SPOTLIGHT: RYAN McDONAGH

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

A year ago, Ryan McDonagh was trying to find his way on the blue line of the then Hartford Wolf Pack, after leaving a highly successful University of Wisconsin program following his junior year.

While center Derek Stepan made the New York Rangers’ roster, after leaving the Badgers following a sophomore year that ended with a 5-0 loss to Boston College and top Blueshirts prospect Chris Kreider in the NCAA title game, McDonagh was among the final cuts on Broadway.

McDonagh struggled a bit early with the Wolf Pack before extensive work with assistant coach J.J. Daigneault helped him earn a call-up on Jan. 3, when he switched places with Michael Del Zotto, who had was experiencing a sophomore slump with the Rangers after being a member of the NHL All-Rookie team in 2009-10.

Now folks talk about how Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather fleeced then Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, when he got McDonagh as a virtual throw-in, as part of the June 30, 2009 trade that shed the final five years of center Scott Gomez’s annual salary cap hit of $7.357 million, so they had the space to sign free-agent right wing Marian Gaborik.

While Del Zotto showed some improvement before a broken finger in a game against Springfield on March 3 ended his season, McDonagh became a fixture on the Rangers’ blue line while paired with former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer. Then when All-Star defenseman Marc Staal was sidelined by post-concussion symptoms this season, McDonagh slid into his spot alongside former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi on the Rangers’ No. 1 pairing.

“Ryan has done about all that we could have expected,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said after a 3-0 victory over Winnipeg on Sunday night. “He’s playing minutes that he wasn’t expected to be playing (25:04, second on the Rangers to Girardi’s NHL-leading 27:58). We have Sauer playing more minutes, Del Zotto having more minutes, and Danny was going to play as much as he is. The experience Ryan is getting doing the things he’s doing, going against guys like (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Teemu) Selanne, (Bobby) Ryan, that’s great for him. For all the young guys, this is helping now and will help in the big picture, so it’s encouraging.

“And Danny Girardi, I think he’s so underrated in this league and in this area for what he does. It’s expected that no matter what happens, Danny is going to be the guy to make the play. So when you have those three (young) guys having to do as much as they are because of the injury we have on the back end, it puts them there to gain that experience right away. When we get healthy and Marc comes back, the big picture is very encouraging for those four defensemen.”

Hockey is quite encouraging now for the 6-foot-1, 216-pound McDonagh, after the so-so start to his pro career.

“It has been quite a journey and feels a lot longer than only a year and a month,” McDonagh said. “It’s been a pretty awesome ride so far and been really exciting with a lot happening fast. I’ve just been trying to take it day by day and get better every day.”

After being one of the key cogs at Wisconsin, McDonagh is delighted to have so much responsibility so soon at the highest level, especially when the Rangers were on a four-game winning streak entering a game at Ottawa on Wednesday night, after a sluggish start.

“I’m just glad to be here, playing a big role on this team helping them try to win,” said McDonagh, a bargain at $875,000 this season and next. “And winning like we are now makes it that much sweeter at the end of the day.”

McDonagh said he has been able to handle so much ice time because he learned in his rookie season what needs to be done in the offseason as far as training.

“Conditioning is probably what I focused on most in the summer, and it’s paying dividends,” he said.

McDonagh said being paired with Girardi, the Rangers’ MVP behind standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist, has been a godsend, including while often car-pooling to practice with his partner and other teammates.

“He has been a huge part of the team, by far the anchor on our back end,” McDonagh said. “It’s great to be playing with him, and I’m learning a lot. It’s great to have that experience and to start the season together has been awesome. We’re playing a lot of minutes and really jelling.”

McDonagh’s progress doesn’t surprise Stepan, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2008, whose locker stall at Madison Square Garden is next to his former Wisconsin teammate. Stepan was named the No. 1 star Sunday night, after scoring the winner and assisting on the first of Gaborik’s two goals on a brilliant pass off a 2-on-1.

“I always knew Ryan was going to be where he’s at right now,” Stepan said. “I knew he was going to be in the NHL and have a long NHL career. He’s just such a big, strong guy who has a good sense for the game, really loves it. I knew he was going to end up here, but when he spent time in Hartford, I think it was good for him to kind of develop his game, and when he made the jump up, he took advantage of every opportunity.”

Stepan said he didn’t notice “a clear-cut difference” when McDonagh joined the Rangers, though his buddy did seem to better understand the different style of the game at the NHL level.

“It can be tough sometimes for rookies, especially on the back end,” said Stepan, who had a hat trick in his NHL debut before experiencing his own growing pains and then finishing with 21 goals and 24 assists while playing in all 82 games last season. “It’s more important to get some time on defense, and that’s what he definitely did.”

