‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Everything about Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh is old-school. At 24, McDonagh is only in the infancy of his career, but he’s always emitted a veteran aura. He’s always been a wise-beyond-his-years character. Even when McDonagh first entered the league as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, it became quickly apparent that he was more mature than your average rookie.
Now with four seasons under his belt, McDonagh is priding himself on setting a positive example for younger players coming through by displaying the right work habits in practice and by attempting to make an impact on every shift he takes.
“You work hard in practice,” McDonagh said. “You try and make sure that every game, every shift you’re making an impact and doing your job out there. I think naturally, different guys that are coming in will notice that, and try to be a part of it, make sure they’re doing the same things. This group, we’re all kind of leaders in a sense. We all hold each other accountable and make sure that we’re playing to the potential we can reach.”
McDonagh is less than two weeks shy of reaching his 25th birthday, on June 13. It could be the most memorable birthday of his career, as it would come on a potential Game 5 of his first Stanley Cup Final. He remembers watching his first final as an 11-year-old, when an emotional Ray Bourque famously lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career in 2001 after a 22-year wait.
“I remember Ray Bourque lifting the Cup for the first time,” McDonagh said. “It was a long time ago, but I remember seeing his emotion and what it must have been like to hoist it.”
It’s a moment that many have described as one of the most iconic and emotive images in NHL history. It took Bourque a league-record 1,612 regular-season games and 214 playoff games to win his first Stanley Cup.
When the 2014 Stanley Cup Final gets underway on Wednesday, take a close look at McDonagh during the national anthem. During every pregame national anthem, McDonagh stands at attention on the blue line. He doesn’t move a muscle until the servicemen and servicewomen carry the flag off the ice out of respect for his country and those who serve it.
McDonagh has always been a highly respectful individual. It meant everything to McDonagh to represent USA during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He understands the privilege of what it means to play in the NHL and especially what it means to be a Ranger.
“He’s been the same guy since day one,” teammate Brian Boyle said. “He works extremely hard. He’s a special player, a special kind of person.”
The last thing that matters to McDonagh is the stat sheet. Incredibly, McDonagh scored 10 points in six games during the Eastern Conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. McDonagh led all skaters in assists (eight) and points (10) during the Eastern Conference finals.
McDonagh became the first Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch to record 10 assists and 13 points in a playoff year since Leetch accomplished this during the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He remains respectful toward what Leetch and the heroes of 1994 accomplished before him, but records and statistics are not something that enter McDonagh’s thinking.
“It’s tough to think about that stuff when you’re more worried about winning games and trying to give yourself a chance,” McDonagh said. “It’s something for down the road, I think. Obviously, I know what he brought to this team. He was able to win the Stanley Cup. He was a great player. Just to be kind of mentioned around him is pretty numbing for me.”
Boyle and teammates inside the Rangers’ locker room know that winning is the only thing that’s on McDonagh’s mind.
“In my opinion, I don’t think it matters to him,” Boyle said. “He wants to win. I think that’s all that matters to him.”
McDonagh began his career under the watchful eye of defensively-obsessive former head coach John Tortorella. Playing for the demanding Tortorella and the experience of observing teammates Marc Staal and Dan Girardi contribute in all areas helped mold McDonagh into a complete, all-around defenseman.
“I remember by first game in Dallas, when I first came to the NHL,” McDonagh said. “Those guys played 30 minutes, I think, together. Just seeing them making plays – both defensively and jumping up — showed this whole, all-around game that you’ve got to bring to be a big-time player on the team. Those guys were warriors, blocking shots and also making things happen on the offensive end. It’s something I really strive for.”
In his first season working with current head coach Alain Vigneault, McDonagh has experienced a coaching style on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tortorella’s dated grind-it-out philosophies. Vigneault’s system is all about puck possession. This season, McDonagh’s offensive game has flourished because Vigneault has trusted him to carry the puck and has given McDonagh the green light to pick and choose his spots to join the rush.
McDonagh believes that both coaches have played instrumental roles in taking his career forward.
“They’re both great coaches,” McDonagh said. “They’re both very unique. Obviously, Torts is very mentally strong in making sure your focus is sharp and you’re really sound defensively. AV, obviously, is a little bit more creative and willing to let things happen and develop. They’ve both been great in this short part of my career here. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
MCDONAGH HAS EXCELLED IN NEW POWER-PLAY ROLE UNDER VIGNEAULT
Vigneault opted to try out McDonagh in a key role on the power play following advice he received from alternate captain Brad Richards.
