Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No Afterthought, McDonagh a Shutdown Defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Who got the best of the deal? Inquiring minds want to know. It's what every newspaper and radio talk show is interested in. It makes us look like meteorologists or stock brokers -- and you know how often they're advice leads you wrong. 

Instant analysis.

Often times, the best trades are the ones that are made for the future. I'll give you this player and you give me that one. And then comes the unknown, or unexpected, the prospect included in the deal that turns the tables.

This deal came down June 30, 2009. First you have the headliners. Scott Gomez and Chris Higgins were the keys, Gomez going from the New York Rangers to the Montreal Canadiens. Money and length of contracts also played an important part from the Gomez end. 

And then you have the prospects -- Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto to Montreal and Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko to the Rangers.

Gomez had been a two-time Stanley Cup champion with New Jersey. You add his speed, how he would back off defenders and set up teammates for 50 or more assists four times in his career. But ...

Fast forward it this season, 2 1/2 years later, Gomez has been a no-show, having just one goal this season, in Montreal. And Higgins has been passed aside to Florida and then Vancouver. But McDonagh, a 6-1, 213-pound defensemen who was selected with the 12th pick overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft from St. Paul, Minn., has been the real deal.

When they lost Marc Staal for the first 36 games with concussion symptoms, it was defensemen Dan Girardi and McDonagh who picked up the No. 1 baton for the Rangers -- shutting down the opponents top line. McDonagh picked up five goals and 15 assists in 54 games. Plus, he was playing 25:19 per game (next in line to Girari) and was plus 23 and was one of the league best shot blockers at 139.

"He's matured. He's matured off the ice, first, as far as how he handles himself: What it is to be a pro, learning to be a pro," coach John Tortorella said. "I think his focus off the ice, I think his focus on the ice has gone in a different direction this year. I think he has a much better understanding of how to handle himself where he doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low. He's certainly brought a whole different level of stiffness to his game as far as defending."

Midway through his first season as a professional, McDonagh was called up. He found his stride quickly, playing a steady, physical game that resulted in a plus-8 rating in a seven-game span. It took the Rangers less than two weeks to see that McDonagh was ready for Broadway on a permanent basis. They shipped defenseman Michal Rozsival off to Phoenix.

Originally, Ryan was enamored with the idea of playing for Montreal. He added French to his studies at Wisconsin, for instance. The Canadiens apparently expected McDonagh to become a dominant offensive player when they drafted him and, for whatever reason, were not satisfied with his development as a two-way defenseman.

"They'd come to a few games to scout me during that season, but I didn't hear from them at all that summer about signing," McDonagh said. "I was actually on my way to their summer camp and figured I'd find out what their thoughts were, but that's when I was traded, so I never got there and I never asked the question.

"It's not like I had played there and then was traded. The way I looked at it, the Rangers wanted me."

Raising the question of why Montreal took him. Columbus, at No. 7, and St. Louis, at No. 9, had expressed interest in McDonagh.

Rangers chief scout Gordie Clark fell in love at first sight. 

"In my time at the combine, he’s been the single most impressive guy ever," Clark exclaimed. "He's just a smaller version of Marc Staal.

"We did not have him as a point-producing guy. In the NHL, this guy is going to be a shutdown defenseman with his skating ability."

Nuff said. Forget those long skating forays down the ice. He was an all-round defender and a shutdown defenseman.

McDonagh was the winner of Minnesota High School's prestigious Mr. Hockey honor as the best high player this season in 2007. He had 10 goals and 23 assists in 23 games for Cretin-Derham.

When asked to describe the kind of defenseman he aspires to be, he added, "I look to guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios -- Chelios for his leadership and the respect he commands and Lidstrom because he is a guy that can play in any situation and he's a guy you can count on late in the game when you need a goal or when you're holding on to a victory.

"The combination of those two guys is what I look up to for my style of play."

Again, responsible in his own zone, plus a leader -- wanting to out there when his team was holding a lead late in the game.

His play a Cretin-Derham, in leading the Pioneers to the 3A State championship in hockey as a junior, plus a 2A State baseball championship as a senior. He had two sacrifice flies in Cretin-Derham's 4-3 victory over Eden Prairie as a DH. 

It was a case of just carrying on in the family tradition, said St. Louis Blues scout Mike Antonovich.

"His great grandfather set the school record by lettering 12 times," Antonovich said. "And his uncle is Steve Walsh, the former NFL quarterback, who also attended Cretin."

McDonagh said when he was younger he loved watching Walsh play.

"When I got older, he'd often pull be aside and tell me to always respect the people who helped me get here," McDonagh said. "He also said to just keep working on the things I did to get here."

McDonagh's career at Cretin-Derham didn't start out exactly as he planned. When then-coach Sean Toomey switched Ryan from defense to the wing as a freshman and sophomore, McDonagh looked upon this move as the first adversity he'd have to face in his career.

"It felt strange. I didn't like it," he remembered. "But then when they put me back on defense in my junior year, I actually felt like the strange journey helped me. It helped me learn how to carry the puck into the offensive zone, something I didn't do a lot of before I started playing up front. My skating and my ability to play one-on-one defense also improved because I had to learn to go in deep to pursue the puck.

"Touching the puck, handling the puck more; challenging the opposition in on the forecheck. It all added a new dimension to the way I played when I got back on defense."

There's clearly a sense of hard work to get where you want to go in the mind of Ryan McDonagh.

Part of that work ethic comes from Ryan's dad, Sean, who is a golf course superintendent. Even more comes from his mom, Patricia, who is in cafeteria service.

"I certainly never starved in high school with my mom serving the food," McDonagh laughed. "She'd pile on all sorts of extras that the other kids didn't get, if you know what I mean."

Ryan McDonagh's hunger on the ice is insatiable. He want to win -- and he has the Rangers in a good position right now. 

Little wonder why the Rangers had McDonagh rated so highly in the 2007 draft. 

Better that any forecast by a meteorologist or stock broker, the Rangers had Ryan McDonagh more that just as afterthought in the Gomez deal.

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