By Jason Pirie
CALGARY, AB — It’s onwards and upwards for a pair of Calgary Flames blue chip goalie prospects.
While one has recuperated from hip surgery with hopes of returning to form, the other has aspirations of turning pro.
Jon Gillies, back turning aside pucks since undergoing hip surgery, and Mason McDonald, who has yet to make his professional debut, both demonstrated at this week’s Flames development camp that they have grown as puck stoppers in one short year.
“I feel like my game has matured,” said the 20-year-old McDonald. “Getting stronger both on and off the ice and being more composed in net is something I have improved on a lot.”
Nothing against the fine city of Charlottetown, but McDonald has absolutely no intentions of returning for his overaged campaign.
Following four successful seasons tending net for both the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, there’s just not much value in returning.
As the highest selected goalie taken from the 2014 draft class (34th overall), the 6-foot-4, 200-pound netminder believes he is now finally ready to take the next step in his development.
Whether that’s latching on with the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton or with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder still remains to be seen.
McDonald’s stats from last season can certainly vouch that he’s ready, lock, stock and barrel, for the pro life.
Behind an offensively modest Islanders contingent, he went 21-15-3 with a 3.33 GAA and .902 save percentage with a career-high three shutouts.
“I can see myself playing pro – I don’t know where yet, but hopefully the highest level possible,” said McDonald, whose season also included representing Canada over the holiday break at the World Junior tournament in Finland.
“To make the jump to the next level I will have to continue working this summer and make sure I’m ready for (main) camp.”
Gillies, meanwhile, is just delighted to be facing rubber again.
The Flames’ 2012 third round (75th overall) selection’s first professional season with the Stockton Heat lasted an entire seven games before he was finally forced to shut it down after constant discomfort caused by an anterior labrum tear became too much to bear.
In that short window, though, the rookie backed up his decision to leave school one year ahead of schedule by impressively posting two shutouts in his first three AHL starts. Overall, the oversized 6-foot-6, 225-pound native of Maine went 2-3-1 with a 2.31 GAA and .920 save percentage.
The now 22-year-old Gillies admits he’s finally feeling like himself again.
“It’s more about the details,” said an upbeat Gillies, who backstopped the Providence College Friars to the 2015 NCAA title. “The overall way I play is natural at this point, so now it’s about refining the details and getting back to basics and getting the fundamentals back.”
The two-time World Junior netminder has also been around long enough to know the development cycle for goalies can take time.
“This game is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “Everyone comes into camp with the same goal and that’s to make it to the NHL. All you can do is to try to stop as many pucks as you can. No matter where I am, or whatever happens, my job is to give my team a chance to win every night.”
For both young netminders – development camp roommates to boot – it’s all about having something to prove as they move forward.
The similarities, though, end there.
One is Canadian, the other American.
One went the Canadian Hockey League route, while the other opted for studies.
That, however, hasn’t stopped the masked men from becoming close friends off the ice.
“We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well,” McDonald said. “On the ice it’s a good competition. We push each other and it’s good for both of us.”
Gillies doesn’t consider his roomie, or any of the other hopefuls who attended this week’s development camp for that matter, as direct competition.
“It’s not about who is in front of you or who is behind you (on the depth chart),” Gillies declared. “It’s about putting your best foot forward and going from there.”
Other goalie prospects taking part at this year’s Flames development camp included recently signed 23-year-old Czech David Rittich, 2016 second round draft pick and Memorial Cup champion Tyler Parsons, and Nick Schneider, an invited free agent who showed well enough at last year’s main camp to earn himself a contract.
Both teenaged netminders, Parsons (London) and Schneider (Medicine Hat), are expected to return to their respective junior clubs for this coming season.