Wednesday, February 16, 2011

McDonagh Making Smooth Transition To NHL Level

The New York Rangers possess the youngest defensive core in the NHL, and while many worry about their age and inexperience the group has been a strength of the team this season.  A large reason for that has been the play of rookies Michael Sauer and Ryan McDongah.  Yesterday, I took a look at Michael Sauer, and his transformation from overlooked prospect to core member of the defense and now in part two we get a look at his partner, fellow rookie, Ryan McDonagh.  Unlike Sauer, who was under the radar, there was certainly hopes and expectations for the former first rounder as he made the transition from the University of Wisconsin to the professional ranks.  There were some bumps in the road to start in the AHL, but after figuring that level out I do not think anyone could have foreseen his transition from the AHL to the NHL being as smooth as his skating stride makes it look.  Let’s take a small look back and then a look ahead to what the Rangers have in their new number 27.
Most know that Ryan was acquired by the Rangers in the coup that was the Scott Gomez in the summer of 2009.  Instead of turning pro, he went back to Wisconsin for his junior season where he was an assistant captain and helped to lead the Badgers, along with Derek Stepan, to the NCAA championship game.  At Wisconsin, McDonagh was paired with more offensive-minded defenders like now Toronto Maple Leaf’s property Jake Gardiner, which left Ryan to focus on the defensive side of the game.  This confused and disappointed some Rangers fans last year when they would check the stats and saw McDonagh was not producing points after reading the scouting reports from his draft year talking about offensive potential.  The fans that worried about if he was as good as advertised then are reaping the rewards of the impact being at Wisconsin had on McDonagh’s game.
McDonagh participated in the Rangers Development Camp this summer unsure if he would go back to the Wisconsin for his senior season and be the captain or turn pro.  He decided following the camp he would turn pro.  As soon as that decision was made there was hope among many, including myself, that Ryan could earn a spot on the Rangers from the start of the season.  After a solid training camp, in which he was one of the last cuts, he went down to the AHL and struggled to start the season.  For the first month Ryan was fighting the play, but he settled in and worked his way back to being an option for the club if they needed to make a call.
When McDonagh was initially called up on January 3rd there was no guarantee he would even see action during his stint in New York.  A rib injury to Michal Rozsival would get him a chance to play against the Dallas Stars, and while the nerves showed in the first game, the skill and poise shined in his second.  The Rangers were so comfortable with what McDonagh did in just those first few games that they were willing to deal away Rozsival and Ryan has not let that faith and trust down.  Ryan has only gotten better and better with each game, showing an increased level of comfort and belief in his belonging on this stage.
He has been plus-4 in 17 games, but more impressive is the fact that he is been over or plus in 13 of those 17 contests.  In terms of ice time he has been playing an average of 16:17 per game.  The 16:17 is misleading because in his first six contests he never played more than 12:03 in a game.  In the eleven games since he has played above that average in ten of the games, while eclipsing 20 minutes on five occasions.  He will not blow anyone away with offensive prowess as his two assists so far show, but he is a player whose game goes far beyond the stat sheet.  There is also the potential to add some offense to his game.
So what is it that makes McDonagh play such sound hockey?  This summer, before McDonagh signed, the New York Rangers had a feature on him, which looked at how he had progressed and his thoughts on the game.  Here is McDonagh in his own words…
"As a defenseman, I want to make sure I'm strong in my own end," said McDonagh. "A team won't be able to live with you for very long if you're not taking care of your own end and making smart plays and keeping the puck out of your own net at times. I'm a big guy, and I like to be physical and tough to play against for the other team's best forwards. I like to match up against them a lot and log a lot of minutes."
McDonagh has shown on the ice that he truly believes those words in the way he goes about the game.  Looking beyond those numbers I mentioned it is the vast set of skills McDonagh has shown on the ice that have so many so excited for his future.  When Ryan is on the ice you see all of the following: excellent positioning defensively; a feistiness to his game in terms of hitting and clearing the crease; excellent instincts on when to step up both in the neutral zone and pinch offensively; and most importantly exceptional poise on the puck.  McDonagh will never be a player that dazzles with flash, but he will be a lunch-pail defender that can shut down top flight competition, much like Michael Sauer, and to have that in a 21-year-old bodes extremely well for the Rangers future.
With what McDonagh has shown at the outset of his career, there is no reason to expect anything less than a top four defenseman for the New York Rangers for the next decade.  These are the pieces you build a franchise around and this is yet another reason this year for the Rangers goes far beyond whatever the final outcome is for the team.  Possessing Staal, Girardi, Sauer and McDonagh the Rangers possess four standout shutdown defensemen in their core, which is something few if any teams around the league can claim; especially at their respective ages.  Just wait until Michael Del Zotto gets his game back and the Rangers Department of Defense will be ready to go to battle with anyone.