The Evolution of Ryan McDonagh

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

For twenty years he was one of the best players in the entire NHL, and the backbone of the Detroit Red Wings.  He went from an unknown rookie to the captain of a team that never missed the playoffs throughout his entire career.  The winner of 4 Stanley Cups he was named an NHL All-Star 11 times.  A consummate leader, Niklas Lidstrom was an all around professional.  In my opinion, there is no one better to use as an example of the type of player Ryan McDonagh may one day become.

Much like many of our favorite athletes over the past decade or so, we are potentially watching the evolution of the next best players the league has ever seen.  It is extremely rare for an organization to discover a player that develops and grows into the cornerstone of a franchise.  It is extra special as a fan to watch a player grow and develop throughout their entire career.  Ryan McDonagh is blossoming into that type of player, and luckily for New Yorkers he is wearing a Rangers sweater.

In a trade that saw Scott Gomez go to the Montreal Canadiens, Chris Higgins go the Rangers, and a young Montreal draft pick in Ryan McDonagh go to the Rangers, who would have thought the afterthought draft pick would become one of the best defenseman in the game.  Since acquiring McDonagh in that trade, we have all seen his “potential”, it was only since this season have we seen this potential translate into the on-ice product. That on ice product has turned into the closest player this franchise has seen to a Norris Trophy since Brian Leetch.

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

Mcdonagh, like Leetch, is an American born defenseman.  They were both blessed with a unique skating ability that helps bring their game to an elite level.  Mac-Truck has one of the smoothest, and effortless strides making him one of the best all around skaters in the entire league.  It is here where one could see his bright future from day one.  Much like the way Leetch used his skating ability to become a game changer, McDonagh is beginning to gain the confidence needed to utilize his ability more and more.  He has begun adding the offensive flair to his already well-rounded defensive play.  Seeing the way his offensive ability has begun to take shape it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Leetch has been working with him to help get his game to where it can one day be.

Since he first stepped on the ice as a Ranger it wasn’t hard to tell that this kid was going to be good.  One can speculate however, that it wasn’t until this year that he has begun to show that he can become one of the greatest to play this game.  At just 24 years of age Ryan McDonagh is having a career year.  In just his fourth season as a professional, he has managed to get into the Norris Trophy discussion, become a prospect for the next Rangers captain, and become the number one defenseman on a cup contending team.

There are many people at the pro level who can be accredited to helping in the development of McDonagh.  To start, his D-partner Dan Girardi.  Girardi has been partnered with McDonagh since Marc Staal went down with a concussion during the ’10/’11 season.  This was the tail end of Ryan’s rookie season, and much like a mentor, Girardi’s veteran leadership helped instill some of the essential values that has made McDonagh the player he is today.  Playing along side one another, they have become one of the top shut down units in the entire league.

The next person who has attributed to McDonagh’s growth as a player is John Tortorella.  Love him or hate him, Torts does an outstanding job of demanding the most out of every one of his players.  For McDonagh to break into the league, and have a bench boss like Torts calling the shots was one of the best things possible for his development.  Playing Torts’ style of hockey gave McDonagh a bad-ass attitude that he has since shaped into his hockey identity.  The willingness to go down and block a shot, drop the mitts, and to dig deep in order to find the stamina for a 2 minute shift is all part of that character that he’s showed since day one.

Someone else who has helped McDonagh get his game to where it is today is Henrik Lundqvist.  Playing defense in the NHL is no small task, and playing in front of one of the best goaltenders in the world is not as easy as one would assume.  Henrik is a very demanding player as well as teammate.  He will be the first to blame himself after a loss, but will also demand the very best out of those playing in front of him.  To be the number one D-man playing alongside the best goalie in the world carries a ton of accountability.  McDonagh has embraced this, and has shown he is willing to sacrifice to help Hank maintain that status.  In hockey, the ultimate team sport, your best player is only as good as his teammate next to him.  In turn a lot of Henrik’s success can be attributed to the strong play of McDonagh which bodes well for their future together.

Coaches can help players in an endless number of ways.  Just like Torts was great for helping McDonagh discover an identity, Alain Vigneault has allowed his game the freedom to evolve.  Ryan still plays with a “defense first” mindset, but the game has also opened up tremendously for him.  Playing within Vigneault’s system he now has the freedom to take the puck and go. McDonagh’s outstanding overall ability has now been able to take over.  With career bests in goals 14, assists 29, points 43, and shots 174, he has become one of the most well-rounded players in the entire league.  One of the best factors of this is that his defensive game hasn’t missed a beat.  At a +11 he is still right around his career average, and after a slow start to the season for the entire team, that is pretty exceptional.

Ultimately, the ability lies within the player.  It is up to them to one day be able to make the transition from “potential” to reality.  We’ve all seen players come and go, some highly touted, and some come from out of nowhere.  People can talk about how good someone is “going to be”, but it means nothing until they go out and prove it.

McDonagh has begun to show the hockey world that he is for real.  With each and every game that he plays, we get to see one of the next best players in franchise history develop right in front of our eyes.  This season, a career year to date, has only scratched the surface on the type of player that Ryan McDonagh can, and is on track to become.

There is no way of knowing if he will be the next captain, the number of all-star games, Norris Trophies, or even Stanley Cups he may one day win.  All I can suggest you do is sit back and enjoy the ride.  The Rangers have found something special in this player, and it is going to be a treat to watch him evolve right in front of our eyes.

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