Connor McDonald expected to contribute on defense during his freshman season at Bowling Green.
The 6-foot, 181-pounder has done just that.
McDonald has played well offensively and defensively, helping the Falcons become one of the best defensive teams in college hockey.
He’s played in 24 games, posting an on-ice rating of +8 with seven assists. He’s taken just eight penalties, all minors.
McDonald can play in every situation because he’s a big, physical defensemen who has good puck skills and skates well. He’s been a regular on the penalty-killing unit.
“The total package he has, seeing it every day has impressed me the most,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said.
McDonald originally was slotted to vie for playing time as BG’s No. 4 defensemen, behind junior Sean Walker, and sophomores Mark Friedman and Valleau.
But Valleau decided to sign with NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in mid-August, and freshman Matthew Ferrari left the team for personal reasons on Oct. 7, just two days before the season-opener against Ohio State.
That meant McDonald and classmate Chris Pohlkamp quickly were elevated to BG’s top two defense pairings with Walker and Friedman.
Walker, who is the team’s captain, has played well since arriving at BG. Friedman also played well last season, joining Valleau on the All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association all-rookie team.
Walker, Friedman, McDonald and Pohlkamp seemingly have been on the ice every other shift.
“That was one of my goals, to be a top four defenseman,” McDonald said. “With those guys leaving, it gave me a better opportunity. I’ve taken advantage of that, for the most part.”
McDonald and Pohlkamp averaged better than 20 minutes a game during the first half of the season. Pohlkamp also is having a solid season with a +6 rating.
The ice time has decreased over the last five games with freshmen Jordan Ernst and Adam Smith adding depth to BG’s defense corps.
The Falcons are allowing just 1.83 goals per game — fifth-best nationally and the best in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. BG has allowed three or fewer goals in 22 of its 24 games, including the last 18 contests.
Next for the Falcons, 13-6-5 overall and ranked 16th nationally, is a nonleague game Saturday night at Miami (6-11-3).
His transition to college hockey was helped by his maturity. He turned 20 on Oct. 24 and played two seasons in the United States (Junior) Hockey League.
“The coaches put a lot on our plate and we took advantage of it,” McDonald said of himself and Pohlkamp. “You have to mentally take it one shift at a time. If you have a bad shift you have to, as we say in the locker room, reset because you’re going right back out there and you have to be ready for that next shift.”
Although McDonald has been solid overall, he’s had the usual inconsistencies of a freshman defenseman skating against players who are older, bigger and stronger. Defense is the toughest position to play for a freshman because of the wide range of skills required.
“I’m just trying to play with more poise and eliminate the self-inflicted mistakes, and close the gap between my best days and my bad days,” McDonald said. “If that gap is small, that’ll make me more consistent.”
Walker is a +7 in the last nine games and was a +4 against WCHA leader and No. 19 Minnesota State in December.
“Being a freshman, you don’t what to expect,” McDonald said, praising Friedman, Walker and the BG coaching staff for helping him adjust to the college game. “The first few games were a little rough, but then I started to feel comfortable.”
The addition of Ernst and Smith gives BG eight defensemen, forcing McDonald and Pohlkamp to playing well every day to retain their spot in the lineup.
With the lack of depth on defense, McDonald and Pohlkamp were almost guaranteed to play every game — even if they played poorly.
On the other hand, freshmen forwards Shane Bednard and John Schilling have played in just 17 and 22 games, respectively.
McDonald is the only BG freshman to play in every game. Pohlkamp missed one game because of an injury.
“He’s a competitive kid,” Bergeron said of McDonald. “He’s more competitive than people think. He’s got a fire to him. He’ll do just fine with that competition.
“But I’m interested to see him in it, where if you don’t play well on a daily basis, then you run the risk of not playing on the weekend. The first semester, that wasn’t the case.”
McDonald finally began his Falcon career after verbally committing to BG in September 2011 as a 15-year-old. He was starting his sophomore year at Westerville South High School in suburban Columbus.
He played three seasons with the Ohio Blue Jackets’ U16 and U18 teams before going to the USHL where he played two seasons with Chicago and Youngstown.
McDonald first learned of BG after playing in a game in the Ice Arena with U16 team.
“Bowling Green was on my radar from that point,” McDonald said. “I watched Ohio State play growing up and hearing guys from the (Blue Jackets program) talk about going onto to junior hockey and college hockey.
“That was the path I wanted to take, juniors and college. Bowling Green was serious about me coming from the start and that’s where I wanted to go.”
McDonald eventually signed his letter of intent in November 2013.
Because McDonald made his college choice so early, the Falcons were the only team to show serious interest in him. He had a 3.2 grade-point average during the fall semester. He’s undecided on a major.
“They took a gamble on me because I so young,” McDonald said. “I love this place. Everything has worked out well. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”