LOS ANGELES - What hockey people always have noticed first about Ryan McDonagh is that he sure can move swiftly. That was particularly obvious this season, when he quickly made the transition from solid player to one of the best defensemen in the National Hockey League.
McDonagh entered Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night as one of the main reasons the Rangers got there. "He is the Rangers' [Drew] Doughty," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said, offering as huge a compliment as he could find, comparing the 24-year-old Ranger with the cornerstone of the Los Angeles team. "I'm sure they're talking about Drew and we're talking about Ryan McDonagh."
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All of the NHL has been talking about McDonagh, the U.S. Olympian who has emerged as a dynamic player at each end of the ice. In the Eastern Conference finals against the Canadiens, he became the first Rangers defenseman to record eight assists in a playoff series and the second to earn 10 points in a series since Brian Leetch's 11 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final won the Conn Smythe Trophy for himself and helped win championship rings for all the Rangers.
"I've got a lot more responsibility this year and with that, you're expected to perform," McDonagh said on Monday. "I like having more responsibility, having a little more pressure, being put in situations -- on the power play, killing penalties -- where you've got to make plays that can be the difference between a win or a loss. I like being able to step up and make an impact there."
He was perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the change in coaching philosophies, from John Tortorella's edict that defensemen were to join the rush at their own peril to Alain Vigneault's more fast-paced, opportunistic style. Or maybe it should be said that it was McDonagh who helped make Vigneault's system work. Either way, it is OK with his team and the coach who had seen him only at a distance before this season.
"First and foremost, he's a great athlete," Vigneault said of the player whose uncle, Steve Walsh, was a longtime quarterback for the 49ers and who played on a Wisconsin high school champion baseball team. "I mean, his conditioning, the way he trains and prepares, is one of the best I've seen.
"I see a young man here that is only going to get better. He's got real good offensive instincts. He competes one-on-one as good as anybody I've seen. Skating-wise, he's one of the best," the coach said.
Just having acquired McDonagh from Montreal, in a 2009 trade that unloaded Scott Gomez's bloated contract, was one of the great triumphs in the Glen Sather era. It was a stunner for the player, who still was at the University of Wisconsin. To this day, he said it opened his eyes to the business aspect of the sport and it always has propelled him to welcome anyone the Rangers acquire in a deal.
Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to him. "They've given me an opportunity. That's the only thing you can ask for," he said. "You work hard in the summers in college and high school, trying to get your game in the best shape you can. But you also need a coaching staff and a management group that feels you can help the team. I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity."