Ryan McDonagh has quietly had a very strong start to the 2016-17 season.
McDonagh has three assists through the first four games despite having the worst luck among Rangers defenders with a PDO of 87.98.
McDonagh is second to only Adam Clendening in even strength CF% on the team among defenders. And his SCF% is the best of the Rangers’ blueliners at even strength. When McDonagh is on the ice things more often than not go right for the New York Rangers.
And he has been on the ice a lot.
Through the first four games of the season McDonagh is averaging 25:56 TOI/G and 32.8 shifts per game (he currently ranks fourth in the league in shifts per game). He’s on the Rangers’ top defensive pairing. He’s on the top power play unit. And, naturally, he’s eating up significant time on the penalty kill.
For contrast, last season McDonagh averaged 22:21 TOI/G and had an average of 29 shifts per game.
Clearly, Alain Vigneault is asking a lot of his captain.
With Dan Girardi projected to return to the lineup for one of this weekend’s games the Rangers’ defense remains in a constant state of flux. Klein’s injury and return, McIlrath’s nine minute debacle against the Sharks and the coaching staff’s comfort with veteran Nick Holden leave things murky. Add in the fact that the team is aggressively scouting the Anaheim Ducks and it’s hard to say what the blue line will look like in a month’s time. Or even a week’s time.
During the preseason I risked the wrath of Rangers fans everywhere when I questioned what would happen if McDonagh were to get injured on the Bantering the Blueshirts podcast. Despite Clendening’s emergence as a clear NHL-level defender, things could get hairy very quickly for a Rangers’ blue line that has thus far been exceeding some pessimistic expectations.
McDonagh is the one holding it all together.
But that role is nothing new to the captain. Being paired with Girardi for several seasons helped give us perspective on just how valuable he was and is to the team. He might not have elite skills with the puck, but his game is rock solid.
McDonagh deserves power play time because he has proven he can be effective when the Rangers are on the man advantage. But it appears that Clendening would likely be the better fit on the top unit. Not only because he has shown some signs of being a better passer with extra space, but also because McDonagh is more valuable to the Rangers when the team is shorthanded or playing five-on-five hockey.
Giving McDonagh one less hat to wear would be a good thing. It’s not that he isn’t capable of running the power play, it’s that the Rangers need him to do more or less everything else.
As things currently stand there are only nine players in the league seeing more ice time per game than the Rangers’ captain. Four games is a pretty small sample size, but we have also seen a much larger sample size of questionable decisions with personnel decisions and deployment from Vigneault in his time with the team.
Girardi has a no-movement-clause. Holden is under contract through next season at a cap hit of $1.65 million. As a result, it seems unlikely we’ll see them come out of the lineup before Clendening does.
So, just how much will the Rangers lean on McDonagh this year? Does all of this mean that they should be knocking on doors and looking for a trade at the expense of some of their (young) forward depth? Will Clendening follow in the footsteps of McIlrath? Time will tell.