When the New York Rangers obtained defenseman Ryan McDonagh in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens in 2009, they were already familiar with the type of physical specimen they were acquiring.
“In my time at the combine, he’s been the single most impressive guy ever,” said Rangers director, player personnel Gordie Clark.
Picked 12th overall by the Habs in 2007, McDonagh went to the University of Wisconsin to chase a national title and work on his game. Last season’s Badgers were made up with an impressive cast of NHL prospects that included McDonagh, Brendan Smith, Blake Geoffrion and Derek Stepan, but the team lost in the NCAA final 5-0 to Boston College. While they didn’t win the banner, McDonagh felt he had achieved all he could at that level and it was time to move on.
“I just felt I learned a ton in my three years there and developed physically,” McDonagh said. “I felt confident and ready, and excited for a new challenge.”
Badgers coach Mike Eaves said if McDonagh had decided to stick around campus for one more season he would have been the team’s captain, a true testament to the 21-year-old’s leadership qualities. In fact, McDonagh lists Chris Chelios as a role model because the future Hall of Famer possessed the same characteristic.
Now that he’s a professional, though, it’s a whole new world for McDonagh. The defenseman was cut by the Rangers in training camp and started the season with their American League affiliate in Hartford. The Rangers wanted McDonagh to get used to the tougher, longer schedule of the professional ranks and while he was at first disappointed in the news, McDonagh quickly came to understand it.
“It’s tough news for any young player – the aspiration is obviously to be playing in the NHL,” he said. “After a rough couple of days you sit back and realize you’re only 21 years old and there’s a lot to be learned at the pro level.”
Not that all aspects of professional life come as a shock to the 6-foot-1, 222-pound blueliner.
McDonagh’s uncle, Steve Walsh, was the first overall pick in the NFL’s 1989 supplemental draft and was a quarterback in the league from 1989-99. It’s been helpful for McDonagh to have a former professional athlete in the family and he credits his uncle with teaching him about some of the finer points in taking the next step up the ladder.
“He’s been talking to me a lot these past couple of years on what it’s like to be a pro,” McDonagh said. “How you have to respect your opponents and be respectful to the people around you who do the little things you don’t really notice all that much, but help make your day and your job in hockey that much easier and that much more enjoyable.”
McDonagh’s two-way game has been touted for years, so if you just look at his stats with Hartford, his one point through 16 games might be a little disconcerting. However, Clark points out that’s nothing to be concerned about and compares McDonagh’s style to another young player currently patrolling the Rangers blueline.
“He’s just a smaller version of Marc Staal,” Clark said. “We did not have him as a point-producing guy. In the NHL, this guy is going to be a shutdown defenseman with his skating ability.”
McDonagh won Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award – given to the state’s top senior high school player – in 2007 before graduating to Wisconsin. While the 2000 winner, Paul Martin, has become a bonafide NHLer, an inordinate amount of the award’s winners have failed to live up to their potential – namely Brian Lee, David Fischer, Jeff Taffe and Erik Rasmussen.
But don’t expect this Minnesota native’s NHL career to be put on hold for much longer, as the Rangers are expecting him to be with the big club at some point this season.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Clark said. “We lose Gabor, Prospal and Drury – well now we had to come up with a new way to win games and stay in the hunt until we get our talent back and every game is like a one-goal game. That wouldn’t have been a place for a young defenseman coming right out of college. He’s the go-to defenseman in Hartford.”
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