It was quite the hat trick for Ryan McDonagh this summer: The 24-year-old Rangers defenceman signed a six-year, $28.2-million contract, married his long-time sweetheart, and was invited to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team's orientation camp.
And as the Rangers prepare to play four pre-season games in five nights, beginning tonight in Calgary, McDonagh, one of the league's top shutdown defencemen, is jazzed about new coach Alain Vigneault's up-tempo approach.
"Even the guys who aren't playing (in a pre-season game) are watching together," McDonagh said last week. "We talk about new things we're working on. We want to be pretty aggressive (in our zone), trying to outnumber guys. Rather than trying to wait, we're trying to jump them. You're going into corners, lay the body, then go up the ice (to join) the rush."
Against the Flyers last week, McDonagh played 23:45 -- he averaged 24:21 last season, which tied for 13th in the NHL. But former coach John Tortorella deployed him for a total of 30 minutes all season on the vastly underwhelming power play. Vigneault is expected to be more liberal: McDonagh played 4:32 on the point in Philadelphia, and will get more opportunities.
"We're trying to play fast, one or two passes at the most, and get the puck to the net," McDonagh said. "We're trying to get guys moving and really just crowd the front of the net. We want to get two or three guys around those loose pucks."
With the 6-1 McDonagh's skating prowess, he can be an offensive threat. In 2011-12, the last full season, McDonagh scored seven goals and added 25 assists.
But defence remains McDonagh's forte. Under Tortorella, he and Dan Girardi were assigned to disrupt and wear down the opposition's stars, from Alex Ovechkin to Sidney Crosby, five-on-five and short-handed, and Vigneault said Friday that he wants that to continue.
"In my estimation, it's very good to have a shutdown pair, a pair of defensemen who can play against the other team's top offensive players," he said.
The Minnesota native is highly regarded elsewhere as well. He has a strong chance to be among the defencemen travelling to Sochi, Russia in February to play in the Olympics. Team USA general manager David Poile and coach Dan Bylsma have insisted that speed and skating ability will be critical on the larger international surface.
"If you get beat out of the corner you might have a little extra time to get back to the front of the net," said McDonagh, who twice played in the World Junior Championships and the World Cup in 2012, when the Americans captured the silver medal. "As a defenceman, you get the chance to take a couple steps more forward in your end in transition rather than sideways."
Making the coveted squad, McDonagh said, "would top them all by a long shot. You watch the 1980 team, the 1960 team, the way they won the gold medal, it makes you want to do what they did, represent your country, it's the highest honour. You don't get to do that very often as a hockey player, so when you get that opportunity you want to make everybody proud.
"... It's going to be hard not to kind of think about it, but the way I'm going to approach it is: I'll think about it, process where I'm at, but ultimately, my job is with the Rangers, helping to try them win, and that'll be my focus."