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2021 Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25: #22 Declan McDonnell makes the list

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An AHL season put him on the radar, what can he do with it?

Syracuse Crunch Declan McDonnell (52) skating with the puck against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Jon Lizotte (55) in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Upstate Medical University Arena in Syracuse, New York on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Syracuse won 4-1.

Declan McDonnell is in his second Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25 and makes the list for the first time. Last year, all we knew of McDonnell was that he was the last pick in the 2020 Draft (yes, the very last draft) by the Tampa Bay Lightning. After this season we got to see McDonnell in the AHL and he really made a name for himself. Because of that, he’s made our list.

Last season, McDonnell played in the AHL for the Syracuse Crunch. As an 18-year-old, he was kept on the fourth line (with one game on the third line) and scored two assists. As a teenage AHLer, I’m not going to pretend like McDonnell blew the league out of the water like some of the top prospects from the 2020 class. That said, he did show a degree of work ethic and competence that means he could play a bottom six role right now. As he develops, there’s a good chance he can do that in the NHL.

McDonnell in the AHL

I had a lot of fun watching McDonnell last season, if you couldn’t tell from everything I said about him in my Syracuse Crunch coverage. I liked his speed and agility and his relentlessness away from the puck. He appeared very easy to coach and tried his best to stay on top of the play. He’s not perfect, but he has the reasonable potential.

Here is what I said about him near the end of the season:

“I’ve really liked McDonnell this season. He’s been a quick, shifty, relentless winger with a nose for the net and a good head on his shoulders when he has to be positionally sound. For a teenager, he’s obviously got room to grow in terms of bringing his stand-out offense on a consistent basis, but I love the potential he’s shown at the AHL level already. The Crunch are a team that can get their prospects to play consistently over time if they’re willing to work at it — Otto Somppi is a prime example of that — I’m sure McDonnell is well on his way to that calibre.” [Raw Charge]

“He looks practiced like he spent the last month absorbing everything he could from Groulx, the staff, and his teammates and put it into practice immediately. That shows me an eagerness to learn, a quick learner, and a quick thinker. All of those will serve him well in the AHL and beyond. Wow.” [Raw Charge]

I have a few of his highlights to show both the good (ie. both assists) and some of the things he needs to improve.

All alone in the offensive zone, McDonnell kept the puck behind the net, fought off a defender, and found Gemel Smith for this goal (his first of three). Smith had the goal, but the Crunch wouldn’t have had anything without McDonnell’s hard work and puck protection.

On this goal from Antoine Morand, McDonnell picked up a contested puck in the neutral zone and quickly found his centre Morand who moved into the zone, took a shot, and scored. McDonnell didn’t do much here, but one thing I see a lot in junior prospects is the tendency to loiter around too much and not move the puck swiftly. This is a result of having a lot more time and space in leagues like the OHL. McDonnell not having that is good to see.

McDonnell is determined and active and overall takes coaching well, but there are some scenarios where that can kind of get away from him. For example on this goal, he got away from himself and where he should be positionally, opening up the back door. I think in hindsight he did the right thing and it was the second forward backchecking that didn’t go to the front of the net, but often in defending it’s important to settle down and not push yourself out of position. Picking a guy and tying him up rather than chasing the puck is always a better way to go.

His Limitations

Despite playing in the AHL last year, and for the most part looking like he belonged, McDonnell will be going back to the OHL next season with the Kitchener Rangers for his age-19/20 season where he will be one of the older players on the team and will be expected to lead the team offensively. That offense is largely going to determine whether McDonnell can be a scoring threat and reach the level of the top-six, or if his ceiling is set as a grinder.

The Lightning currently need those role players and will need them in the future, but finding guys who are just a bit better and who can provide a little bit more, will make it a lot easier to fill out complementary roles in the top six or third line.

What I’m hoping to see in the OHL this season is a lot more offense. He’s going to be one of the older players and that’s going to mean top-six time rather than grinding on non-scoring lines. If he can show some shooting or good playmaking, that’ll boost him even higher in the lineup and tee him up for a very strong return to the AHL in 2022-23. I know he’s only 19, but it’s an important year for him.

Personally I’m not certain we’ll see that standout impact from him, but at least he does a lot of the little things right. I hope he can surprise me. If you have thoughts about old McDonnell, share it in the comments! I would love to hear from you.