McDonagh had one goal and seven assists and was plus-1 in 38 games with the Whale before being called up and getting one goal and eight assists and being plus-16, second on the team to Sauer’s plus-20, in 40 games with the Rangers. His first NHL goal, against future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, was the winner in a season-ending, 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils that clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After the Rangers were eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals, McDonagh and Stepan joined Kreider on Team USA in the World Championships.

With Staal out this season, McDonagh has stepped it up offensively and already has three goals, including an overtime winner, and three assists in 13 games and is plus-6, tied with Del Zotto for tops on the team.

That hardly seemed possible 13 months ago. Daigneault said McDonagh was physically mature when he arrived in Hartford, his strength enabling him to remain strong through three games in three nights or four in five. But the coach felt one of his newest pupils was “a little intimidated by the professional hockey surroundings.”

“He was coming to the rink playing with guys with kids and with guys like Wade Redden and Kris Newbury who were 33 and 28,” Daigneault said. “When you leave the junior and college ranks, it’s obviously a different game in that you’re playing against men. Being mature physically was a help for Ryan, but it was a matter of getting used to the pace of the AHL.”

Daigneault said he tried to put McDonagh in important situations, such as playing against the opposition’s best players and with the team holding a one-goal lead late in a game, but “it really didn’t work out.”

“I didn’t like what I saw,” Daigneault said, “so I stopped doing it until he got more comfortable, which was after about 20 games. Then it wasn’t a matter of putting him out there, crossing my fingers and saying, ‘Well, I hope he reacts well.’ ”

Daigneault often worked 15-20 minutes after practice with McDonagh on his passing, especially off the boards.

“I don’t think he had ever made an indirect pass; he had never used the boards,” Daigneault said. “I don’t know if it was the ice surface or what, but in the AHL, everybody protects the middle, everybody traps, everybody plays 1-3-1, and sometimes to reach a forward, the only availability is an indirect pass. So I told him, ‘You have to use geometry. I don’t have a college degree, but I know geometry, so use those angles, use those boards.’ ”

Daigneault also tried to rid McDonagh of leaving his feet when defending odd-man rushes.

“He had a tendency to go ‘swimming,’ and I really dislike guys being on their knees in front,” Daigneault said. “I teach my defensemen to stay on their feet as much as possible. If you look now, the Rangers play a little different in the defensive zone, but Ryan doesn’t go down as much as he used to. They block a lot of shots, but they do a lot of it standing up and are good with their sticks.”

Daigneault said his feelings about McDonagh really turned in Game 26, a 3-1 victory at Providence on Dec. 3. After the game, Daigneault broke down every McDonagh shift and met with him the next day.

“I said, ‘Ryan, I think you’re there,’ ” Daigneault recalled. “I told him to look at every shift and said, ‘Ryan, this is unbelievable. I think you figured out how to play your game within yourself, to make a play when there’s a play to be made and not to make a play when there’s none to be made.’ After everything that cramped his mind for the first 20 games, I think he did really well in that one. I told him, ‘I had goose bumps just watching that game because everything you did you did well.’ If you put everything that a coach wants into a capsule, that was the game that he did everything right.”

A few days later, Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld called. The Rangers had had some injuries, and Daigneault distinctly recalls the start of the conversation.

“He said, ‘J.J., when is McDonagh going to be ready?’ ” Daigneault said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘When is he going to be ready?’ I said, ‘Give me another two weeks.’ ”

Well, it was actually three weeks before McDonagh headed to Broadway for the first time.

“Ryan left, and he never came back,” Daigneault said. “I hope I never see him again.”

Redden reiterated Daigneault’s thoughts about McDonagh’s greatest assets being his strength and skating ability and that he has “a real good mind for the game and worked hard every day.”

“There was a stretch last season where we weren’t going well, and it just seemed that guys were in between all the time,” Redden said. “But now you can see he’s playing a lot with Girardi, and they play a good system together, which kind of helps you along. If you hit a bumpy road, you can rely on that structure.”

And to think the Rangers got McDonagh almost as an afterthought. Sather traded Gomez and former Wolf Pack forward Tom Pyatt and defenseman Mike Busto to the Canadiens for former Yale center Chris Higgins, defenseman Pavel Valentenko, former Springfield Pics defenseman Doug Janik and the rights to McDonagh, then a sophomore at Wisconsin, who had been the 12th overall pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft.

McDonagh’s rapid development prompted former Wolf Pack center Brandon Dubinsky to ask, “What were they thinking?” as he walked past McDonagh’s locker at the morning skate before the Rangers’ 5-3 victory over the Canadiens on Saturday night.

