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Just How Good is Ryan McDonagh?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last weekend E.J. Hradek and Tony Luftman counted down the NHL’s “Top 20 Defensemen Right Now” on the NHL Network. Their analysis factored in performance over the last few seasons, but put an emphasis on the 2015-16 season. Players’ potential, projected performances in 2016-17, and anticipated returns from injury also factored into their ranking system.

In other words, it was wildly subjective and imperfect. New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh was ranked 17th on that list.

The list above includes plenty of controversial rankings and provides fertile ground for some spirited debate. It also presents the opportunity to seriously discuss just how valuable McDonagh is to the Rangers and the best way to evaluate defensemen.

McDonagh’s cap hit of $4.7 million AAV over the next three seasons is one of the best contracts in the league among defensemen. But when we are trying to understand the value of a player, their cap hit should not factor into the equation. How much money a player makes should not factor into the evaluation of how good they are. It can, however, tell us how hapless management can be and/or how diabolically talented certain agents can be.

So what do we know about McDonagh? The first adjective that most Rangers fans would use to describe his play is “balanced”. They would also bring up the fact that he has had to endure frequent deployment with the possession black hole that is Dan Girardi.

(Data from: Corsica.hockey)

Take a look at the Corsi numbers between the pairings of McDonagh-Girardi and McDonagh-Klein. Oh, Ryan... we’re so sorry. Bless your heart.

Despite having a less-than-ideal defensive partner McDonagh has still proven to be an exceptional talent. There’s no doubt that he is currently the best defender on the team and likely will be for the next three years (at least). Thanks again, Montreal.

So, how does McDonagh do when his team has the puck?

In the past three seasons McDonagh has scored 38 primary points at even strength. Last season he had 7 goals and 9 primary assists, leading all Rangers defensemen in counting stats at evens. For some context, Keith Yandle had 2 goals and 10 primary assists at evens with over 120 more minutes of ice time.

Of course, there is a lot more to McDonagh’s and Yandle’s relative value than just their even strength production numbers. But it does help to illustrate just how important McDonagh is to the Rangers when they have the puck. He might not have the power play quarterback skills of Yandle or Karlsson, but he clearly contributes offense.

(HERO chart created by @MimicoHero)

The 2015-16 season was an ugly one for the Rangers’ defense. Henrik Lundqvist faced an avalanche of shots and scoring chances. He was also regularly failed by the team’s penalty killing efforts. So, how did McDonagh compare to the rest of the New York’s blueliners?

McDonagh had the best SF% (shots for / [shots for +shots against]) at even strength on the Rangers blue line last season with 50% (Boyle and Klein were right there with him). Unsurprisingly Girardi had the worst on the team with 44.8%. The captain also had the best SA60 at even strength on the team by a very narrow margin. His ES SA60 RelTM last season was -2.05 which illustrates his superiority over his teammates.

So, should McDonagh’s performance relative to other Rangers defensemen exclude him from the criticism that we so readily direct at the defense as a whole?

What is it that makes a “good defenseman” good? Is it shot suppression? The ability to drive possession at even strength? Special teams performance? Their relative performance compared to the rest of their team (the thing that makes Chris Tanev look like a monster)? Blocked shots? Okay, we know it’s not that one.

Over at Stanley Cup of Chowder @attacktriangle offered the “real” list of the top 20 defensemen in the league right now. Blueliners were ranked by a series of metrics that take into account a great deal more than counting stats and perceived potential (which is what the NHL Network’s list seemed to do).

McDonagh’s name did not appear on that list.

McDonagh’s name does belong in the discussion of the best defensemen that are currently playing in the league. But how does he compare to the elite blueliners in the league? How many other defenders would you take before the Rangers captain if you were building a team from scratch?

Just some food for thought.