CHICAGO -- Browsing the hockey world's predictions for candidates to capture the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman this season and there are the usual suspects, all high-level players: Chicago's Duncan Keith, Montreal's P.K. Subban, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, Los Angeles' Drew Doughty.
Not a mention of Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh.
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McDonagh, 26, hasn't posted the huge offensive stats, which the voters favor, of former winners. In 77 games in 2013-14, the Minnesota native scored 14 goals and 43 points and finished eighth in the voting. Last season, playing only 71 games because of injuries, McDonagh was 8-25-33 and finished 11th.
But the list of Norris candidates doesn't faze the tough, team-first McDonagh, who averaged a team-high 23:07 on ice and was second on the club in blocked shots. The standings count. The games count.
In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, McDonagh suffered a broken right foot, but played the last three games anyway. He missed the first 13 minutes of the Game 7 loss at Madison Square Garden because a freezing agent applied to the foot didn't take effect soon enough. Then he was in a walking boot for six weeks.
Now healed, McDonagh, a former U.S. Olympian, enters his second season wearing the "C" on his sweater, and returned to the first defense pair with Dan Girardi Wednesday night against Chicago in the season opener. McDonagh's approach to the game, and the leadership role, hasn't changed.
"Our strength is puck-moving, playing fast," he said last week. "But we need to improve on anticipating our next play, a tough thing to do. We do it a handful of times, but it's time to be consistent over a long span of games, where it makes the opponent keep up with us in all areas, special teams, five- on-five, four-on-four . . . trying to work on getting the puck in a position so you can make a play."
Coach Alain Vigneault senses that McDonagh is a little more at ease.
"Mac, to me, has come to camp feeling really comfortable about himself as the captain," he said. "I've seen the same player I've always seen on the ice. He's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever coached. He's a great role model, and I think he's going to have a real good year . . . We picked him, and we were sure we had the right guy, and I'm sure more than ever."
Last season, McDonagh could lean on Martin St. Louis, now retired, for advice. But he also counts on other teammates to assist.
"One of Mac's strengths is he's real smart," Vigneault said. "As captain, you have to have that power to influence. He's been around our core guys a long time, whether it be Henrik, whether it be Dan, or Marc [Staal], Step [Derek Stepan], who's a close friend . . .
"As captain, you use the people around you, so that they can influence. So a younger player coming in might be more inclined to go to somebody who speaks the same language, Mac has different players in the room that he can use, so players know the Rangers culture."
After two deep playoff runs with disappointing finishes, McDonagh's not just enlisting help from teammates, but higher powers.
During Pope Francis' visit to New York, McDonagh tweeted: "Gotta pray that @Pontifex blessed our home-ice advantage for this season during his Mass at the Garden."
And he closed with this hashtag : #NewNYRfan