By Sean Hartnett
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You can try to pick out a weakness in Ryan McDonagh’s game, but you aren’t going to find one.
The Rangers’ captain is the prototypical franchise defenseman, logging big minutes in all situations and playing with responsibility and effectiveness at both ends of the rink.
McDonagh packages an ideal combination of physical tools — speed, strength, efficient puck moving, shutdown ability and a hammer of a shot. When you add all these attributes on top of his passionate nature, tremendous work ethic, high IQ, mental toughness and an ability to lead men – you have yourself one heck of a hockey player.
And one that’s just 26 years old.
There is always a lot of debate over what defines leadership and how important it is. In McDonagh’s case, his desire and commitment to the Rangers’ crest pushes an entire dressing room to follow the high standard he sets for himself.
“He brings a certain calmness to the team and a certain intensity to the team where it’s infectious and it goes through the whole lineup,” teammate Keith Yandle said. “He pushes everyone, every day. It’s no surprise what he does every game — power play, penalty kill, even strength. Being captain of the New York Rangers … it’s a tough job, but he really takes pride in it.
“He brings that certain aspect to our team where he holds everybody accountable and it starts with himself,” Yandle continued. “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.”
Part of leading is appealing to teammates. Hockey is a fraternal sport and teammates are bands of brothers. At 39, Dan Boyle is the oldest active defenseman in the league and knows what it takes for a group to reach Stanley Cup glory. Boyle won a championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and has spent the majority of his career on teams with lofty goals.
“He’s one of the boys,” Boyle said of McDonagh earlier in the season during an interview with WFAN.com. “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.”
It’s obvious how much teammates care about “Captain Mac.” While walking around the dressing room you will hear teammates gleefully call out “Truckerrrrrrr” and “Mac Truck” in McDonagh’s direction. These guys would skate through a brick wall for their leader if it was required, and their love for McDonagh became very clear after Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds gave him a concussion with a sucker punch on Feb. 6.
When Simmonds entered Madison Square Garden on Valentine’s Day, a whole slew of Rangers wanted to show the powerful winger that such actions will be met with an appropriate response. Rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath stalked Simmonds, engaging in a “friendly” chat during warmups and dropped the gloves with Simmonds 39 seconds into the game. Tanner Glass laid a massive hit on intimidating defenseman Radko Gudas and soon squared off with forward Ryan White.
“It was pretty clear,” McIlrath said. “I wanted to send a message. I wanted to stick up for my teammate, our captain, our best player.”
In all likelihood, McDonagh will return to the lineup for Wednesday’s meeting with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks at MSG. He has been cleared for contact and was paired with usual defensive partner Dan Girardi at practice.
McDonagh will be rejoining a team that has found its groove of late. The Rangers have gone 4-0-1 without their inspirational captain, including the game he was concussed in Philly. The Blueshirts are playing more responsible hockey in their own end and are tied for the NHL lead with nine wins and 19 points since Jan 16, going 9-3-1 over this stretch.
The Rangers are heading in an upward direction and McDonagh’s return can only boost their trajectory.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey