After Dan Boyle chose to retire and the rights to Keith Yandle were traded before free agency, the New York Rangers already ghastly defense took a turn for the even worse. The Rangers attempted to overcome the losses by trading for Nick Holden, a favorite of the soon-after fired Patrick Roy.
Unsurprisingly, the acquisition of Holden only made things worse for the Rangers defense. Adam Clendening, another addition, started the season strong, but was soon benched by Alain Vigneault. Promising youngster Dylan McIlrath was then waived and demoted to the AHL.
With those moves, the Rangers defensive group now consists of Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Brady Skjei.
Breaking down the group leaves the Rangers with two veterans deep into their decline in Girardi and Staal, a defenseman likely to regress in Klein, a defenseman already serving as a possession void in Holden, and a youngster trying to acclimate himself to the NHL game in Skjei.
Then there is Ryan McDonagh.
It was no secret before the season started that McDonagh would have to lead the Rangers defense if the team wanted any chance to be successful.
In fact, it was no secret that he would have to improve, despite already serving as the team’s top defenseman and an annual All-Star candidate. The remainder of the Rangers defense is simply too poor for McDonagh to be any less than phenomenal.
McDonagh showed up this season ready to handle the task.
So far, his most consistent partners have been Dan Girardi and Nick Holden, rather than playing with top pair defensemen like most elite defensemen are allowed to do. Despite the factors working against him, McDonagh is off to his best start yet.
The basic statistics point to a Norris-like beginning for McDonagh, as despite being held to zero goals thus far, McDonagh is nearly a point-per game player through the first nine games. The Rangers captain owns eight assists, including points in seven consecutive games. The streak puts him in prestigious company, as he is the first Rangers defenseman to do so since Brian Leetch in 1996.
McDonagh ranks sixth among NHL defensemen in even strength time on ice, handling as many minutes as Vigneault puts on his shoulders due to his subpar colleagues on defense. Despite the heavy workload, he also leads all NHL players in primary assists, putting up the points a top defenseman is expected to as well.
Additionally, McDonagh has picked up his possession game to help lift the Rangers putrid defense. After struggling to post a 47.5 even strength Corsi For percentage last season, he is off to a much better start, owning a 55 percent mark this year. He has even picked up his two most common defensive partners, as Girardi has raised from 41.7 to 50.8 percent, and Holden has been lifted from 45 to 47.1 percent.
Time will tell if he can continue his breakout, but the Rangers have benefited greatly already from his stupendous performance. New York is 5-2 in games in which McDonagh has posted a point, while the power play ranks 6th in the NHL even after the departure of specialist Keith Yandle.
McDonagh has often been touted as a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, but has never been able to play quite that well. If the beginning of this season is any indication, this could be the year that McDonagh not only leads the Rangers’ blue line, but also announces he is among the NHL’s elite defensemen.
Stats via HockeyAnalysis