel ranks sixth, ahead of only Robert Hagg, and his -1.57% xG rel ranks fifth. As you can see above, it gets worse, not better, when you account for teammate effects. When MacDonald was on the ice, the Flyers were getting out-shot and out-chanced, a trend that’s continued season after season. Given that he’s averaged over 20 minutes of ice time per game since joining the Flyers, there’s clearly a disconnect between what the stats say and what the coaching staff thinks of him. Let’s turn to his per 60 rates to judge him solely on shot suppression and completely ignore offense for a moment as we try to find an answer.
5v5 Individual Stats
|Points/60||Primary Points/60||Shot Attempts/60||Expected Goals/60|
When MacDonald was on the ice, the Flyers allowed 50.87 CA/60, the second highest mark among Philadelphia defensemen, which suggests that shot suppression might not be his strong suit after all. Shocking, I know. Something that some fans and analysts have used to defend MacDonald and argue in his favor is that he does well at boxing players out and keeping their shots to the outside. How accurate is that though?
Not very, so it seems. These with or without you heat maps look even worse for MacDonald when you remember that he primarily played on the right side of the ice this season, the side in which the Flyers gave up the majority of the scoring chances while he was on the ice. This isn’t exactly surprising given that his expected goals against per 60 is the second highest on the team at 2.24. It goes without saying that MacDonald struggled to suppress both shot quantity and shot quality this season.
Interestingly enough, his on-ice goals for percentage, something that has also been used in the past to defend the amount of ice time he receives, was negative relative to his team for the second season in a row. His -1.48% GF rel, while a step up from his -4.51% during the 2016-17 season, continues to put a damper on the narrative that the coaching staff trusts him because goals don’t end up in the back of the net when he’s on the ice. There’s clearly something he does well in the eyes of the coaching staff when they look at video, but what exactly that may be is unclear.
What we can do is eliminate potential answers to that question. For example, we know it doesn’t (well, shouldn’t) have anything to do with transition game, especially when it comes to defending zone entries. It’s this area of the game that might just be his weakest. MacDonald’s inability to break up zone entries and at times his unwillingness to challenge the puck carrier at all has been brought up numerous times over the years, and it was no different this past season.
During the regular season, MacDonald allowed the most possession entries per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 while also forcing the least amount of dump-ins among all Flyers defensemen. This problem area of his isn’t just in “worst on the Flyers” territory, he’s legitimately been one of the worst in the league at denying possession entries over the past few seasons. By defending entries as passively as he does, he’ll tend to avoid getting beat since there’s no challenge to lose. On the surface, not allowing the attacking player to get behind you is great, obviously, but if you’re achieving that by just allowing the puck carrier to enter the zone uncontested, it’s no longer a positive. A lot of other aspects of MacDonald’s game are the same in that he plays the game extremely passively and by doing so will usually avoid making the “big” mistakes that are more memorable. This style of play is once again evident when taking a look at his defensive zone exits.
reliable in all three zones
While it’s true that he’s just barely among the better half of players when it comes to possession exits per 60 minutes, it’s the percentage of his exits that are uncontrolled that pose a problem. While the non-possession exits are split into two categories, clears and dumps, so that one can determine how many times the exiting team recovered the puck, let’s combine the two for the sake of comparison and just refer to them all as uncontrolled exits. MacDonald’s 14.77 uncontrolled exits per 60 minutes was beaten by only Radko Gudas (17.69) among Flyers’ defensemen, and he also iced the puck at a rate only matched by, you guessed it, Gudas. The positive here for MacDonald is that he ranks fourth on the Flyers in exit success rate. While his success rate is propped up a bit by clearing the puck with no intention of retaining possession, the easiest, but least impactful way to clear the zone, it’s a positive nonetheless.
With the neutral zone out of the way and MacDonald not being known for the offense he provides, that leaves us with one main area of the game remaining; in-zone defense. It’s an area of the game that’s close to impossible to quantify, but logic tells you that if someone excels at blocking passing and shooting lanes their results will reflect that. For MacDonald, that’s a connection that just doesn’t exist. I’m willing to put some belief into the thought that his statistics could be missing something or even that the Flyers have access to information that we’re not privy to that backs MacDonald up, but that’s just blind faith.
For a player that’s been described by his coach as “reliable in all three zones” it sure seems like he doesn’t grade out all too well in the All Three Zones project.
The Penalty Kill
MacDonald’s numbers on the penalty kill might be the biggest positive of his season. His xGA/60 minutes of 5.82 was 2nd-best among Flyers’ defensemen, behind Gudas, and his 97.40 CA/60 placed him in 3rd. It’s not just his underlying numbers that were fine on the penalty kill, when he was on the ice the Flyers allowed goals at the lower rate than when any other defenseman was on the ice. Even more interesting was that when MacDonald was on the ice the Flyers actually defended the front of the net a bit better than they did when he was off the ice.
