As I wrote Monday, over the past decade or so, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers — who are playing in the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals — transformed themselves from a down-on-their-luck former champions to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders; both did this largely through shrewd drafting. One of Montreal’s most successful draft picks put on a fine show in Game 2 on Monday night, notching a goal and an assist.
Unfortunately for Montreal, that player was defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and he was wearing a Rangers uniform in the Rangers’ 3-1 win (New York leads the series 2-0).
In response to my article, a few FiveThirtyEight readers astutely pointed out that McDonagh ties together the parallel rebuilding stories of the Rangers and Canadiens. He was drafted 12th overall by the Canadiens in 2007, the top prize in a banner haul for Montreal that also included Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. Pacioretty and Subban, along with 2005 first-rounder Carey Price, are currently three of the Canadiens’ best players (according to the modified version of point shares I described Monday).
In his four-year NHL career, McDonagh has produced 28.1 modified point shares, a number in line with Subban (34.6) and Pacioretty (23.4) at similar points in their careers.
The fact that he hasn’t produced any of that value for the Canadiens, though, traces back to a major blunder in the summer of 2009, when Montreal traded McDonagh (as part of a package of several players) to the Rangers for center Scott Gomez.
Two years prior, New York had signed Gomez to a rather ill-advised seven-year, $51.5 million contract, and the returns had been disappointing; his 14 modified point shares in 2007-08 and 2008-09 (combined) ranked 60th among NHL forwards over that span. Rangers general manager Glen Sather was anxious to rid himself of Gomez’s albatross deal, so the media’s contemporary view of the Gomez-to-Montreal trade was essentially that of a salary dump, billing the Rangers’ primary return as nondescript forward Chris Higgins. Some NHL insiders knew better, however: Yahoo’s excellent hockey blogger Greg Wyshynski wondered at the time how the Rangers managed to unload the Gomez millstone and pick up a promising prospect like McDonagh.
As a Canadien, Gomez played decent hockey for one season (6.2 modified point shares), then rapidly declined. He went on a notable goalless streak of 370 consecutive days. His contract was bought out by Montreal during the 2011-12 season, and he’s bounced around as a journeyman the past few seasons. Meanwhile, McDonagh has blossomed in New York; only six other defensemen have produced more modified point shares over the past three seasons. McDonagh even became the subject of Norris Trophy talk late this season. On top of his offensive numbers, McDonagh often finds himself matching up against the opponent’s toughest forwards and is on the ice for a disproportionate number of face-offs in the Rangers’ zone, both marks of a defensive workhorse on the blue line.
Without McDonagh, it’s unlikely the Rangers would be sitting where they are, with a 2-0 series lead on the cusp of a Stanley Cup Final berth. The Canadiens have their own pair of good defensemen in Subban and Andrei Markov, but they have to regret letting McDonagh slip away — especially on nights like Monday, when he made them pay for their mistake in a direct way.