by Adam Wodon/Web Editor
It's always the quiet ones.
Andy MacDonald is soft-spoken off the ice, a smart player and person, who always had good grades and was headed towards a college to study biology before junior hockey called.
But on the ice, he's a mess.
MacDonald's willingness to block shots, and do whatever it takes, has won over a lot of teammates and coaches. It's also given him some broken bones, and a lot of bloody messes.
But he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's not something that's really taught," MacDonald says. "You either know what to do or you don't. Just find ways to get in lanes and be aware of where the net is around you. I don't want to say (it's) under-appreciated, because I think guys around the league recognize it, but it just goes unnoticed sometimes."
Current Islanders coach Jack Capuano, who had MacDonald in Bridgeport as both were on the way up, has been a big fan from the beginning.
"There's one video I'll have with me for a long time -- he came back to Bridgeport for the playoffs (last year) and Hershey had a 5-on-3 with some pretty good players, and he blocked five shots after (getting) a broken foot," Capuano says. "That's sacrificing your body. And the way he does it here, that rubs off on other guys in a very positive way."
As a late-round draft pick, MacDonald learned right away he'd need to do anything he could to make it to the NHL.
"There's a lot of guys that could play in the NHL, but they don't get a look or that little something that separates them from other people," MacDonald says. "So I think if you can prove you want it more than the next guy, you have a better chance of making it. So I told myself that blocking shots is a way to show you're really committed to winning."
There's trial and error to learning it, MacDonald says; no one teaches you.
"Body positioning is a huge part of my game, because I'm not going to throw big hits or try to crush guys," he says. "When I'm able to stay in the shooting lane -- you have to be able to anticipate when they're going to shoot, or certain guys' tendencies, power plays with guys coming off the wall, if they're ready to take that shot, you need to have that mindset that they'll probably shoot and you have to be ready to get into that area."
Defensemen, of course, can't be reckless about things, however. They can't be caught out of position by throwing their body around.
"A lot of the times he's blocking shots he's in good position," Capuano says. "Whether 5-on-5, but also on the penalty kill is where he's exceptional. He pays the price. Guys have different ways of using it. He has a similar style you try to teach, but it takes a lot of guts to go down now against guys who shoot with the new sticks and the technology they have."
The long road to the NHL had a number of twists and turns along the way for MacDonald. First, he was headed to Bemidji State to play college hockey, when he got a call from Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"That was a tough one," MacDonald says. "I was excited to go (to Bemidji), and it sounded like they were excited to have me. But I got a call during the Memorial Cup and the timing of it was right because I was watching it on TV, and (Moncton was) hosting it the following year. So I thought about it a lot over the summer, and my parents initially wanted me to go to school, but they respected the fact that I wanted to exercise my option. So I went to the camp and it felt right."
From there, MacDonald signed with the Islanders, played in Bridgeport, then was sent down to Utah of the ECHL. But once MacDonald returned to Bridgeport, there was no turning back.
"You have to get a little lucky to be in the right situation," MacDonald says. "There's a number of players who say they want to go to college, and end up going to junior because that's the thing to do, and it doesn't work out. I know cases where players are told they're going to be on a team and then they play five games, and you're done (from NCAA eligibility). That being said, there's a lot of cases where it does turn out for the better, and I feel like, although I don't know what would've happened if I went to Bemidji, it's safe to say I'm pretty happy."
When MacDonald went down with a hand injury earlier this season, the Islanders, already hurting from losses on the blue line to Mark Streit and Mike Mottau, were devastated.
MacDonald's return coincided with the Islanders' turnaround to this season.
"When he first came back, the biggest thing for me was, keep it simple, not to over-handle the puck," Capuano says. "(And) he did a great job at that, until he got to the conditioning level he needed to be at. It hurt the team when he was out, for sure."
Something else elevated the importance of MacDonald to the Islanders -- his pairing with blue-chip rookie Travis Hamonic. Unlike MacDonald, Hamonic was a high draft pick, and his maturation process is vital to the Islanders' future success. The Islanders feel comfortable putting the role of helping Hamonic in the hands of MacDonald, and the duo has quickly become the Islanders' shutdown defensive pairing.
"I think they're both young kids and enthusiastic, and I think once they started playing together, they really got to learn each other's tendencies, and I think that really helps," Capuano says. "(I want to) keep those guys together as long as we can, and it gives (GM) Garth (Snow) and management the opportunity to evaluate them."
Hamonic has certainly thrived in his rookie season, so the on- and off-ice chemistry has clearly worked.
"Him and I, our styles match pretty good together," Hamonic says. "When he's going, I'm back, and when I'm going, he's back, and we seem to work off an anchor a little bit. Whenever you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position, you have to make sure your partner is behind you. ... We feed off each other well. The coaching staff has given a lot of trust in us."
Hamonic also gets an up close look at MacDonald's warrior mentality -- moreso than he'd like sometimes.
"Andrew, he's a warrior, and his face was all messed up (during a game in Ottawa)," Hamonic recalls. "And he came back a period later wearing a full visor, and he looks over to talk to me about something on the ice for the next shift, and I look and there's a big blob of blood coming out and it's hanging off his visor -- and I'm sitting there almost puking because I hate blood more than anything in this world. So that's the most embarassing thing I have, but it's probably more embarassing to me."
The one thing you hear from every Islander is how close-knit the team is. Even though it's been a tough few years, and even though there's a lot of negative comments made about the state of the organization by outsiders, the players are happy and want to stay and watch the team grow.
"This is the place that gave me my opportunity, and I'll always be grateful to them for that," MacDonald says. "With this nucleus of guys we have, it's amazing how close everyone is. If that continues to stay like that, it's going to be hard for guys to want to anywhere else.
"(Owner) Charles (Wang) has big plans and we're excited about it, if you ask anybody. What he wants to do is really special, and everyone in the organization is on board with that, and it's something we really hope goes through."