By Sean Hartnett
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Bob Gainey… what were you thinking when you included Ryan McDonagh in the deal to bring Scott Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens? I’d like to make this statement without sounding overly-critical of a brilliant hockey mind in Gainey. This was the man who turned the Dallas Stars into a Western Conference powerhouse in the late 1990’s and won the 1999 Stanley Cup while serving as their general manager.
It isn’t always an easy task to evaluate raw hockey prospects. McDonagh was still developing his game at the University of Wisconsin and far from the finished product. If Gainey had enough confidence to select McDonagh 12th overall in the 2007 draft, why did he part with such a promising defenseman that hadn’t yet seen minor league action?
Privately, Glen Sather must smirk when he looks back at this trade. The Gomez deal was essentially a salary dump by the Rangers to rid of a failed $51.5 million dollar experiment that hadn’t worked out in their favor. It also opened up the space needed to sign sniper Marian Gaborik. Sather had largely overvalued Gomez and took advantage of Gainey’s desperation to reunite Gomez with former Devils’ line-mate Brian Gionta.
Any talent the Rangers received in the deal was a bonus because Sather knew that Brandon Dubinsky could handle a greater workload and Artem Anisimov was ready to make the leap into the NHL heading into the 2009-10 season. To acquire a player of McDonagh’s potential was a clever coup by Sather who saw the error of his ways and shifted organizational focus further toward developing talent from within.
Now at 22, McDonagh is a big reason why the Rangers possess one of the most talented young bluelines around the NHL. Along with Tim Erixon (20), Michael Del Zotto (21) and Marc Staal (24), they have four defensemen under the age of 25 that will play a large role in the Blueshirts’ future successes.
McDonagh could be the best two-way defenseman of bunch as he finished his 2010-11 rookie season with a strong plus-minus rating of +16. Del Zotto is still raw defensively and developing that side of his game. Neither Staal nor Erixon have as much offensive upside.
Already, McDonagh has shown the ability of a skilled, instinctive puck-moving defenseman. During the first half of Rangers’ four-game swing across Western Canada, his contributions have been vital in consecutive victories over the Canucks and Flames. After Tuesday’s two-point night, McDonagh was able to score a sensational overtime winner on Thursday.
You can’t teach the kind of coolness and hockey sense that McDonagh displayed in this tense moment. He skated in unnoticed toward the slot in front of the Flames’ net and buried the game-winning goal with 1.8 seconds remaining in the overtime period.
While I’m not expecting McDonagh to immediately put up 40 points or be an All-Star in his first full year in the NHL, I do believe that he can be a steady contributor offensively and excel defensively. What he does have is an innate ability to be in the correct place on either end of the ice when the pressure is on. It is no coincidence that his first career NHL goal came against the Devils and propelled the Rangers into the 2011 playoffs.
It’s easy to get caught up in numbers and projections but the main thing is McDonagh continues to show confidence and maturity on the ice. What’s for sure is that he is a player that the Blueshirts will rely on heavily both now and in the future.
Rangers fans – what are your expectations for McDonagh this season? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.