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MacLean tearing up the AHL…again

The sellout crowd on Jan. 21 at Van Andel Arena erupted, and the euphoric energy of the moment was palpable and unmistakably authentic.

Donald MacLean had just notched his fourth game-winning goal of the season, capping yet another dramatic and improbable Grand Rapids Griffins third-period comeback in a 6-5 thriller over the Toronto Marlies.

The veteran stands atop the AHL in goal-scoring with 30, just three shy of his output for the entire 2001-02 campaign. An 87-point effort for the St. John’s Maple Leafs that season earned him the AHL scoring title.

His four hat tricks on the year are a personal best, doubling the previous team record set by Griffins greats Pavol Demitra and Kevin Miller.

In recognition of his efforts, MacLean was selected to represent the Griffins at next week’s 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic in Winnipeg. It will mark the forward’s second appearance on the league’s elite stage, and his first in a Griffins uniform.

While 50 goals may still be an ambitious target at this point, 40 is certainly within reach. And by any measure, MacLean’s power surge is setting the stage for a career season.

In short, it’s good to be Donald MacLean right now.

But it has never been easy.

From Halifax to Los Angeles, from St. John’s to Helsinki, the trials MacLean has endured over his hockey career have been a true test of confidence, commitment and character.

His travels suggest the label “journeyman.” He’s had 10 different addresses in nine years as a pro, playing in four different professional leagues. It would be easy for a fickle observer who once considered MacLean a can’t-miss prospect to simply write him off as one who just missed his NHL chance.

Perhaps it was a case of too much, too soon for MacLean. Just past his 20th birthday, the native of Sydney, N.S., had racked up 92 goals in three seasons of play in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. His sterling performance seemed to reaffirm the Los Angeles Kings’ decision to make MacLean the 33rd overall pick in the 1995 draft.

By the fall of 1997, MacLean had secured a spot on the Kings’ opening-night roster. Everything appeared to be falling into place. Yet with all the fanfare and critical acclaim surrounding his sudden ascent came the burden of heightened expectations.

The power forward had a difficult time making his mark on NHL ice. Just 22 games into his rookie season, MacLean was assigned to Fredericton of the AHL. He would never return to play for Los Angeles. By February of 2000, already playing for his fifth team in just his third pro season, MacLean was shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs for center Craig Charron.

“My first couple of years I spent a lot of time mad, upset, frustrated at things I couldn’t control,” MacLean readily admits. “I thought I should have been ‘the guy.’

“I started out right from junior into the NHL, and maybe that set me back a little bit. I took probably too long to figure out things, relax, and just play.”

It was with St. John’s, the Leafs’ top AHL affiliate at the time, that MacLean finally had the chance to realize his potential at the professional level. Racking up 33 goals and 54 assists en route to claiming the John B. Sollenberger trophy in 2002, he galvanized his quest to land a free agent contract during the subsequent off-season, eventually signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Just as MacLean was coming into his own with the Syracuse Crunch in 2003-04, on the cusp of earning a regular roster spot with the Blue Jackets, the NHL lockout loomed on the horizon. A player in MacLean’s position needed to work during the 2004-05 season, so playing for a year in Finland became a viable and necessary option.

After averaging just under a point per game for Espoo, MacLean had several factors to consider upon his return to North America in 2005-06 and several teams to choose from. Griffins general manager Bob McNamara was determined to inject more scoring into his lineup, and he had his sights set on MacLean specifically.

“He’s a guy we knew a little bit about because we had him [in Grand Rapids] in 1998-99,” said McNamara. “We had made a trade to get him from Springfield. He was young (then), but we knew what he was about as a player. He’s a guy that could score goals and obviously had won an AHL scoring title.

“As we looked at our roster taking shape during the summer, one of the things we identified was guys who could put the puck in the net. He came to the forefront because of his ability to shoot, and Detroit was able to secure him.”

The Red Wings signed MacLean in August 2005 and assigned him to the Griffins a month later. An early groin injury marred the center’s performance out of the gate, limiting him to a single goal in his first nine games, but Grand Rapids head coach Greg Ireland knew MacLean had what it took to get back on track.

