Wednesday, October 15, 2014

McDonagh -- From prospect to Norris Trophy candidate

By Larry Wigge
When he entered the NHL stage at the 2007 Entry Draft, Ryan McDonagh was a teen-ager.

Too afraid to step onto the ice and face grown men. Scared to do his thing on the slippery slope that much bigger and stronger men doing on a nightly basis. The 12th pick overall by the Montreal Canadiens was more interested to talk about entering the University of Wisconsin.

So many things has happened to the St. Paul, Minn., native since. He's developed into on the finest defenseman in the game ... in seven years. Heck, McDonagh even got traded while he was still maturing.

In fact, July 30, 2009, when you could say that the first positive step ... two years plus after the most important day in McDonagh's.

"That day ..." the youngster remembered, "you could say I grew up."

McDonagh was sent by Montreal with forward Chris Higgins and prospect Pavel Valentenko to the New York Rangers for former Stanley Cup Winner center Scott Gomez, minor leaguers Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto.

Now, McDonagh has clearly gone from prospect to the steal of the century in trade market.

"It's a part of the business," McDonagh said. "You have to only think of Wayne Gretzky. How many times was he traded?

"I came to New York with the same dreams ... of playing in the NHL. It's not about the journey, but what you make of your opportunities."

Dreams and reality.

He worked his way up the ladder with the Rangers to the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings last June, before they lost in five games. He was voted by his teammates as the Most Valuable Player. During the offseason, he was named New York's captain. And, in this early stages of this season, there are some experts in the game putting his name out there along with Duncan Keith (who won the James Norris Trophy as the game's best defeneman), P.K. Subban, Eric Karlsson, Zdeno Chara,

"I just want to continue to grow and help the Rangers," said McDonagh after leading New York to a 3-2 season-opening victory in St. Louis.

At this time plaudits seem to flow:

Leading Rangers coach Alain Vigneault to say following the playoffs last spring: "He's a real thoroughbred ... a real force out there."

"He's been lights-out," said fellow blueliner Marc Staal. "It seems like everything he touches turns to gold."

"He's amazing to watch," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "He's such a good skater and you can see he's so confident in his game."

Once it was thought McDonagh was a little one-sided in his talent. He could play a good shutdown defense. But others shook there heads at his offensive skills.

But, the 25-year-old, established career-highs in goals with 14, assists with 29 and points with 43. In the playoffs, his average ice time of 24 minutes, 49 seconds included even more powerful numbers -- such as tied for first among all NHL defensemen. In one playoff season against Montreal -- he showed his former club -- he had eight assists.

During one of his three seasons at Wisconsin, McDonagh finally hit his stride. He could not only be a shutdown defenseman ... but his time had come help out offensively.

"We had a nickname for him. It was 'Shot from a Cannon,' " Wisconsin coach Mike
Eaves said.

Shot from a Cannon ...

"He could be in the offensive zone trying to make a play and the next thing you know, you’d look up and he was chasing down a guy in the defensive zone like he was shot from a cannon," added Eaves. "He always had that extra gear."

Starting his fourth season with the Rangers, McDonagh always has that extra gear he can count on.

"With the way my play was escalating, I felt more confident as the year went on," McDonagh remembered. "I think when I was given a lot more responsibility. I was able to step up and help our team win a lot of games."

Originally, Ryan was enamored with the idea of playing for Montreal. He added French to his studies at Wisconsin, for instance.

But ...

"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."

As a dramatic high-schooler, 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 the day before the draft, "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."

Ryan's play at 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, recalled former 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. It has become even more so with the Rangers each time he pulls the New York jersey over his head in the NHL in the NHL now.

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