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Jacob MacDonald making the most of his shot in the NHL

Injuries have forced the Colorado Avalanche to dip into the depth chart, and Jacob MacDonald is exceeding all expectations

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes all you need is luck.

After another string of bad luck on the injury front for the Colorado Avalanche, the team is being forced to play without its two young defensive stars, Cale Makar and Bo Byram. Add to that the fact that Erik Johnson has only been in the lineup for one game this season and the Avalanche have been forced to dig deep into their organizational reserves to fill the spots on the blue line.

MacDonald is a 28-year old AHL veteran who, prior to this year, had a grand total of two NHL games under his belt. Now, 11 games into his stint with the Avalanche, MacDonald is making a case that he deserves to be an everyday NHL player even once the team’s blue line returns to full strength.

Acquired from the Florida Panthers in a trade for Dominic Toninato in the summer of 2019, MacDonald came to the Avalanche organization to bolster the defense group in the AHL. Filling the rover-type role vacated when David Warsofsky left the Eagles, MacDonald finished second on the team with 42 points in 56 games last season.

When he was called up to the NHL a few weeks ago, the Avalanche were likely hoping that MacDonald would be nothing more than a taxi squad member who could fill in at practice. Unfortunately, the blue line—that was once deemed to be “too crowded”—has been decimated by injuries. It’s opened the door for MacDonald, and he’s taken full advantage of it.

With Johnson, Makar, Byram and Conor Timmins all out of the lineup with injuries, MacDonald has seen his role expand over the last few weeks. With his ice time steadily increasing, the 28-year-old has proven that Coach Jared Bednar can count on him at 5v5. Over the last handful of games, MacDonald has frequently been among the team leaders in even strength ice time. It’s mostly a function of him not playing on the special teams, but it shows the coaches are comfortable enough to throw him right out on the ice for a big shift immediately following a power play or penalty kill.

MacDonald has one goal in his 14 games, but despite his offensive prowess in the AHL, he is not in the Avalanche lineup to provide offense.

Despite being a team built around speed and skill, the Avalanche have developed an identity as one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Currently, Colorado sits fourth in goals against per game while leading the league in 5v5 shots attempts against per 60 minutes.

Avalanche’s play disproved the theory many fans (and analysts) had that a team needs big, physical defenders to succeed. Joe Sakic traded away two of those—with a third on the IR all season—and his blue line has improved drastically. The team brought in quicker defenders who are better puck movers, and it’s working out perfectly.

MacDonald is a part of that. Sakic filled the defensive depth chart with players who can skate and move the puck—guys that can fit into the team’s system perfectly and play a “shutdown” style that is more about puck possession than it is about physicality. MacDonald is the perfect fit as a depth player in this system.

While he’s being sheltered to an extent—and not by much as his offensive-zone starts are only at about 52%—MacDonald is giving great results. His shot suppression numbers lead the team with nearly eight fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes than the team’s average. Further to that, only Makar has a better expected goals against rate than MacDonald.

A key to the team’s success at even strength, MacDonald is taking the role given to him by the coaches and excelling at it. Those who watched him in the AHL with the Eagles might not recognize the defender. He’s playing in a much more reserved way, and it’s working almost perfectly.

A few years ago, the Avalanche front office unearthed an AHL defender who was under-appreciated in his organization when they traded for Ryan Graves. It’s starting to look like they might have done the same with MacDonald.

His stay in the lineup may only be temporary as Makar, Byram, Timmins and Dennis Gilbert work their way through injuries, but MacDonald is making a case that he should be given a longer look even when guys get healthy. For now, the not-so-young rookie is scrappy and hungry, and he’s not throwing away his shot.