Everybody is talking about those high-flying New York Rangers as the NHL season takes its quarter turn.
Haven’t you heard? They are rolling four lines, pushing tempo and scoring like nobody’s business (an NHL-best 88 goals in 24 games). But offense isn’t the only story in Gotham City — on the blue line there is a rock-solid horse who has been nothing short of excellent in his first 24 games. Yep, we’re talking about Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers’ MVP and resident savior.
There are very few “true” No.1 defenseman in the NHL, and teams rarely win the Cup without one. They eat big minutes, and dominate the run of play when they step over the boards. The Kings have Drew Doughty. The Blackhawks have Duncan Keith. The Penguins have Kris Letang.
Is this type of take-charge blueliner what the Rangers now have in Ryan McDonagh?
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 22, 2016
It’s a well-known fact that the Rangers aren’t exactly loaded with depth or puck-moving prowess on the blue line, but McDonagh, healthy and fit after two frustrating years that saw him go down with a broken foot, a concussion, and a broken hand, is anchoring the Rangers defense. He’s also providing much-maligned analytics whipping boy Dan Girardi with some shelter on the top pair.
The possession numbers aren’t mind-blowing (even strength Corsi Percentage of 46.4) but everything else has been just about as good as it can be from the 27-year-old Minnesota native.
“Ryan McDonagh looks like the Ryan McDonagh of old,” hockey insider Pierre Lebrun told TSN last week. “He is in beast mode—it’s the best I’ve seen him play in a couple of years.”
McDonagh is a plus-12 for the season and while has yet to notch his first goal, he’s dishing out assists at a career-best 0.54 per game rate. His mobility, hockey sense and puck-moving skills make him a perfect complement for the Rangers’ blossoming speed game—he can maneuver to space and join the rush when necessary but he also has the uncanny vision that enables him to make the type of pinpoint breakout and stretch passes that can really spread opposing defenses thin.
Even more remarkable is the fact that McDonagh has been so good with Dan Girardi as his primary partner. Girardi is a lot more valuable to the Rangers than his Corsi For percentage alludes, but the 32-year-old is not a premier defenseman and McDonagh has been forced to do a lot of heavy lifting for the pair.
Without Girardi on the ice, McDonagh has the Rangers’ highest Corsi number (53.6 percent) and the highest Relative Corsi (7.67 percent). While paired with Girardi, those percentages sink to the bottom, but nevertheless the pair is a combined plus-25, and they’ve been on ice for 13 goals for and just nine against.
As the season progresses, and opposing teams build a book on how to slow the Rangers high-octane offense, keeping pucks out of the net will become even more important than it is right now.
That’s when McDonagh will really earn his keep as a leader on defense. It’s not a role he’s unfamiliar with at all. In 2013-14, McDonagh’s best season in the NHL, he played like a true No.1 defenseman and led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final, scoring 17 points in the post-season.
He’s doing that this year as well.
Between Oct. 17 and Nov. 1, McDonagh became the first Ranger to log assists in eight consecutive games in 17 years, just another sign that he’s the spark that brings the Rangers to life.
McDonagh has been everything the Rangers wanted him to be and more this season, but without a better partner to pair with, we may never know how much of a force he can be. For now, as they contemplate the market for defensemen at the trade deadline, the Rangers will have to be satisfied that he is who he is — a workhorse that elevates the play of everyone around him, and the team’s consensus MVP.