Daigneault is prepping young Rangers 'D'

J.J. Daigneault

J.J. Daigneault (Credit: Chris Rutsch)

When Ryan McDonagh first met J.J. Daigneault during practice for the Connecticut Whale last October, the rookie defenseman was struck by the assistant coach's words.

"He just kind of got in everybody's faces and said his job was to get us to the NHL," McDonagh said. "He went right down the line. 'I need to get you up there, I need to get you up there.' He even told Reds [Wade Redden], 'I need to get you back up there.' He takes your development personally. He wants to see you succeed."

If that's the case, Daigneault has had an awful lot to bask in this season. The longtime NHL defenseman, who played 899 games with 10 different franchises, has helped produce a wave of young defensemen ready to play for the Rangers.

Along with head coach Ken Gernander and assistant Pat Boller, the Rangers' affiliate, once known as the Hartford Wolfpack, is churning out well-prepared players to compete at the NHL level.

Nowhere more so than on defense. At one point recently, the Rangers had a full playing complement of six defensemen under 26; all but one, Marc Staal, had worked with Daigneault during his four seasons coaching the defense in Hartford.

It's not an easy task, not with many 18- and 19-year-olds drafted high and expected to produce immediately coupled with the naturally longer development time for a defenseman in today's NHL.

"I tell them that they're the quarterbacks - whether it's a five-yard pass, a 25-yard pass or whether they sometimes have to throw it away, passing the puck is the primary thing for these guys," Daigneault said. "When they come here, whether from juniors or from college, they're all running backs - they try to carry the puck everywhere."

In addition to puck-moving skills, Daigneault has some experience with the mental side of the game, especially as it pertains to being in the minors, waiting for a chance to get the call-up or to go back and stay.

He was the 10th pick of the 1984 draft by the Canucks and played two full seasons as a teenager on two terrible Vancouver teams before being dealt to the Flyers, then to his hometown Canadiens; at age 22 and after 236 NHL games, he was sent to the minors to really learn his position.

"It was a humbling thing, but I kind of knew it was going to help me down the road," Daigneault said. "And I played 12 more years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup after that."

It's why the Rangers knew Michael Del Zotto would benefit from his time in the AHL and not view the demotion as a punishment. McDonagh and Michael Sauer have shown the benefits of having worked with Daigneault - Sauer was with Hartford from 2008-2010 before earning his spot with the Rangers this season; McDonagh was only there for 38 games this season before coming up. And Daigneault is just as excited about the prospects he's still working with.

"We've had injuries here, too. Before they got hurt, we had Tomas Kundratek and Jyri Niemi, a couple of 21-year-olds, as our best pair," Daigneault said. "It's really about how much the kids want to learn, how eager they are to take the teaching. McDonagh and Mikey Sauer were the two best at that I've had since I've been here, and it's great to see what they're doing now with the Rangers.

"It's not about credit, about saying, 'I sent this guy to the league, I sent that guy.' All that is up to the players. When they succeed, they deserve the credit. I just like teaching the kids about the game and what it takes to get there. They do the work."

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