By Sean Hartnett
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Think carefully for a moment. If you had a chance to build an NHL franchise from scratch and were able to select any defenseman of your choice, who would you choose?
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh would have to be close to the top of the list.
It’s true that he doesn’t boast the athleticism and dangling abilities of Erik Karlsson, the overpowering physicality of Shea Weber or the salivating combination of both that P.K. Subban has in his locker. Nor does he pack the cannon shot all three possess.
But what makes McDonagh so valuable to the Rangers is how effective he is in all aspects of the game. His abilities don’t leap at you the way Subban’s do, but he doesn’t do the chasing that Subban does in his own end and plays with the kind of unwavering discipline the Habs’ star defenseman would clearly benefit from.
There’s less flash in McDonagh’s game, but there are also less flaws. It’s hard to pick out a weakness. There’s a lot less risk in his game compared to Karlsson, who occasionally gets caught making questionable pinches. While the reigning Norris Trophy winner’s all-world mobility allows him to play catch-up, he isn’t the kind of player you want defending a one-goal lead in pressure situations.
McDonagh is an adept puck-mover, a shutdown ace and a power play point-getter all rolled into a single defenseman. Having served as an assistant coach for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette knows what McDonagh offers.
“It’s a complete game,” Laviolette said. “Getting the chance to work with him a little bit with the U.S., he was just a terrific player — good leadership. Just his overall game, he’s as good offensively as he is defensively. He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got physicality, he blocks shots, he’s a courageous guy — just a real, good, steady, two-way defenseman. It was just a short time that I worked with him. It’s not a big sample, but he was a real class act.”
A prolonged recovery from a broken foot may have contributed to McDonagh’s ordinary start to the 2015-16 season, but he got back to his best during Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators, scoring a power play goal, recording two primary assists, killing two penalties, and blocking three shots. He was tasked with shutting down Mike Hoffman, Ottawa’s electric winger, who entered the game with 12 points in his previous seven games. McDonagh and first-pairing partner Dan Girardi successfully kept Hoffman’s name off the scoresheet.
“I think he does everything really solid,” defenseman Keith Yandle said. “He pushes everyone, every day. It’s no surprise what he does every game — power play, penalty kill, even strength. It’s fun playing with a guy like him.”
Teaming with Yandle at the point on the power play, McDonagh fired a one-timer past Craig Anderson at 8:40 of the first period.
“Mac and I have some chemistry,” Yandle said. “We played a little bit last year together on the power play. He’s a guy who has a big shot. It’s fun playing with a guy who can hammer it, and I like to take pride in my passing. He’s a guy who can really bring it.”
On the next trip out with the man-advantage, McDonagh’s shot was tipped-in by Derick Brassard. Later in the third period, he connected with Brassard on a long-distance pass and the Rangers’ forward slammed a close-range slapper past Anderson.
On top of all the talent, McDonagh sets the right example for teammates with his work habits. Veterans Dan Boyle and Yandle have noticed the captain’s positive influence on youngsters and how he connects with teammates as a whole.
“He leads by example on the ice, he’s a workhorse out there and plays a lot,” Boyle said. “He’s one of the boys, too. I think that’s important. He’s not one of those guys that a rookie might be afraid to approach because he’s the captain. He’s just one of the boys — and I think that’s a very good attribute. This team does a real good job of including the young guys in everything — from practice stuff, to off-ice stuff, the rookies certainly feel comfortable and at home. I think that goes a long way.”
“Being captain of the New York Rangers — it’s a tough job, but he really takes pride in it,” Yandle added. “He comes to the rink and makes guys better every day. He brings that certain aspect to our team where he holds everybody accountable and it starts with himself. He’s a guy you want to go to war with. Especially for a young captain, he does an amazing job. With the guys in the locker room, the media, whatever it is — he’s accessible. He’s a guy you love to play with, love to hang out with and an all-around great guy.”
Karlsson, Subban, Weber, Duncan Keith, Victor Hedman, Mark Giordano, Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty are among defensemen who fit into the elite bracket. McDonagh unquestionably belongs there, too, based upon all the roles he excels in for the Rangers. He is the epitome of a franchise defenseman.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey