Jacob MacDonald led all defensemen in the American Hockey League with 16 goals this season before play was halted in mid-March. He signed a new two-year pact with the Colorado Avalanche on March 27. All photos courtesy of the Colorado Eagles
For Jacob MacDonald, getting the opportunity to continue developing into a National Hockey League-caliber defenseman with a new organization has been a good opportunity.
The 27-year-old native of Portland, Oregon, has been one of the top point producers this season for the Colorado Eagles, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, with 42 points in 56 games. With 16 goals, he’s also the league’s top goal-scoring defenseman.
Impressive offensive numbers for a 6-foot blueliner who was traded from the Florida Panthers organization to Colorado on June 28.
“It was kind of a strange day,” MacDonald said of when he got the news of his trade. “When I got the phone call, and before I even answered it, I had kind of a gut feeling that that’s what it was. I don’t know why — I was just excited.”
At the time of the transaction, MacDonald was known throughout the league for his scoring ability, but he took risks defensively, said Eagles coach Greg Cronin.
MacDonald registered 14 goals and 29 assists in the 2018-19 season with the Springfield Thunderbirds, the Panthers' AHL affiliate. The prior season, MacDonald recorded 20 goals and 35 assists for the Binghamton Devils as a New Jersey Devils prospect — but his plus/minus rating was minus-26.
Though he wasn’t known for showing much defensive prowess on the ice prior to this season, MacDonald was regarded for blasting a mighty shot and the Avs wanted him.
“His offense revolves around his shot. He’s got a really good shot — not just his slap shot but his release,” Cronin said. “He’s got an NHL shot and he gets it off really quick. A lot of his offense pivots off of that and he’s also very poised.”
Knowing what they had in MacDonald’s shot, Eagles coaches went to work determining how best to continue developing their organization’s new acquisition so that he'd become a better skilled defender.
“(MacDonald) was obviously offensively gifted — he put up a lot of points and goals — but he had to work on his defense,” Cronin said.
Eagles defenseman Jacob MacDonald
Cronin and MacDonald bonded soon after the trade, and MacDonald said he appreciated the feedback he was getting. He expressed a desire to work hard and continue improving so his defense would catch up with his scoring ability.
“What gets emphasized gets done,” Cronin said of his coaching style and what has worked with MacDonald. “You can emphasize 10 things and the kid’s head is going to spin. To me, it’s important that you identify what the building blocks are to emphasize, and from that building block, the other stones will come up from there.”
One of MacDonald’s Eagles teammates and friends, forward Logan O’Connor, quickly picked up on MacDonald’s work ethic and saw the improvement.
O’Connor said many athletes talk about wanting to continue developing and improve on their existing skill set, but when they start getting feedback and criticism, they often shut down and ignore the instruction. MacDonald was always appreciative and responsive, even while getting criticism he likely didn’t want to hear, O'Connor added.
MacDonald said a lot of his defensive growth and improvement came from studying more video, which led to quick results.
The instruction and being a part of a new organization was paying dividends early. Then, MacDonald was thrust into a unique opportunity to help him evolve into a more complete player.
Injuries within the Avs organization required the pro club to pluck skaters from their Loveland-based affiliate to supplement the NHL roster. The moves left gaping holes at the forward position for the Eagles, putting MacDonald in a scenario in which he temporarily transitioned from being a blueliner to playing forward.
“It was honestly a lot of fun,” MacDonald said. “It was a bit of an adjustment period for the first three games, but after that, I thought I played the role well and it added a little bit of versatility to my skill set.”
Rekindling his knowledge of playing forward, a position he hadn't played since before he was a teenager, has benefited him now that he’s back to being a full-time defenseman, MacDonald said.
He was obviously offensively gifted — he put up a lot of points and goals — but he had to work on his defense.”
—Colorado Eagles coach Greg Cronin on Jacob MacDonald
“He’s always level-headed,” O’Connor said of MacDonald. “He’s a good guy to have in the locker room because he never gets too high, never gets too low. He sort of just goes about his business every game.”