For many people, including myself, the eye test probably won’t agree with the thought that he was actually good on the penalty kill this season, but that’s what the numbers do suggest. While our brains will focus on all the times he was caught screening his own goaltender or turning the puck over, the shot rates are firmly in his favor here. His CA/60 didn’t crack the top-50 among NHL defenders, his xG/60 actually grades out as the 14th best among NHL defensemen who played at least 50 minutes at 4-on-5. As far as actual goals against go, he’s nowhere near the top of the list, not that you needed another stat to remind just how bad the Flyers’ penalty kill was this past season.
A Poor Start and a Strong Finish
Through his first 52 games of the 2017-18 season, MacDonald was in the midst of what may have been his worst statistical season as a Flyer. His 5-on-5 score and venue-adjusted Corsi for percentage was all the way down at 45.5% as he continued to receive heavy defensive minutes alongside both Hagg and Ivan Provorov, and while his 47.23% scoring chances for wasn’t as bad, it’s not as if he was winning the shot quality battle either.
However, his results took a turn for the better around March 10th, which begs the question, “what changed?” The answer lies within a combination of a change in his deployment, and his new defensive partner, Travis Sanheim.
|Partner||TOI||CF%||Rel CF%||xGF%||Rel xGF%||GF%||Rel GF%||PDO||ZSR|
Although the defensive pair of Provorov and MacDonald is something that I am adamantly against, it’s worth noting that they did receive the third-toughest zone start ratio among pairs that played over 200 minutes together at 5-on-5. There’s no quality of competition stat for pairs, but just about every single person who watched the Flyers this season knows that they were matched up against opposing teams’ top lines.
On the season as a whole, MacDonald saw pretty much league average usage in terms of both who he played with and who he played against, with a slight edge towards facing top-six forward talent. Once he was paired with Sanheim, who was sheltered and faced bottom-sixers for the majority of the season, MacDonald was able to benefit from this shift in his usage and wound up posting some of the best underlying numbers of his NHL career.
It’s quite easy to see when Sanheim and MacDonald first started playing together, as he saw a huge drop off in defensive zone starts. In the final fourteen games of the Flyers’ regular season, MacDonald posted a score and venue-adjusted Corsi for percentage of 50.99% and a scoring chances for percentage of 48.22%, both positive relative to his team, and had a 63.16% goals for. It’s clear that, statistically, his best stretch of play came at the end of the season while playing with Sanheim.
However, this change may have been detrimental for the team as this meant that the defensive pair of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas were now being thrown into more of these tougher defensive situations. This was mostly due to Shayne Gostisbehere appearing to lack head coach Dave Hakstol’s trust. Despite the uptick in offensive zone starts for MacDonald, both Provorov and Gostisbehere saw almost no change in their deployment and they continued to see more offensive zone starts than defensive.
I’m not asking for Provorov and Gostisbehere to receive the same zone starts that Provorov received alongside MacDonald, but when you have two players that excel at getting the puck out of the zone, it might be in your best interest to start them in the defensive zone a bit more. Instead of pushing those defensive zone starts onto players like Manning and Gudas, who neither of which are considered to be above average, or even average, puck movers, the Flyers could have benefited from having a player like Gostisbehere, one of the best in the league at exiting the defensive zone with possession, on the ice to start a breakout. Instead the forwards had to be relied upon to pick up the slack. Provorov and Gostisbehere really didn’t need to be as sheltered as they were last season.
Three Burning Questions
1. Did MacDonald live up to our expectations for this season?
Talk about a loaded question. I think he did, yeah. This is pretty much the season most of us expected from MacDonald. He may have even exceeding some of our expectations, at least offensively. After all he did outscore Phil Kessel in the playoffs.
2. What do we expect from MacDonald next season?
MacDonald’s final games during the 2017-18 season gave us a glimpse of what he can do when paired with an above average puck mover and receiving sheltered, bottom pairing minutes. Luckily for us, it seems possible that this combination could continue into next season, potentially alongside Philippe Myers, who seems destined to play alongside MacDonald just like his rookie predecessors in Gostisbehere, Provorov, Hagg, and Sanheim. However if Myers doesn’t make the team, MacDonald will likely play with Sanheim or Hagg again.
Or, you know, the Flyers could just go find the next Gerard Gallant and they’ll suddenly be in the Stanley Cup Final with MacDonald playing 22 minutes a night. Just look at Deryk Engelland.
3. What would we like to see MacDonald improve on?
The biggest thing MacDonald could improve on would be defending zone entries. This was touched on earlier and referred to as the weakest part of his game for good reason. Cleaning up this area of his game would certainly improve his on-ice shot and scoring chance differential, and, in the long run, would help keep pucks out of the Flyers’ net.
Data via Corsica.hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, and The Energy Line