A Ryan McDonagh injury might impact the New York Rangers in more ways than just their chance to finally hoist Lord Stanley's Cup this year.
It should be noted that losing their top defenseman three games before the end of the regular season is something out of a Stephen King horror script. The loss of McDonagh -- blocking a shot no less! -- is something that's going to severely damage a defense that is underwhelming even when fully healthy.
The injury thrusts Keith Yande into the top defensive position (a role he can absolutely handle and thrive in), but it also removes Yandle as a safety net for the next two pairings. Kevin Klein and Yandle would probably make a very good top pairing, but they most likely need to be separated to keep Dan Boyle, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi in life preservers. Staal has actually strung together a few good games in a row and Boyle hasn't been as much of a problem in his own end as people think. Some nights Girardi looks OK (mostly when he's sheltered on the third pairing), but when he needs to take more responsibilities it becomes a problem.
And thanks to Alain Vigneault's refusal to give Dylan McIlrath a shot, he's probably not totally prepared for the role he's going to have to fill in the playoffs if he's called upon. With that said, it looks like AHL standout and top prospect Brady Skjei will get the nod from Vigneault in the second season, since Vigneault likes to keep his handiness in line.
This isn't about those repercussions, though. It's about another deeper fear, buried for now, but something that might rear its ugly head come the summer.
If the Rangers lose in the playoffs -- or worse, if they're embarrassed -- the McDonagh injury might be used as a crutch/excuse to explain the failure rather than force the brass to see the reality of this group not being good enough.
Think about 2015 for a moment. The Rangers had three key defensemen play through pretty major injuries. McDonagh played on a broken foot, Yandle played with a separated shoulder, Mats Zuccarello went down with a horrifyingly scary head injury and Marc Staal was reported to have had a broken or fractured ankle. Those were all used as excuses for why the Rangers could have and should have made it past Tampa and back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row.
Now, I'm not sitting here and insinuating that 2015's injuries didn't have an impact on the team. Losing Zuccarello -- especially that early in the playoffs -- was a major blow, especially since the offense was inconsistent enough with him in the lineup. Losing him took away a large part of the offensive creativity the Rangers desperately needed. And to have three of your defensemen go down with substantial injuries will hurt any team's chances and was absolutely a contributing factor to the Rangers first ever Game 7 loss on Madison Square Garden ice.
2015 offered something else to go with that ideology, though: A very good regular season, backed by analytics and consistent sustainable play. 2016 has been anything but, a season marred by a poor analytic showing with unsustainable save and shooting percentages helping lift the Rangers during their roughest stretches.
It's hard not to see the bigger differences. Yes, this year's New York Rangers surpassed 100 points, and once again have 45+ wins (they won 53 games in '15 and 45 in '14 when they went to the Final). These facts have been used by many in the media as reasons to refuse to dig below the surface on the Rangers struggles because they're winning games. I'm more concerned about the how, though.
Lundqvist was relied on to give a superhuman effort in the beginning of the year when the Rangers couldn't get out of the way of wins despite their poor play. The Rangers leveraged these Lundqvist efforts with an equally unsustainable high shooting percentage. From my Lundqvist story (written in November!!!!):
The stat [Rangers record leading after two periods], in a lot of ways, is being used to discredit the Rangers advanced metrics -- and this is true of everyone who think metrics have no place in the game. It's being used to say a bad corsi doesn't matter -- since the Rangers have a terrible corsi in the third period and still win -- and that it proves Dan Girardi (or anyone else playing big crunch time minutes late) only has a bad corsi because of this strategy or that their bad possession numbers don't impact the team negatively.
You want to know why the Rangers are 158-1-9 when they enter the third period with a lead? Elite goaltending. That's really it. The Rangers shell in the third period actually hurts them, and if it weren't for elite goaltending that stat wouldn't look anything like it does right now. And, to that point, if even 15-20% of these games went in another direction I don't think the Rangers' defense (or the team as a whole) would be looked at so favorably.
Want to know what happened shortly after I wrote that (again, in November!!!!)? The Rangers dominance over "the stat" withered away into nothing. The Rangers started losing games where they entered the third period with a lead the same way you popped bubble wrap as a child (or maybe as an adult, too). The Rangers inability to hold onto leads became a major Achilles heel for the group. I mean, look at the below (thanks to loyal Bluehsirt Banter reader Peter Buddell who put this chart together illustrating this point). This doesn't even include the late goal surrendered to the Red Wings in the regular season's final game.
Most of those blown leads happened with a fully staffed defense. Read that again: The team that was once one of the best at lowering the landing gear and putting their opponents to sleep consistently are now getting dominated in the final frame. These blown leads accounted for 15 lost points, which would be the difference between home ice advantage in the first round and playing Pittsburgh on the road.
The argument of "but these guys were at the core of last year's team," is invalid. Girardi and Staal have taken massive steps back, even after last year's possession disintegration. Vigneault's refusal to admit that has kept both Girardi and Staal in main roles on this defense for most of the year. It also, in turn, buried Yandle on the depth chart until injuries forced the coach's hand.
It's not just the defense, though. The offense hasn't done nearly enough to possess the puck, either; although I'm tempted to give them a hall pass since a big part of Vigneault's offense system is the defense moving the puck up to the offense. Something that's not really happening all that often.
Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes went through early to mid season offense slumps (despite their advanced metrics being really good) and Oscar Lindberg's hot start was tempered by a fluctuating role; he currently resides in the press box far more often than not. Outstanding seasons from Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan have helped put band-aids over the Rick Nash injuries and issues with the system.
Which is where the Rangers glimmer of hope lies: With the offense doing the heavy lifting and Lundqvist trying to smooth over the defense's inevitable mistakes.
That doesn't change with McDonagh out. It wouldn't have changed with McDonagh in.
Which is why it would be so unwise for the Rangers to look at this year and assume they would have been good enough if he was healthy. This team needs a major overhaul next year if they want to keep the Stanley Cup window open. That means removing the dead weight contracts (Girardi, Staal and Tanner Glass highlight these), keeping the important players (Yandle, Kreider, J.T. Miller, Hayes and even Stalberg fit in here) and allowing the youth to infuse the lineup (Brady Skjei, McIlrath and Pavel Buchnevich are the stars of this section).
Even if the Rangers win the Stanley Cup -- I highlighted just how they can do that here -- it would be because the Rangers were able to keep their high shooting and save percentages up over the short sample that is the playoffs. The Rangers offense and Lundqvist are good enough to do this. That doesn't mean it's sustainable or should be banked on for another year if things don't go as hoped.
Realizing that isn't possible without the Rangers brass removing their rose colored glasses and actually acknowledging what's wrong with this group. The Rangers don't need to blow things up, but they do need to re-tool what they have. That includes making tough decisions with veteran players who have poured their hearts out for this hockey team. It's part of the job, and it's a process that's long overdue in New York.
The McDonagh injury doesn't change that.