Well this is ... this is unexpected.
Like Brian Strait before him, the New York Islanders have seen enough in summer free agent signing Colin McDonald to ink the forward to a two-year extension through 2014-15. Arthur Staple of Newsday reports the terms as one-way both years, for $600,000 and then $675,000. That's a little above minimum: The CBA-mandated minimum NHL salary for 2013-14 and 2014-15 is $550,000.
Those figures would actually represent a pay drop for McDonald, as he's on a $700,000 NHL salary this season -- but on a two-way deal, so his AHL salary was a re-entry waiver-exempt max of $105,000.
The Islanders have clearly liked McDonald from the moment he joined the organization: He was named captain of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL (where he had 27 points in 35 games), and by the time the lockout ended they knew he was one of the AHLers they wanted to recall as a regular in their bottom-six group of forwards.
McDonald is 28 -- he'll be 29 and 30 during the seasons of this extension -- and has 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in 24 games this season while logging an average of 10:21 per game, almost exclusively at even strength and tilted toward defensive zone starts.
The natural question is, right move? They've just committed NHL salary for two years, which likely means he's all but guaranteed a roster spot in the NHL.
As far as what this AHL/NHL tweener can offer, he's been a tough one to figure: After four years at Providence College, his formative AHL years were spent as an Oilers draft pick with Springfield when Springfield was absolutely awful. He had an out-of-nowhers 42-goal season with Oklahoma City in 2010-11, which he parlayed into a one-year trial with the Penguins organization. Clearly he has some offensive talent, in relative bottom-six terms.
He's not used against opponents' top lines and his Corsi has him underwater, but he also has the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts among Isles forwards at 41.0 percent. The Islanders like what he's doing -- essentially, doing as he's told to be a physical guy on a line most recently with Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas. That appears to carry with it almost an expectation not to utilize his offensive skills and just dump and chip and hit. (The possession numbers for those three reflect this approach. Meanwhile, McDonald is second on the team with 70 credited hits, well behind Marti's 130 but well ahead of Cizikas' 41.)
If that's all the Isles want out of their third or fourth line, then I suppose having someone they know is willing to do it is some comfort for them. And at virtually minimum salary, he costs little for that role. (Meanwhile, it's a nice career boost for McDonald.)
But few on the outside expected him to be more of a one-year stopgap in 2013. Will that one-way status keep them from demoting him if they accumulate enough better forwards? Will they stick to this "chip and dump" philosophy at the expense of talented prospects who might be able to bring a better control of the game? (Though let's be honest: The Isles won't be recalling blue chip prospects to get 10 minutes on the fourth line anymore anyway.)
Those are the questions Isles fans will keep in mind as the next two-plus seasons play out. If he's a role player on a successful team led by young talent, all is good. Hail the infantrymen. But if he's a guaranteed contract on a team whose prospects haven't made it and whose standings haven't improved, they'll see this commitment as an impediment to progress.