COLUMUBUS, Ohio — It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Ryan McDonagh, not this year, when the Rangers captain finally was going to get a suitable running mate.
But the signing of Kevin Shattenkirk has not been the magic elixir, not yet at least. And it has once again left McDonagh without a real top-pair partner, preparing to play Friday against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena with Nick Holden, who was a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season.
“Right now, work in progress,” coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Thursday in Westchester, his team just 1-3-0 as it has struggled to defend with any consistency. “Trying to find combinations and duos that can be real successful, can bring us wins. Trying to sort that out on defense right now.”
Vigneault got only four periods into the season before he mercifully disbanded the McDonagh-Shattenkirk duo. The breaking point was the first period in Toronto on Saturday, when the Rangers went down, 5-1, and then came out for the second period with all new combinations. Vigneault had bumped McDonagh to his off-side on the right, but after two more games of that — with Marc Staal on the left — Vigneault decided he wanted McDonagh back in his proper place.
“I think having Mac on the right side, as much as he can play both sides, we lose a little bit of him being able to jump up in the play, keep pucks in the offensive zone, because he’s so much more comfortable and better on the left side at doing those things than on the right side,” Vigneault said. “So we decided to put him back there, and that changes the dynamics of our back end because we want that strength in our lineup.”
It also hasn’t helped that Shattenkirk hasn’t exactly dazzled at even strength during his first four games with the Rangers. It always seemed that Vigneault was a little hesitant to put him with McDonagh, and that hesitation turned out to at least initially be warranted.
“I think Shatty has to have a little bit of time to get adjusted here,” Vigneault said. “He’s had a different role in the past. This is an adjustment playing against top-six forwards. I think he’s on the verge, 5-on-5, of understanding exactly what we’re looking for and being a real effective player for us. Is that going to be with Mac or with somebody else — right now he’s with Marc Staal? Time will tell.”
From McDonagh’s perspective, he says he doesn’t really mind all the switching. Although he played most of the past few years with Dan Girardi, who was bought out this summer, he knows it’s all part of the process, especially this early in the year with all of the changes the roster has gone through.
“You’re always making adjustments,” McDonagh said. “Certain matchups that coaches might be looking for, certain guys might be better in certain situations. I don’t really think too much into it. Just try to play as well and in sync with whoever I’m playing with, whether it’s right or left.”
McDonagh added that he is more focused on reacting to what his opponent is doing rather than his partner. But he did admit that going up the ice, he has a tendency to “creep” to the left side. He didn’t want that to limit his ability to get up the ice and contribute offensively.
And if one thing is clear through the first four games, it’s that the Rangers have spent far too much time in their own end. Shattenkirk knows this team needs to figure it out sooner rather than later, no matter whom they’re playing with.
“I think even though chemistry might not be there yet with playing with certain linemates or whatever it might be, the identity part of it, you don’t need to play with the same guys night in and night out,” Shattenkirk said. “That should be something is constant throughout our lineup and the way we play.”
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