O’Connor also mentioned MacDonald’s intangibles, saying MacDonald is an especially good teammate to players who come from overseas and may need more help and support transitioning to living in the United States.
It’s his coachability, attention to detail and his commitment to being a good teammate that have helped the defenseman fit in with the Eagles and as an Avalanche prospect.
MacDonald first learned of hockey at age 5, when his dad took him to a Portland Winterhawks game. Soon after, lacing up skates and playing hockey was all he wanted to do.
“It’s really a small sport there,” MacDonald said of hockey in Oregon. “It’s such an afterthought — relative to baseball and football — but I never did any other organized sports.”
But the Winterhawks have had a steady presence in Portland and in the Western Hockey League (WHL) going back to the 1970s, and MacDonald was hooked for life.
MacDonald (right), the Eagles' No. 2 points producer this season, chats up T.J. Tynan, the team leader in points.
At age 12, MacDonald and his family moved to Michigan and he transitioned to playing defenseman. When it came time for college, he committed to Cornell of the Ivy League and played for the Big Red under the tutelage of coach Mike Schafer from 2011 to 2015.
“If you look at [MacDonald's] numbers at Cornell, he wasn’t really offensively gifted," Cronin said. "I know Mike Schafer, and I know Cornell, and they’ve done a tremendous job building an identity there that’s defense first, and they play structured hockey.”
MacDonald registered just four goals and 19 total points in 92 games at Cornell, tallying all but three of his points in his junior and senior seasons.
Between his time as a collegiate player and when he carved out his AHL career as an undrafted player for the Albany Devils in the 2016-17 season, MacDonald found his shot and started slinging pucks into the back of the net.
Cronin compared MacDonald and O’Connor, who was also undrafted coming out of the University of Denver, to being among the team’s misfit toys from the movie “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys,” the animated sequel to the classic original film.
MacDonald received a two-year contract extension with the Avalanche on March 27, keeping him in the organization through the 2021-22 season.
MacDonald would have most likely had a career year had the AHL not shut down in mid-March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cronin said. The defenseman made the transition from being “a riverboat gambler” defensively to being a legitimate NHL prospect with a plus/minus rating of plus-seven — much better than his minus-26 rating two seasons prior.
O’Connor called MacDonald’s shot lethal and said his power-play production in particular was beneficial to the team’s overall success.
“For our team this year, he was huge on the power play,” O’Connor said. “He’s got a heavy shot — that’s the reason he scored a lot of his goals this year; a reason why I believe he should be defenseman of the year.”
MacDonald is the Eagles’ No. 2 point producer behind forward T.J. Tynan (47 points) this season, and the team has firm footing to earn a playoff spot and potentially compete for a Calder Cup with 72 points and a 34-18-3 overall record, should the season resume.
“I thought I was doing really well,” MacDonald said of his performance into March. “My defensive game was getting better. That’s, in huge part, thanks to [Greg Cronin] and the rest of the staff here. That was the biggest thing we’ve been working on. That part of my game got a lot better and I’m excited for two more years working with them.”
Being a part of the Avalanche organization has been a rewarding opportunity for MacDonald and he’s excited to stay with Colorado. As someone who had played in New York and the northeastern United States, he appreciates being in the West again because it’s easier to visit relatives in Portland, or his parents, when there isn’t a pandemic keeping him homebound.
With the remainder of the AHL season in limbo, MacDonald works to stay in shape while remaining in Colorado, along with several of his teammates, including O’Connor.
MacDonald has sheltered in place in the Fort Collins area. Members of the team have regular calls via FaceTime, and some of them golf together periodically while observing safe social distancing practices.
MacDonald and his wife also recently adopted a dog from their local Humane Society shelter.
“I’m just looking forward to the first day back at the rink with all the guys,” MacDonald said. “And being able to see everyone, and talk to them and give them a hug.”
Editor's note: The remainder of the 2019-2020 American Hockey League season was canceled the morning of May 11. This story was originally published on May 7.
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