Good buddies Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan facing tall tasks together with Team USA

ByScott Burnside ESPN logo
Thursday, August 18, 2016

EDINA, Minnesota -- There's been little doubt about the hockey smarts possessed by New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh for a long time now.

You don't become captain of an Original Six franchise like the Rangers, a team that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2014 and the Eastern Conference finals the following spring, without having some serious hockey tools.

But perhaps the truest indicator of McDonagh's intelligence -- never mind as a hockey player, but as a forward-thinking human being -- is the fact that with the birth of his first child less than two months away, McDonagh and his wife had a crib delivered to their Minneapolis-area residence, fully assembled.

Smart. Very smart. Mensa smart.

As for the baby accouterments in the couple's other home, in Manhattan? Well, that's another matter entirely as the arrival of the first McDonagh offspring will follow closely on the heels of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto -- which starts Sept. 17 at the Air Canada Centre -- and that's going to complicate things just a little bit.

In fact, with the World Cup as a quest for redemption for Team USA and the 2016-17 NHL season as a quest for redemption for the Rangers, it promises to be a special journey into the unknown for McDonagh.

For the Rangers, being dispatched in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the spring was a loss that seemed to be an exclamation point to a narrative that suggests their championship window is closing.

Now the question is how the Rangers, led by McDonagh, bounce back.

"Being out in five games, kind of getting handled pretty well by Pittsburgh, it was frustrating," McDonagh said after a recent workout near his offseason home.

The season was equally frustrating for McDonagh personally.

McDonagh suffered a concussion after being sucker-punched by the Philadelphia Flyers' Wayne Simmonds in early February. McDonagh then suffered a hand injury late in the regular season that limited him to three games in the playoffs; all three were losses, as it turns out.

"It was a little different ending for the season for me as far as where my body was at," he said. "I didn't really need to take a lot of time off [in the offseason] to let my body heal."

Instead, McDonagh has been working hard to be in better overall shape and to return to the form that made him among the most important defensemen in the league. Just as he shoulders a burden with Team USA at the World Cup, he understands that his play this season will be key to the Rangers' fortunes.

"It's huge. I want to get back [to] where I was a couple of years ago, where I was a difference-maker consistently," McDonagh said. "It can't just happen once every three, four games -- it has to happen every game. Get that motto and get that confidence going through our team and get everybody rallying together."

Being a difference-maker on a nightly basis will play to his strengths as a leader who leads by action, not necessarily oratory.

"We never got in sync," McDonagh said of last season's Rangers. "We never had everybody pulling really hard for one another, and that's a hard thing to find. It's up to guys like me and [Derek] Stepan and [Marc] Staal, [Dan] Girardi and these guys that have been in New York for a handful of years now, to make sure that you take it one step at a time and to really work hard when you're at the practice rink or even the day before a game, game day, stay in the right motto, the right attitude, for everybody so that it's easier for everybody to buy in and easier for everybody to work harder and do that little bit extra that helps us win games."

Longtime NHL analyst Darren Pang thinks McDonagh will play a key role, regardless of whether he's sporting the red, white and blue of Team USA or the familiar Rangers blue. Outside of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, McDonagh is the Rangers' most valuable player, and his injury issues last season illustrate that reality, Pang said.

When it comes to Team USA, Pang -- who will provide in-game analysis for ESPN during the World Cup of Hockey -- believes McDonagh is the cornerstone of an American blue line that will have to be composed and efficient to stay close to the big boys of the tournament, such as Canada and Sweden. "Ryan's the leader of the bunch," Pang said.

In the upcoming NHL season, a league scout believes that McDonagh might not reach his previous points total high of 43 set in 2013-14, but that doesn't necessarily matter because McDonagh still has the capability to be a top-pair defender for a long time to come.

"He won me over when I watched him play 60 minutes in a six-period playoff game versus" Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, the scout said. "I watched him get back up and continue to play after getting run over, in open ice, by Matt Hendricks.

"There were times last season when he wasn't as physical or wasn't as offensive as he was earlier in his career. But there is no way that he could continue to play 22-plus minutes versus top forwards and maintain the physical style, shot-blocking and offensive play. I don't think it would be physically possible for any athlete."

If there is one encouraging part of what lies ahead for McDonagh in Toronto, in New York and in his new role as a first-time dad, it's that he's got a strong shoulder to lean on in teammate and fellow Minnesotan Derek Stepan.

Stepan's wife gave birth to their first child nine months ago and the couple have been, and will continue to be, an important sounding board for the McDonaghs moving forward.

The two Rangers grew up in Minnesota but didn't get to know each other until college at the University of Wisconsin.

"Once we got to college, we certainly leaned on each other for advice," Stepan said.

Sometimes it was as simple as playing a game of cards together and talking about the journey they were on as aspiring young professional players.

Stepan, who was part of the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi and will return for the World Cup, asked McDonagh to be his best man, and Stepan stood in McDonagh's wedding.

McDonagh got married first, and Stepan became a father first. Together they shared the successes of the long playoff runs in 2014 and 2015 and the disappointment at having traveled so close to the dream, only to be denied.

And they are part of a core group in New York trying to prove doubters wrong after the disappointing turn against the Penguins.

"It was tough to stomach because we just felt like we left so much on the table," Stepan said.

Now, he said, it's important for the group to take the energy they should have from an unusually long summer and put that to work in redeeming themselves once the season starts.

"Let's channel that energy," Stepan said.

For Stepan and McDonagh, that channeling will once again be a shared task. And it's a task that will begin sooner than later.