Ryan McDonagh, despite not previously wearing a letter with the Rangers coming into this season, was the obvious choice to become the club’s next captain after the departure of Ryan Callahan. He had grown into a star defenseman and led by example with his play on the ice. Sure enough, McDonagh, #27, was named the 27th captain in New York franchise history before the start of the season.
The Rangers’ young star, however, has had an uneven year after establishing himself as a consistently dominant force pretty much from the moment he broke into the NHL in 2011. Could it be the pressure of the captaincy? Could it be that he has not fully recovered from the separated shoulder he suffered early in the season? Either way, the Rangers, despite their great success this season, will need the 25-year-old to consistently be playing his best in the postseason if the team is to make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Early Season Struggles
At the start of this season, the Rangers’ new captain did not exactly pick up where he left off last season, when he was the team MVP. The normally sure-handed defender was slower and less prudent in his decision-making, and overall just out of sync. It was a trend that had become disturbingly evident in the first month of the season, when the Rangers as a team also struggled to find their footing. McDonagh himself acknowledged his lackluster play at that time.
“My timing’s a little bit off right now, maybe just a split-second in deciding when to get rid of it or where to go with it,” McDonagh said back in late October. “That’s on me. I’ve got to get my mind caught up with my legs and my hands here.” (New York Daily News)
Naturally, McDonagh denied the notion that his struggles were related to any additional pressure with being named captain, but it’s certainly a valid theory. The fact that his struggles early in the season were mainly mental mistakes — as he himself acknowledged — lends credence to that idea. Nevertheless, the feeling still existed that McDonagh was too strong of a player for this type of play to go on, and that he would ultimately settle into his role as captain and rediscover his game.
November, however, would spell even more trouble for McDonagh — this time, physically. A heavy hit by then-Winnipeg Jet Evander Kane resulted in a separated left shoulder for the Rangers’ captain that would sideline him for 11 games, derailing his attempts to improve his game.
Highs and Lows
Upon returning from his injury, McDonagh showed some promising signs by recording a point in five of his first six games back. But some inconsistencies and mistakes in his defensive game were still noticeable on a far too frequent basis for the normally reliable blue-liner.
Over time, as the Rangers have been winning games at a torrid pace (Sunday’s 1-0 overtime win in Chicago — during which McDonagh picked up the secondary assist on Derick Brassard’s game-winning goal — moved the Rangers’ record in their past 39 games to a ridiculous 29-7-3), McDonagh’s level of play has improved a bit. He has had several games — including a New Year’s Eve win in Florida and the crazy 6-5 victory against the Islanders on February 16 — where he has looked like his downright dominant self. The goal he scored in the New Year’s Eve game was a thing of beauty, as he knocked down a clearing attempt with his leg before ripping a slap shot top shelf for a power play tally.
Still though, while the defensive errors have decreased in frequency, they are still happening a bit too often. He had a rough game in Detroit last week that included a brutal turnover through the middle of the ice in the defensive zone. The uncharacteristic gaffe led to a Red Wings goal.
McDonagh also seems to be less of a consistent physical presence, which raises the question of how healthy he really is. The mental mistakes are one thing, but the fact that he hurt the same shoulder that he separated toward the end of the regular season last year on a hit by Vancouver’s Alex Burrows might be making him play more tentatively in terms of taking the body and engaging in hard board battles.
Of course, that is all speculation, but the fact is that the Rangers have not seen the same Ryan McDonagh this season that they have seen in years past. With 24 points (7 goals, 17 assists) in 53 games played, McDonagh has failed to build on last year’s breakout offensive season where he registered 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists). The more troubling downfall, though, has been in his defensive game. He is making mistakes that no one is used to seeing him make –namely turning the puck over, losing his coverage, and being indecisive.
Whether it’s his new role as captain, his recovery from injury, or something else entirely, McDonagh has not quite met the bar he has set for himself with his high level of play in prior seasons. By the time the playoffs roll around, the Rangers will need their captain to find that consistency if they are to challenge for the Stanley Cup.