“The experience to put Mac there was me and Richie talking one day about the power play, and trying to figure out who goes here and who goes where,” Vigneault remembered. “He said maybe we should try Mac, and he was right.”
It was a role that McDonagh had not played under Tortorella. Staal believes that McDonagh’s growth on the power play has translated into his even-strength play.
“He didn’t play it at all under Torts,” Staal said. “He got in there and started making plays on the blue line. That kind of carried into his five-on-five game. He has all the tools and skills to be that type of player. It’s definitely a help.”
MCDONAGH IS GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME; HIS CAREER CONTINUES TO TAKE AN UPWARD PATH
Defenseman Anton Stralman described McDonagh as the Rangers’ best defenseman throughout the 2013-14 season. McDonagh finished the regular season with 14 goals and 29 assists for 43 points over 77 games played. He led all Rangers defenseman in goals, assists, points, plus-minus (11), power-play goals (two), shorthanded goals (three), game-winning goals (four) and time on ice per game at 24:49.
“He’s always been a tremendous talent,” Stralman said. “We’ve been seeing that for years. This year, whether it’s the new system — or whatever it is — he’s just taken another step developing. That’s what you want to see. He’s been probably our best D-man throughout the year. If you look back, you could kind of see that build up too. Last year, he had a great year. He’s just taking it another step this year.”
Boyle believes that McDonagh’s career will continue to take an upward path.
“He’s still a young guy,” Boyle said. “He’s mature for his age, but he’s going to continue to get better.”
McDonagh’s all-around ability has drawn frequent comparisons to Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer over the years. Niedermayer enjoyed a decorated 18-year career, winning three Stanley Cups during a nine-year stretch with the New Jersey Devils and a fourth Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Hall of Famer and beloved former Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch recently compared McDonagh to Niedermayer in an interview with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. Current Rangers defenseman John Moore thinks the comparison rings true.
“It’s a pretty lofty comparison, but McDonagh is definitely in that same breath,” Moore said. “It’s only a matter of time before he’s considered for Norris Trophies. We’re seeing firsthand here a guy that’s taken that next step. It’s been fun to watch over this whole year, (seeing) him take that next step and be a premier defenseman in this league.”
While Niedermayer was a better skater and an all-time great puck carrier, McDonagh is a stronger physical specimen who excels in the shutdown game. There are differences between the two, but the comparison is a fair one. McDonagh’s offensive game has grown in leaps and bounds. He appears to be on the path of establishing himself as an all-around, top-tier defenseman for years to come.
TALBOT AND MILLER ARE BOTH CONSIDERED DAY-TO-DAY
Backup goaltender Cam Talbot and forward J.T. Miller were the only players who did not skate with the regulars during Sunday’s practice. Miller took the ice after the majority of the team left the ice, while Talbot missed the practice entirely.
According to a team spokesman, Talbot has an unspecified injury. Vigneault said on Sunday that Talbot is day-to-day.
“He’s day-to-day,” Vigneault said. “He’s been having issues here, and he’s day-to-day. Hopefully, he’ll be on the ice soon.”
31-year-old David LeNeveu practiced in Talbot’s place on Sunday. LeNeveu went 12-8-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage during regular-season games with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Vigneault said Miller is getting closer to participating in a full practice. Miller hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. He suffered a suspected right shoulder injury as a result of Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov pushing him into the left post.
“I’m under the impression (that he needs) a couple more days here,” Vigneault said.
DECISION COMING ON CARCILLO’S 10-GAME SUSPENSION APPEAL
Suspended Rangers John Moore and Dan Carcillo both skated with the team at Sunday’s practice. Moore will miss Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, as he’s serving the final game of a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Montreal Canadiens winger Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Carcillo met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday morning in New York City to appeal his automatic 10-game suspension. The 29-year-old winger made contact with linesman Scott Driscoll during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals and was assessed a game misconduct penalty under Rule 40.3 Physical Abuse of Officials — Category II. Carcillo spoke briefly on Sunday, but did not go into detail on whether he thought the hearing went well.
A decision on Carcillo’s suspension is expected to be announced by the NHL on Monday.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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