The evolution of Ryan McDonagh continues and with each passing game the 22-year-old defender takes his game to another level for the New York Rangers. Last week I took a look at how far McDonagh has come since last year at this time and that he has developed into a top caliber defender that has made the loss of Marc Staal significantly less noticeable than many would have expected. Last night was another example of how McDonagh not only is taking on the challenge of filling the huge void Marc Staal’s absence leaves on the blue line defensively, but his offense is evolving. When discussing his offense last week I wrote:
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 confidence was on full display in the third period against the Canucks as McDonagh pinched deep finding himself open in the slot to take the Brandon Dubinsky feed and beat Roberto Luongo for the Rangers second goal. Scoring the goal on emboldened McDonagh to be more aggressive on the offensive end and he showed that he can combine his tremendous skating ability with skill and instincts as he danced around would be defenders and then made a perfect pass to Marian Gaborik for a tap-in goal late in the final period.
When healthy, the New York Rangers possess arguably the best top four on defense in the NHL as each of Staal, Girardi, McDonagh and Sauer can play against top lines and be a shutdown defender. The problem with that grouping is that none of them have truly been able to be a consistent threat on the other end of the ice, but McDonagh has those type of skills if he remains confident in his game. The Rangers are certainly hoping that Michael Del Zotto and Tim Erixon can use their noted offensive skills to provide that threat from the blue line and combine with the shutdown defenders to make a formidable defensive corps.
There has always been hope that Staal would take another step offensively and he has shown those flashes, but of the top four from last season it might be McDonagh who is best equipped to become the complete package as a two-way defender. McDonagh was originally seen as an offensively skilled defender when he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens 12th overall in 2007, but his focus shifted to defense first during his time at Wisconsin. Now that he has established he is more than capable of being an excellent defensive defender at the NHL level, and the confidence that comes with that, McDonagh can allow his natural talents to display themselves offensively.
There are few who doubt that McDonagh is going to be a stalwart in the NHL for a long time regardless of whether the offense ever fully develops, but with each step forward his offense takes, the ceiling for him grows exponentially. Aside from the stellar start of Henrik Lundqvist and possibly the play of Dan Girardi, the elevation and maturation of Ryan McDonagh to start his second season has been the biggest positive of this young season for the New York Rangers.