History generally will not look back fondly on the 2021-2022 Philadelphia Flyers, but one of the few bright — or well less dark really — spots was journeyman Zack MacEwen.
After struggling to find consistent NHL playing time with the Vancouver Canucks (55 total games) in four seasons, MacEwen found a home with the Flyers last season after being picked up off waivers to take a roster spot after a Kevin Hayes injury.
The bruising MacEwen endeared himself to the Flyers and fans alike in short order with a hard-nosed style that featured a team-high 110 penalty minutes a bunch of epic fights along the way. But while MacEwen created the most buzz with his fists, the 26-year-old did flash some skill along the way — even if he ultimately lacked finishing touch with just three goals on 82 shots (3.7%).
MacEwen brought some juice to the bottom of a Flyers lineup that left much to be desired as the likes of Nate Thompson, Max Willman, Patrick Brown, Gerald Mayhew, Connor Bunnaman, and Jackson Cates failed to impress much at all. Given MacEwen’s willingness to drop the gloves and play with energy on the forecheck, he was an easy guy to root for in a lost season — even showing enough to warrant a return in a fourth line or press box role as an enforcer.
Zack MacEwen single-handedly re-injecting some life into this barn. pic.twitter.com/hcnHXiUorD— Flyers Nation (@FlyersNation) December 19, 2021
Givani Smith wanted a second fight with Zack MacEwen and got dropped again— Nasty Knuckles (@NastyKnuckles) March 23, 2022
Unfortunately for MacEwen, the Flyers centered their free agency plans on securing fellow enforcer tough guy Nic Deslauriers to a four-year contract — muddying the to minimize the role of the lovable but flawed waiver claim heading into 2022-23.
To make matters even more interesting, MacEwen filed for salary arbitration to seek a raise upon the near league minimum he made a season ago. We’ll see where that goes, but if the arbitrator sides with MacEwen the Flyers will likely be paying close to $4 million combined to enforcers in at least 2022-23.
By the Numbers
Numbers don’t generally do guys like MacEwen justice, and last season was no different.
MacEwen chipped in nine points (three goals, six assists) in 75 games — 9:40 average time on ice — on the season though often being saddled with a revolving door of line mates on the fourth line that trended more towards being extra NHL forwards or AHL regulars on most nights.
Partly as a result of the Flyers’ lack of a quality fourth line was represented in MacEwen’s numbers, with possession metrics telling the tale of a player who was frequently outplayed at 5-on-5 (42.7 Corsi For, -5.1 Relative to his teammates) and surrendered goals at a high rate to the tune of a -15 differential at even strength in 2021-22.
On the plus side, MacEwen’s tireless effort was a welcome sight night-in and night-out and drew tangible results in the form of 23 drawn penalties, which was good for fourth on the team despite playing nearly half the ice time as guys like Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, and Joel Farabee ahead of him.
A testament to the talent around MacEwen is evident with just a 97.3 PDO — combined on-ice save percentage plus shooting percentage — that is nearly three full points behind what is considered league average. Not only was MacEwen’s crew not scoring much, they weren’t preventing them either: suboptimal.
While those numbers aren’t great, consider that the Flyers handed Deslauriers $1.75 million to produce a combined 42.3% Corsi For, -9.5 Relative, and 98.3 PDO across time with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild last season.
You could make the argument that Deslauriers is the worst offensive player in the league. Could also make the argument that he's the worst player in the league. pic.twitter.com/T2oc74socZ— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) July 13, 2022
Sure sounds like numbers MacEwen could have replicated, and for less cash for a team that could use every dollar available.
Three Thoughts on Zac-Mac Attack
One, this is just a guy that you love to root for — bounced between the AHL and the NHL with the Canucks but showed some tools (.65 points per game in the AHL) before really getting a chance and making it stick last season. In a lost season for the Flyers, you could count on No. 17 giving everything he had each and every shift — we’ve got a lot of time for Zack MacEwen.
Zack MacEwen said it meant a lot to him to win the Gene Hart Award last night, and really felt embraced by the fans. He thinks he has more to give, particularly in terms of scoring and puck management. Thinks that given more experience & confidence, he'll take strides.— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) April 30, 2022
You gotta give it to Zack MacEwen, though. He isn't afraid of anyone. pic.twitter.com/c2RS8wDfHD— Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) April 3, 2022
Secondly, while MacEwen isn’t without his flaws as noted above, it’s not like Deslauriers, who comes in to play literally the same exact role, is miles better. On reputation alone, the Flyers are going with Deslauriers, but it doesn’t mean that MacEwen can’t wrangle a spot on the fourth line as well given the clubs extreme salary cap situation.
Lastly, we’ll see what happens in arbitration, where EvolvingWild has MacEwen pegged for a modest raise in the projection of $921,400. That would help the Flyers only modestly as they fill out their bottom six right up against the cap though relief in the form of Long-Term Injured Reserve is coming for likely Joel Farabee and Ryan Ellis. We’d have rather seen the Flyers run it back with MacEwen instead of Deslauriers, but looks like we’ll probably get both — which could fulfill dreams of multiple fights per night.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, and Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise noted.