There have been many bright spots for the New York Rangers over the past two years. Players like Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan and the growth of players like Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky as well.
Another young player who started his career in the Rangers' system is Ryan McDonagh, a defenseman who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and was acquired by Glen Sather in the Scott Gomez trade. McDonagh started the season in Hartford last year, before getting called up to the Rangers and never looking back.
Now McDonagh is a staple on the Rangers' blue line, and due to the Marc Staal injury, currently playing first-pairing minutes with Dan Giardi. It's not just the fans McDonagh is impressing with his play.
"He's a player that started the year in Hartford last year and I think the coaching staff down there, Ken Gernander, J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller, did a really good job in getting him ready," Jim Schoenfeld, assistant general manager and assistant coach of the New York Rangers said. "He was only there for a few months and I would be able to watch him frequently and he was just finding his way."
The move to the NHL is a difficult one, no matter what position you play. But Schoenfeld says McDonagh showed the qualities of a great defenseman even when he was in Hartford.
"It's a big jump from any program to the NHL," he said. "Ryan just needed to get acclimated. You could see [right away] his power, strength, skating ability and his one-on-one capabilities. He didn't lose many battles down there and once we called him up, bit by bit he started to feel more comfortable and then he started adding a little aggression to his game. He spent less time in skirmishes because of his explosive power. He's also an intelligent player, obviously, because you can't match up against other team's top players without having a great understanding of how to play the game."
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"[McDonagh] and Michael Sauer, we didn't know if either player was going to be on the team last year and they moved right into our top-four and really logged some important minutes for us," Schoenfeld said.
Now, more than ever, McDonagh's emergence as a quality top-pairing defenseman is paying off tenfold. With Staal out for the first 16 games of the season, and still no timetable on his return, the Rangers found someone to take his place in Girardi, and someone to fill the No. 2 defensive spot with McDonagh.
But even though the loss of Staal hurts, Schoenfeld says the team refuses to use it as an excuse.
"As much as we miss Marc and would love to see him in the lineup, we can't spend time talking about players who aren't available to us," he said. "We would certianly love to get him back. And as soon as he can come back he will come back and play at the top of his game. But in the meantime we'll talk about the guys who are managing things up top."
Those other players who are seeing significant minutes due to the Staal injury are Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka. Both players Schoenfeld praises for their ability to step up and fill a defensive role when the Rangers needed them to.
"Even though they aren't playing top-four minutes for us they are part of the six and they've done a real good job on the blue line for us," he said. "So it's been a concerted team effort, it really has."
But in the end, it's a lot easier when you have a player capable of playing first-pairing minutes.
"But McDonagh has emerged and he's very comfortable, I think he relishes the role," Schoenfeld said. "I think he loves being a matchup guy and he's also scored a couple of big goals for us."
The Rangers are hoping there's more of both in the future.