Tuesday saw the Calgary Flames assign goaltender Mason McDonald and forward Hunter Smith to Stockton of the American Hockey League as part of a sizeable first round of training camp cuts. Both Smith and McDonald are 2014 second round picks, with the former entering the final year of his entry level deal, and it’s not a stretch to think they could be nearing the end of the line in the organization.
So what does the future hold for this pair, knowing how things have progressed around them in recent years?
Calgary owned a pair of picks entering the 2014 NHL Draft: their own 34th overall selection, and the 54th overall pick acquired from Colorado in a deal that sent Reto Berra the other way (yes, that deal somehow happened). Having already made Sam Bennett the fourth overall pick, the Flames would take McDonald as the draft’s first goaltender at 34 before adding Smith to the fold at 54.
At the time, the McDonald pick was slightly curious. Sure, he checked the “big and tall” box that teams tend to look for these days in goaltending prospects, but McDonald’s QMJHL numbers were rather pedestrian, if not mediocre, leading into his draft year. Numbers courtesy HockeyDB.
So, even with fairly underwhelming junior numbers at that point, Calgary scouts saw something in McDonald and used their second pick on him. For context, the Vancouver Canucks would make Boston College’s Thatcher Demko the second goaltender picked two picks later, even though he was ranked number one on most scouting lists.
Twenty picks after McDonald’s selection, the Flames would go even bigger when they selected Smith from the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. At 6’7 and 225 pounds, Smith looked like a nightclub bouncer when he towered over me on the draft floor in Philly and his junior numbers to that point were very intriguing. Clearly a later bloomer, Smith looked to be on a solid development curve, as he saw a huge offensive jump in his draft year. Numbers courtesy HockeyDB.
To go from two combined points in 45 games to 40 in 64 made outside observers curious about Smith’s potential. Still, there was a worry the Flames targeted Smith primarily for his size, a tactic that doesn’t frequently pay dividends.
After signing entry-level deals on the same day in July, McDonald and Smith had decent plus-one seasons in junior hockey. McDonald took on a number one workload for the first time and made 56 appearances for Charlottetown; he went 28-22-4 with a 0.906 save percentage. While not spectacular, his first full year in the Flames organization looked like a step forward.
The following year saw McDonald’s stock rise a little more while also putting him in the national spotlight. As a 19-year-old, McDonald posted a 0.902 save percentage in 39 games with the Islanders, but it was his work in another jersey that gained him more notoriety.
The 2015-16 season saw McDonald get the call for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Finland. Unfortunately, much like the team around him, McDonald struggled en route to a sixth place finish. McDonald appeared in two games, winning one and losing one, and finished with an 0.861 save percentage while being relegated to Mackenzie Blackwood’s backup.
From afar, it seems like McDonald has never been able to rebound from that tough WJC experience. The next year saw him struggle at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton and then make the professional turn. His first pro year, though, wasn’t one to write home about. McDonald spent virtually the entire year in the ECHL, putting up below average numbers: he went 13-9-3 with an 0.897 save percentage.
Things seemed promising for Smith right off the hop, too. In his 19-year-old season with Oshawa, Smith saw his points-per-game go from 0.63 to 0.86 as he finished with 23 goals and 49 points in 57 games. The Generals had a great 2015-16 season, too, finishing as the number one seed in the OHL’s Eastern Conference with 108 points. That allowed Smith to get a little more national exposure.
Smith was a key piece as Oshawa rolled through the playoffs, putting up 18 points in 21 games to finish fourth on the team in postseason scoring. By and large, Smith also looked just fine with the Generals in the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup. He scored once in four games as Oshawa went undefeated, triumphing 2-1 over Kelowna to win the championship in overtime.
Much like McDonald, though, Smith’s turn to pro hockey has been a struggle. In 88 games with AHL Stockton over two seasons, Smith has just five goals and 19 points and has largely featured in a depth role. While he hasn’t had a brush with the ECHL yet, Smith has struggled to find solid footing at the next level.
McDonald’s future with Calgary might look a little less bleak had the team not taken big steps forward between the pipes in the years since he was drafted. While Jon Gillies was already in the fold when McDonald was drafted, the Flames have since added David Rittich and Tyler Parsons and both have slotted into higher spots on the depth chart.
The one saving grace for McDonald right now is his contract status. Because he was drafted entering his 18-year-old season, McDonald’s entry level deal doesn’t expire until the summer of 2019. As such, and because he’s unlikely to generate much trade interest, McDonald is likely looking at two more seasons in the organization.
Smith doesn’t have that same luxury, though. With just one year remaining on his first pro contract, I don’t think it would surprise anyone to see Smith and the team part ways at the end of this season. First off, Calgary’s depth at forward has improved dramatically over the last couple years. More importantly, though, if the team doesn’t see him projecting as an NHLer, is there much of a point in bringing him back?
I guess there’s no harm if either player were to stay with the Flames beyond their entry level contracts, but I’m not sure there’s a big benefit, either. That’s why this coming season likely qualifies as last chance saloon for both Smith and McDonald, so I’m curious to see if either player has anything up their sleeve to up their standing on the depth chart.
On the bright side, Calgary’s work in the second round seems to have taken a big step forward recently. 2014 was Brad Treliving’s first draft as general manager and he had only been on the job for about a month upon taking over from acting GM Brian Burke. His subsequent drafts have looked a little different.
2015, for instance, saw the Flames add both Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington in round two, while the aforementioned Parsons and Dillon Dube were both second round picks in 2016. The fates of McDonald and Smith aren’t written completely in stone yet, but it’s safe to say Calgary’s draft work since 2014 looks a little more promising.