It could be argued that the Rangers’ most indispensable player is Henrik Lundqvist and the player they could least afford to lose after Lundqvist is Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh appears to have broken a bone in his hand from blocking a shot against the Columbus Blue Jackets Monday night.
The Rangers – playoff position in tow – will not have him for the rest of the regular season, but the concern immediately becomes his availability for the playoffs. With the Rangers all in for their Cup run, they can’t afford to lose another important key contributor like they did last season with Mats Zuccarello. A blow that likely cost the Rangers a place in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
Through 80 games this season, the Rangers have an expected goal differential of .488 at even strength (expected goals are calculated through location and pre-shot movement). So losing a player like McDonagh, who plays 17 even strength minutes per night and carries a .516 differential – the only Ranger with a positive differential through 80 games – makes it extremely tough to replace him. Even though the Rangers have another No. 1 defenseman capable of filling his role in an adequate manner with Keith Yandle, it may force a player like Marc Staal or Dan Girardi into even more difficult matchups.
When looking at McDonagh’s impact, we can see that the only defenseman who managed a better differential this season without him is Marc Staal, and his sample was limited to only 69 minutes. McDonagh had a positive impact on their defensive and offensive numbers through every other pairing. While paired with McDonagh, offensive opportunities increased and defensive opportunities against decreased.
McDonagh is also able to start transition for the Rangers through strong decision-making and smart quick passes that allow the Rangers forwards to break out of the zone with speed. When a defender lacks this ability on their own, it becomes a huge compliment to their game when somebody can do it for them. When comparing McDonagh’s pairings with Dan Boyle and Yandle, their offensive opportunities per minute go through the roof because both defenders are capable.
Defensively, McDonagh is strong positionally, understands the proper assignments to pursue and can physically handle himself in his own zone when the opposition applies offensive pressure. With the current emphasis on controlled zone entries and their impact on scoring through passes across the slot line, strong skating becomes a must to close defensive gaps, as well as angle defenders to low percentage areas of the ice. McDonagh has had a sizable impact on his partners.
Only Boyle has a positive differential without McDonagh in denying zone entries off the rush. Every other Ranger denies an extra one to two entries per 20 minutes while paired with McDonagh. With possible matchups with the Capitals and Penguins looming – both teams attack the offensive zone with speed – McDonagh is an integral part at diffusing the opposition.
The Rangers playoff run is highly dependent on how many games McDonagh needs to recover. If he cannot return, then they need the usual suspects to step up in his absence.
This puts a ton of pressure on a player like rookie Brady Skjei. With Lundqvist in goal, however, the Rangers are in every game/series and if the Rangers can deploy their line-up in an optimum manner, Skjei is totally capable of bridging the gap if McDonagh is not ready for the playoff-opener.