Yes, a very legitimate question. Not only do the Rangers have a top emerging young defensemen in McDonagh, but they also signed Gaborik to a five-year, $37.5 million contract the day after the deal and acquired feisty left wing Brandon Prust, who won the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award last season, from the Calgary Flames for Higgins on Feb. 2, 2010. Meanwhile, Gomez had a so-so first season in Montreal (12 goals, 47 assists), his worst season in 2010-11 (seven goals, 31 assists, minus-15) and has only one assist in six games this season and has been out since Oct. 20 with an upper-body injury.

McDonagh never signed with the Canadiens and said he and Les Habitants never talked contract during the season, and only did so three or four times afterwards. He had planned to have a face-to-face chat during summer camp about joining the organization, but it didn’t happen.

“I figured I’d find out what their thoughts were, but that’s when I was traded, so I never got there and I never asked the question,” McDonagh said. “It’s not like I played there and then was traded. The way I looked at it, the Rangers wanted me.”

Yes, they did. The Canadiens were not satisfied with McDonagh’s development as a two-way defenseman with offensive skills that might have been dormant. It proved to be bad judgment, as McDonagh’s offensive skills have certainly emerged this season.

“That’s a part of the game where I know I have more to add and that the coaches want all the defensemen to be aware of,” McDonagh said. “It’s something that I came into the season wanting to improve on.”

The lopsidedness of the trade caused Stepan to joke, “I called Montreal and said, ‘We’ll make a deal with you.’ ”

But Girardi wasn’t joking about the major development that McDonagh has made from being among the Rangers’ final cuts last October to today.

“He’s pretty much playing the same way as he did at the end of last season,” Girardi said. “He’s a very good skater who can beat people up the ice, and it maybe comes from more confidence. He makes good decisions with the puck now and is playing like he belongs here. We couldn’t send him back down last season because he was playing so well, and he still is. He was been great for us filling in for Marc.”

STAAL’S BROTHER TO PLAY RANGERS ON FRIDAY NIGHT

While Marc Staal is on injured reserve and out indefinitely, the Rangers will face the player who caused his problem, older brother Eric, on Friday night at MSG when the Carolina Hurricanes are in town.

“He’s a big part of their team, a big piece of their puzzle, and me being the one that put him in this position, I don’t know if there’s any anger or anxiety towards me. I’m not sure,” Eric told ESPN.com. “I’m going to play the game the same way I always play and that’s hard-nosed, honest, and we’ll see what happens Friday.”

The Hurricanes’ captain, who talks to his brother several times a week, has slumped lately but said it’s not because of a reaction to Marc still being sidelined from the hit in a game on Feb. 22. Eric caught Marc with his head down along the half-wall on the left side of the Hurricanes’ zone late in the first period. Marc’s stick was tied up by Joni Pitkanen, who got a hooking penalty on the play, and Eric knocked Marc off his skates with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.

“I wouldn’t say it has kept me awake at night, but it’s tough,” Staal told NHL.com. “If I could take it back I probably wouldn’t hit him knowing where we’ve gone and what has gone on since then. But it was one of those plays, bang-bang, happens so quickly, and I hit him hard.”

Eric said Marc is not close to returning but “his career in hockey isn’t over.”

“It’s tough for him, it’s tough for me and it’s tough for everyone in the family, but this is hopefully just a small thing, a little blip and he’ll be back playing like he was before he got hurt,” said Eric, who didn’t know whom he hit until afterward. “I mean, if it was anyone else I would have done the same thing. That’s the hard part about it. It’s total hindsight, and it doesn’t change anything. He knows that, I know that. That’s the way it is.” … Rangers left wing Mike Rupp had successful surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee Wednesday and is expected to be out four-to-six weeks. Rupp, a free-agent signing in the offseason, had one goal and 14 penalty minutes in seven games before missing the last six games.

… Bruins forward Daniel Paille, a childhood buddy of Girardi and Rangers right wing Andre Deveaux as they grew up in Welland, Ontario, had facial surgery Wednesday after taking a slap shot in the face during a 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Monday night. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Paille was diagnosed with a broken nose and facial lacerations and had surgery at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Paille was hit by a third-period shot from Islanders defenseman Steve Staios and remained down on the ice before leaving for the night under his own power. Much of the damage came from the puck hitting Paille’s visor, then cutting his face and nose. … The AHL will be announcing the 2012 inductees into the AHL Hall of Fame Thursday at 3 p.m. The Class of 2012 will be honored as part of the festivities at the AHL All-Star Classic in Atlantic City, N.J. The Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony will be Jan. 30 at the Circus Maximus Theatre Caesars Atlantic City. The All-Star Game is Jan. 31.

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