Flyers analysis

‘Throwback' defenseman is ‘knocking on the door' of Flyers' rebuild

McDonald is set for his first season of pro hockey after two promising years at Northeastern

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The Flyers are hoping this season they start to reap the rewards of a late-round find.

Hunter McDonald has become a riser in their pipeline, going from 2022 sixth-round pick to a prospect who could see the big club at some point in 2024-25.

The 22-year-old is a mobile, 6-foot-4 blueliner who defends with a purpose. He does what the Flyers like and that's killing plays by quickly closing gaps. The physical, in-your-face brand of defense is not lost on the Flyers.

"He's an old-school defenseman, he's a throwback," Flyers assistant director of player development Nick Schultz said a week ago. "When you see kids now, I think we lack the physicality around our net and playing hard in the corners, in front of the net. That just comes natural to him, that's the way he plays. He's whacking guys, he's slashing them, cross-checks — he plays hard, he makes it hard on forwards coming to the front of the net, in the corners."

But his size and defense-first mentality doesn't mean he's the stationary type.

"I think the difference in him from maybe the old-school D that was like that is he can skate," Schultz said. "He's an unbelievable skater — he can move, he can get up ice."

After being named Hockey East's best defensive defenseman as a freshman with Northeastern, McDonald was slowed by an injury last season. He missed 13 of the Huskies' first 14 games but found his game down the stretch, finishing his sophomore year with with six points (one goal, five assists), 52 blocked shots and a plus-4 rating through 23 games.

"Everything he does is hard," Schultz said. "He shoots the puck hard, he passes it hard, so that part of it to me is a pro game for him, which is exciting. So we'll continue to work on the quickness with him, just moving pucks and finding lanes. But he's definitely right there knocking on the door."

In two years at Northeastern, McDonald recorded 20 points (two goals, 18 assists), 146 blocked shots and a plus-25 rating over 58 games. He signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers in April and got a taste of the pro level last season, playing 11 regular-season games for AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley and six more in the playoffs. He had a goal, three assists and a plus-6 rating in the 17 combined games.

In September, McDonald will have his first training camp with the Flyers. It'll be head coach John Tortorella's first look at the defenseman aside from watching him from the perch at development camps.

While McDonald is projected for the Phantoms, his mindset will be the Flyers.

"I'm super confident in myself, that's my goal," he said. "So I'm just going to keep that mentality and see where it takes me."

Today's NHL features more and more offensive-minded defensemen with puck-moving skills and smaller statures. But teams still want balance on the back end with pro-ready size and physicality. Those defensemen often get paid and to have one like McDonald on just his ELC is really appealing to the Flyers.

"I like Hunter's game a lot," Flyers player development coach Samuel Morin said last Friday. "I remember the first time seeing him play in Northeastern two years ago and I was a big, big fan. He's mean, he's an old-school D-man. Even when he came to us with the Phantoms, he played really well.

"He's a good skater, he's big, he's physical. I think there's a place in the NHL for him. Those kind of D-men are getting rare."

McDonald believes his focus on defense will help him climb.

"Just sticking to that, don't try to be someone I'm not is something I keep in the forefront of my mind," he said. "I think it's going to take me far."

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