LOS ANGELES – There’s this defenseman in the Stanley Cup Final. He’s 24 years old and a former first-round draft pick. He plays huge chunks of minutes for his team, and it’s not a stretch to call him the best player on the ice at any position in some of the playoff games in which he’s appeared.
His name is Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers, although you might not have heard it mentioned as often as the other guy who fits the description above, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
Doughty is getting the kind of attention befitting of an elite player who shines on the biggest stage. (And, let’s face it, one that doesn’t necessarily get the shine from national media during the regular season due to geography.) There are valentines being written about him. Every player gets asked about him. And all the coverage gets validated when he scores immaculate goals like the one he tallied in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Doughty has 17 points in 22 playoff games to lead all defensemen. Just down the list, tied for second, is McDonagh, with 14 in 21. Eleven of them have come in the Rangers’ last seven games, including that 4-point night in Game 1 against Montreal.
How do his numbers compare to Doughty? Sean Gentille of The Sporting News looked as the analytics:
In the regular season, New York took 51.1 percent of all 5-on-5 shot attempts (Corsi For percentage) with McDonagh on the ice, which is good — not great. Part of that is a function of McDonagh playing with Girardi . Part of it is due to his zone starts. Part of it is due to the competition he faces. Regardless, Doughty deserves credit — a 58.5 percent Corsi For, which he put up during the regular season, is amazing.
And that principle has extended into the postseason; Doughty is an offensive dynamo. The Scott Niedermayer comparisons are valid. McDonagh, meanwhile, profiles more as a true two-way defenseman with a developing power-play game.
(Well, bone to pick there: Niedermayer was a true two-way defenseman. Maybe second only to Lidstrom for his generation.)
In some ways, there’s no comparison between the two, as Doughty has a Stanley Cup ring and two gold medals and a Norris finalist spot when he was 20. He’s accomplished more than McDonagh. He’s also a heart-on-the-sleeve quote machine who’s borderline emo when talking about his striving for maturity and self-analyzing his game.
McDonagh, in comparison, is stoic, a little boilerplate.
So, then, less deified by media coverage in this final.
But McDonagh arrived this season on an elite level: 43 points in 77 games, skating a career high 24:49 per night and playing in every situation. Again, he’s not Doughty; but if Darryl Sutter’s willing to make the connection, then that’s a sign that he’s in the conversation.
“He is the Rangers' Doughty,” said Sutter, the Kings coach. “Obviously he's gotten a lot better as the playoffs have went along. You can see the difference in his confidence, his game, his puck play, all those things. The experience of it for him. It's a big challenge for us.”
And it was in Game 1, as McDonagh played the majority of his shifts, with partner Dan Girardi, against Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, the Kings’ leading point and goal scorers respectively. Neither had a point in Game 1.
Meanwhile, McDonagh skated a playoffs-high 31:12 for the Rangers.
“His stamina is phenomenal,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “It just seems that throughout this playoffs, he's been getting better. Anybody that followed us knows that during the Philly and Pittsburgh series he was trying to get his legs and trying to get them going. He's got them going now.
“He just seems to be able to play tons and play well defensively and offensively. He can be physical when the opportunity is there. When he sees and sniffs that there's a possibility offensively, he goes. He's our best player as far as our defensive group right now, and we need him to continue to play how he is.”
It’s that physicality that’s an underrated aspect of McDonagh’s game, and something he needs to bring to the table in this matchup against the Los Angeles Kings and their wrecking ball of a forecheck.
“Yeah, we knew they were going to push, test us physically. I thought we matched it pretty well,” said McDonagh on Thursday. “I thought especially the early part of the game there, we were able to break their forecheck, get out of our zone. They got a few more opportunities in the third because of their forecheck."
That third period saw the Kings outshoot the Rangers, 20-3.
“For the majority of the game, I felt we were matching them, too, physically. We had some big hits ourselves. We understand they're going to be physical on us, and we're not going to shy away from it for sure,” said McDonagh.
“We've got to look for opportunities to be physical on them for our forecheck, our speed. Doesn't necessarily have to be a big hit, but utilizing our legs, getting on the right side of guys, creating turnovers that way is part of being physical, too. We feel we can play that game, as well.”
The all-around effectiveness of McDonagh’s game is the reason why many wanted the Montreal Canadiens’ management fitted for straightjackets when they moved him for Scott Gomez’s contract.
(Although at a Tuesday press conference it was revealed, quite hilariously, that the biggest steal in Glen Sather’s tenure as Rangers general manager was a player he had never seen play.)
He’s signed through 2019 with the Rangers at a $4,700,000 cap hit.
By then, it might be one of the biggest bargains in the NHL.
The 2014 Stanley Cup Final is already a Drew Doughty love-fest. McDonagh may never have that spotlight, but the Rangers already have a defenseman as important to their future and their present as Doughty is to the Kings’.