One year ago Ryan McDonagh was coming off his first training camp with the New York Rangers having shown well in the preseason, but having been sent down to get more experience with the then Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL). McDonagh struggled early on in the AHL, but few would believe that with the way he has grown since joining the Rangers on January 3, 2011. When McDonagh joined the lineup the hope was that he could play solid on the third defensive pair while gaining experience and eventually moving up the ranks. McDonagh quickly changed those calculations with his seamless transition to the NHL that had him combine with Michael Sauer to form a stellar second pair.
McDonagh was expected to continue in his role on the second pairing with Sauer to give the Rangers, along with Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, one of the best top four defensive groups in the league Last month, during training camp, it was revealed that Marc Staal has been dealing with concussion issues over the summer and ended up not being ready for the start of the season. With Staal unavailable, McDonagh was elevated to play with Dan Girardi against the best line that the opposition has to offer. The loss of an All-Star player like Staal from any lineup is a huge void to fill and there was considerable fear amongst the fans that the void would be very evident against the excellent top lines Los Angeles and Anaheim possess.
McDonagh eliminated those fears with his performance in the two games in Sweden. He continued to show tremendous poise and intelligence in all facets of the game while display his tremendous skating and positioning skills to help limit the chances of the opposition’s best players. By playing a smart, simple game in his own zone McDonagh limits the chances of giving the opposition unnecessary chances in front of his goaltender while helping to limit those the other team would create on their own.
Offensively McDonagh is still a work in progress, but he is gaining in confidence. The confidence shows itself in him having less hesitation to shoot the puck or even join the rush. Joining the rush got the Rangers in trouble in the first game when he was called for a phantom penalty in the offensive zone, but the aggressiveness is something the Rangers want to see more of from him.
The loss of Staal was and will certainly be felt deeper in the defense corps, but McDonagh is proving on a daily basis that he is ready to take on the role of a first pair defender in this league. The scary part for the rest of the league is that the chemistry with McDonagh and Girardi still developing, so their effectiveness is only going to improve if they continue to play together. The growth of McDonagh in the past year is something that has to be beyond what the Rangers could have hoped and if the trajectory continues he could soon challenge a healthy Marc Staal for the best defender on the team. A year ago that was crazy talk, and maybe it still is, but McDonagh is making it seem plausible down the road.