“Once he started to hit his stride with conditioning and got feeling comfortable, we got him settled into a line,” Ireland reflects. “A big difference with Donny is when he’s moving his feet, he’s a big force. He’s getting into areas to score goals, he’s pushing the pace on the forecheck, and doing a lot of really good things.”

Synergistic lines have become a staple of a lethal Grand Rapids attack. Finding the combinations that click can be a coach’s most daunting challenge, but Ireland struck gold three times by the 12th game of the season.

Left wing Jiri Hudler stormed out of the gate with a six-game goal-scoring streak, tying the Griffins’ all-time record, and posting a team season-best 14-game point streak. The smooth, steady play of veteran center Eric Manlow, along with the crashing intensity of Kent McDonell on the right side, comprised a line that helped carry Grand Rapids to a franchise-best 15-3-0-1 start.

Following Hudler’s call-up to Detroit, another line emerged as a legitimate scoring threat. Ireland decided to have Finnish sniper Valtteri Filppula center a line flanked by a couple of unlikely, resurgent candidates. Tomas Kopecky has played with a renewed sense of purpose and brute strength on the left wing, while renowned enforcer Darryl Bootland has rounded out his game in the opposite fashion, with more discipline, awareness and self-control.

The combinations allowed Ireland to assemble the final pieces of the puzzle, and help ignite MacLean’s scoring fuse.

By placing captain Matt Ellis between the feisty Nate DiCasmirro on the right side and the sharp-shooting MacLean on the left, Ireland began to roll three lines with confidence and get consistent production from each.

“Our thinking was – in talking to him, too – that he might be more successful with guys who play more north-south,” says Ireland. “The other factor I really liked was DiCasmirro and Ellis were very proficient at going in the corners and digging out pucks.

“It just seemed that with the three of them, it was a natural fit. Because Donny didn’t mind going in and getting pucks and coming out of the corners with a guy on his back, and those guys (DiCasmirro and Ellis) are very good at reading off him as well.”

“The line I’m on now, the more we play together, the more we feel comfortable with each other,” MacLean explains. “They’re making some nice passes. They’re hard workers, they get me the puck, and then that works out for everybody.”

MacLean has similar praise for his coach, couched in a framework of trust and respect for Ireland’s fastidious approach to the game.

“He does his homework,” observes MacLean. “He does his video, he talks with the coaches. Every game I go in and ask him about what the other team has to offer on their penalty kill. He has an answer for me, so that helps prepare me personally for the power play.

“He knows his X’s and O’s. Being an older guy (myself), he gives us the respect and responsibility that we want and deserve, and he expects a lot out of us. He treats us like men.”

As an “older guy”, MacLean has practically seen it all, from contrasts in coaching styles and teammates, to the scrutiny of media and fans. What remains is not a jaded, cynical veteran who demands respect, but a grittier, savvier scoring machine who is grabbing opportunity by the throat and commanding accolades and attention with his explosive play.

“You can’t waste energy on stuff you can’t control,” concludes MacLean. “Over my career I’ve had times where I thought I should have been the call-up instead of the other guy. But, ultimately, that’s out of your hands. All you can control is how hard you work and how many goals you score on the ice.”

MacLean has practiced exactly what he has preached. While younger, flashier talents like Hudler and Filppula have earned brief stints in Detroit based on extraordinary skill and potential, MacLean’s workmanlike approach has yielded comparably prolific results. Yet he still waits for “the call.” While he may lack the sizzle, he certainly provides the steak.

“Of course I want to be in the NHL, but I’ve played long enough where I’m going to enjoy where I’m at instead of thinking the grass is greener on the other side,” says MacLean. “I’m just going to enjoy my time here. I’ve relaxed, I don’t worry about it, and I just play my game.”

“I think as long as he continues to work on both ends of the ice, he’ll get his chance,” McNamara says of MacLean’s NHL aspirations. “He’s got a high-end, NHL-caliber shot.”

For the time being, Donald MacLean is determined to focus only on the next challenge ahead of him – the next game, the next shift. For him, success is determined by his performance in the moment. And at this moment, MacLean is at the top of his game, and firmly established among the AHL elite.