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Is Positionless Hockey Future of the NHL? MacDonald, Quinn Share Their Thoughts



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Are we seeing the future of hockey…with Jacob MacDonald?

MacDonald, who recently returned from injury, has maintained a Swiss Army Knife-type role this season for the San Jose Sharks. He’s repeatedly flipped between playing forward and defenseman from game-to-game and even shift-to-shift.

Many could write off his situation as product of the Sharks’ injury misfortunes or lack of bona fide NHL talent. However, head coach David Quinn sees this “positionless hockey” differently.

“That’s definitely the future of our sport,” he predicts.

In his four years at Cornell University, Jacob MacDonald tallied only 21 points in 104 games. Once he transitioned to the ECHL, and later the AHL, he became a more offensively-impactful blueliner who regularly produced at half-a-point per-game if not better. He led AHL defensemen in goals twice.

In 2019-20, he arrived in Colorado for his first season with the Avalanche/Eagles. He was coached in the AHL by future Anaheim Ducks head coach Greg Cronin who first had MacDonald play up front in the lineup.

“My first year in the organization, the Avalanche had eight or nine forwards that were injured at one point that year,” MacDonald told San Jose Hockey Now. “I was the most offensive guy they had as a defenseman, so they asked if I wanted to play forward. My answer to them was ‘Whatever I can do to help the team win games.'”

The 30-year-old continued: “So, they put me at forward and I played a handful of games, then guys got healthy and I went back to [defense]. When I got called up to the Avalanche the next year, they knew that was a possibility.”

In this back-and-forth season, MacDonald has been an impact player for the Sharks. Four of his six goals have come while he was on defense and, per MoneyPuck, he is comfortably the team’s leader in goals-per-60-minutes. In fact, he leads all defensemen in the NHL in the metric over Thomas Harley, Jake Walman, and Dougie Hamilton, to name a few.

Unfortunately, injuries have sidelined MacDonald and seen him partake in just 21 of the team’s 53 games.

“For me, it’s been a weird rollercoaster of a year. When I’m in, I’m playing really well. I just need to make sure that I’m doing that on a consistent basis for the second half.”

Flipping between positions is not that uncommon in the NHL.

In the ’90s, Hart and Selke-winning center Sergei Federov played on the blue line at times. In more recent history, Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien played forward before transitioning to All Star-level defensemen.

Quinn described having five of those types of players on ice at one time as “a coach’s dream.” He also shared that he could see positionless players emerging in the NHL, similar to the movement towards positionless players in the NBA with frame of a center but skillset of a guard. Coincidentally or not, basketball is Quinn’s second-favorite sport, Larry Bird his favorite player.

“We’re creeping in that direction, especially with the movement of our defensemen,” Quinn said.

“I just think the more versatile you are in this day and age, the better player you become,” he added. “I was a defenseman my whole life. In 14-year-old Bantam I played forward, and it changed my whole game. You just understand the game better, and I became a much better player from playing forward, without even realizing the effects it would have had when I went back to the defense.”

The coach continued: “I think it makes a world of difference when you have that ability to play both positions… I think there is going to be a time when guys are just lining up on the blue line, but you may not call them defensemen anymore.”

Does MacDonald see his role as the future of the league?

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “I don’t mean to say that I’m one of the few, I just don’t think that’s a realistic option… There’s guys that are so good at what they do, that wouldn’t make sense to put them in a different position. Think of any high-end, top, skilled forward. Putting them on [defense], you’re losing a lot of value there.”

Quinn listed Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby, however, as players who could take on a hybrid role, and on the San Jose Sharks, thinks the skillsets of Tomas Hertl and Mikael Granlund could translate well for that role. But if Quinn could have five of any NHL’er, past or present, for a five-man unit on the ice?

“[Cale] Makar,” he said. ” I think it’s easier to play forward as a defenseman than it is for a forward to play defense. So, Makar could really be the guy who could do both.”

MacDonald agreed on that point: “I mean this in the most respectful way possible: I think it’s easier to go from [defense] to forward than forward to [defense].

“Positionally speaking, it’s a lot more involved,” he offered. “There’s definitely positionally important [moments] as a forward in the D-zone. But if you’re a defenseman in the d-zone, your position[ing] matters a lot more.

“Especially at the NHL-level, things happen so quickly that if you’re not in the right spot all the time, you get caught quickly…I think mentally you’ve got to be a lot sharper, in terms of defending. Having a forward go back and play there would be a lot harder.”

Quinn even went as far as to say that “defenseman is the hardest position, because there’s so much responsibility. Skating backwards is a big deal, and not a lot of forwards can skate backwards well enough.”

Quinn, however, reiterated that having players in hybrid roles has its advantages.

“It gives you gives you a little bit more flexibility and you can give them a little bit more responsibility,” the head coach concluded. “Play a little bit more of a ‘rover’ role, as the game goes on, and depending on the score. It does give you a little bit of a different look.”

Does Quinn want anyone on the San Jose Sharks to play that role?

“No,” he said. “I think everybody’s in the right spot.”

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