Last night, I found myself in a strange situation…
I agreed with Pierre McGuire. The often-harassed analyst for NBC’s NHL coverage told viewers that Ryan McDonagh should receive serious consideration for the Norris Trophy Award, handed out annually to the NHL’s best defenseman. He had expressed the same view earlier that day while on the phone with WFAN’s Mike Francesa. I didn’t expect to gain much from that segment of “Mike’s On”, which is now simulcast on Fox Sports 1. Francesa is a man who treats hockey like the red-headed step-child of professional sports, and Pierre is, well, Pierre. But then I thought of how McDonagh has played this season, particularly since the NHL resumed from its Olympic hiatus.
With the New York Rangers fighting for their playoff lives, McDonagh has averaged just under 25 minutes on ice per game, which places him 13th among defensemen. He is a lock-down defender, nearly always used to take away the opponent’s top line. Paired with his companion, Dan Girardi, and aided by incredible goaltending by Henrik Lundqvist, McDonagh’s defense is a key part why the Rangers are allowing the fifth fewest goals per game.
And that’s why he’s undervalued…
Because of Lundqvist’s Vezina finalist performance in net on a yearly basis, the 24 year-old defenseman is sometimes overlooked. Yet night after night, he’s delivering top-notch performances against the best forwards in hockey. Take his play against Claude Giroux last night as an example. In one of the most important games of the season for either club, Giroux was a non-factor as he put no shots on goal, and did not record his lone point, an assist on a late goal to cut the Rangers’ lead to 3-1, until the game was well decided. Lundqvist gets credit because he is the face of the franchise, and – for my money – the best goaltender in the game.
But let’s not forget that Lundqvist didn’t find his full form until December. The Rangers called rookie Cam Talbot to start games on a regular basis throughout November and December, and put up numbers that were just as good as Lundqvist’s. That speaks to the Rangers development of goalies, their defensive strategy, and to the play of Ryan McDonagh.
Ask yourself how many times you can say the Rangers have lost because of their defense…
The answer is probably not that many, especially since the Rangers started to play post-season caliber hockey in January. They had a bad week following the return from the Olympics, but other than that, when the Rangers lose, it’s often because they can’t score. Marty St. Louis has done practically nothing since the Rangers acquired him, Carl Hagelin is a streaky offensive contributer (he had a 10 game stretch in February where he put up just 2 points), and Rick Nash and Brad Richards have their share of ups and downs. The fact that the Rangers most potent line throughout the season has been the Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Puliot, and Derick Brassard line is, to put it mildly, shocking. But for all their offensive woes, the Rangers are in a very good position to win a playoff spot and may even have home-ice advantage in the first round if they can finish strongly.
The stats sometimes do lie
Last week, Rob Vollman of “Bleacher Report” put McDonagh in 10th place for the Norris Trophy, but gave him “no shot” of becoming a finalist. The Norris Trophy, although awarded to the “top defenseman”, has become an award that’s given to the “top scoring” defenseman (or one of the top). Simply put, the Rangers’ defensman does not have the point production that guys like Duncan Keith or Erik Karlsson have. But McDonagh should not be penalized just because the Rangers have been incapable of finishing their scoring chances.
Regardless, McDonagh must have been offended of being written off, because he’s gone on an offensive tear since then. The defenseman wristed in a stinging goal past Steve Mason late in the second period last night to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. In the game before that, “Mac Truck” fired in a rebound shot that ended the Rangers’ 4-3 overtime win against Phoenix. He’s scored a point in every game of the Rangers current five game winning streak. And I can’t stress this enough, these have been must-win games for the Rangers. He’s become the leading candidate to replace Ryan Callahan as the captain of the Rangers. Alain Vigneault believes he should be getting serious consideration, and he’s absolutely correct.
Duncan Keith plays for one of the best teams in the league. No disrespect to him, but if he has a bad night, he has Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane (when he’s healthy), Patrick Sharp, and countless other offensive weapons to rely on. Chicago, by a large margin, scores the most goals per game in the league. And, when the Rangers went against the Blackhawks this season, the Rangers bested them twice.
Erik Karlsson is playing on a team that will not make the playoffs. Ryan Suter has numbers that are similar to McDonagh. Zdeno Chara plays on, perhaps, the best team in the NHL. Ryan McDonagh is currently one of the three most important players on the Rangers, who are a flawed team that somehow finds a way to make sure that the opponent scores less goals than they do. If McDonagh has a bad night, there’s no Toews, no Bergeron, no Parise to pick him up. Each of those teams, when their goaltender is healthy (the exception being Minnesota), can be just as much of a brick wall as Lundqvist can.
Ryan McDonagh’s offensive stats might keep him from receiving any postseason hardware, but if you watch McDonagh on a nightly basis, it’s hard to argue why he shouldn’t be a finalist for the Norris Trophy.