By Jonathan Schwartz
It’s time. The New York Hockey Rangers have spent the last several years acquiring and developing young talent along their blueline. They now have a chance to use these kids’ skills in ways they haven’t since Brian Leetch cruised up and down the ice. You remember. Way back in the day when the two-line pass wasn’t legal, players could still skate without helmets, and Glen Sather hadn’t yet signed can’t miss free agents such as Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik and Wade “Turnover” Redden.
A combination of home-grown youth, sprinkled in with trades and other acquisitions, have allowed the Rangers to stock-pile young talent such as Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, John Moore, and Michael Del Zotto. I'd include Dan Girardi in the conversation, but we all realize he has the speed of a tortoise, being dragged uphill on a glacier by Taylor Pyatt. Girardi’s lack of quickness, however, amazingly hasn't hampered his ability to be an incredibly effective defensive defenseman. Say that three times fast.
Although not quite as historic as Babe Ruth being traded to the Yankees for a bag of balls and some Cracker Jacks, when the Rangers rid themselves of “big time free agent” Scott Gomez in a multi-player deal, Sather had no idea the caliber of player he was getting in Ryan McDonagh. In 183 games with the Rangers, McDonagh has 67 points and is currently a +56. The vast majority of this has been under the ultra conservative system of coach John Tortorella, who installed an electric fence on the opponent's blueline to deter any of his defensemen from crossing over it. Under Torts, McDonagh was not able to freely display his full skill-set, although occasionally breaking the rules and skating the length of the ice, showing his teammates and fans flashes of brilliance that have not been seen in a blue jersey since Mr. Sather allowed the best defenseman in Rangers history to leave MSG to wear a uniform with a giant blue leaf on it.
Under coach Alain Vigneault’s more up-tempo, aggressive style of play, McDonagh will have much more freedom and confidence to carry the puck deep in the offensive zone, knowing that there could be a winger caught in transition covering him. Despite a tough start to the season, McDonagh has come on strong as of late with four points (2g, 2a) including a power play goal (yes you read that right) in his last five games. Here's McDonagh's first period snipe from last night's 5-1 win vs. the Penguins…
McDonagh isn't 6’9 with a 106 MPH slap shot, like Zdeno Chara, but he doesn’t have to be tall and goofy to be an asset to the Rangers power play. Since McDonagh began getting some quality time quarterbacking the Rangers power play, we've started to see him grow and develop into the type of player that he has the potential to become. With the Rangers’ forwards struggling to put the puck in the net, and Rick Nash sidelined for an undetermined amount of time, it would be to AV’s advantage to get some offensive production out of his capable d-men by keeping McDonagh on the extra man unit. Aside from a shot that is improving as he gains experience, McDonagh is excellent when it comes to his ability to move with the puck on his stick, distribute the puck quickly to teammates, and create his own shot when there doesn’t seem to be a lane available. With the work of Callahan and emergence of Chris Krieder in front of the net, it may just take a simple wrist shot in an open lane to produce the rebounds the Rangers need to bang a few more in. As if those weren’t good enough reasons to continue to give the “Mac Truck” more opportunities, let me remind everyone that although Brad Richards has come back strong this season, his ability to keep the puck in the zone during the power play is not exactly a strong point. Moreover, when forced to go backwards and defend a rush, the defensive deficiencies seen at MSG from the alternate captain rival those of one Amare Stoudemire.
McDonagh is not the only Rangers defenseman with explosive offensive potential. His apparent identical twin, John Moore, is a terrific skater, who has also shown flashes of his own over the course of his short stint with the Blueshirts. Although he may not be the lock-down defenseman that McDonagh is just yet, he certainly has the ability to contribute to the offensive production of this Rangers squad. The 6’3” former Blue Jacket is only 22 years old, and tallied 6 points for the Rangers last season in 13 games, and was a +9 by the end of the season.
Michael Del Zotto, when he’s not turning the puck over in his own zone, also has offensive potential, but must prove he can quarterback the Rangers power play or he might end up with a pink slip in his locker very soon. Marc Staal continues to do excellent work on the Rangers blue line, and can certainly be thrown in the mix on the second PP unit. With his “defense first” mindset, it would be rare that Staal would give up an odd-man rush the other way as a penalty expires.
If the Rangers are going to make another Spring push towards the playoffs, their young defensemen are going to have to contribute more than they have the past few years. Even a world-class goaltender like Lundqvist needs a little extra breathing room from time to time. Coach Vigneault must show confidence in his soon-to-be USA Olympian by allowing him to cross the opponent's blueline in order to see the true potential of his 2013-2014 New York Rangers.
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