At the beginning of training camp this season, the names Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh were not atop the list of defenseman making the Rangers opening night roster in Buffalo and for good reason; they are rookies.
However, on Feb 24th, both Sauer and McDonagh are not only playing for the big club but also logging important minutes as a reliable defense pair and contributing to the overall success of the team. Although, both players have traveled different roads this season to arrive on Broadway.
Michael Sauer, a 2nd round draft pick in 2005, has been in the Rangers organization for 6 years, constantly working at his game to get his chance at playing in the NHL. Although, he’d be the first to tell you it hasn’t been easy. Sauer has dealt with a multitude of injuries that, from the outset, interfered with his young career from getting started.
Sauer has also been pushed down the depth chart from the emergence of other prospects as well as free agent signings. Players like Michael Del Zotto, drafted in 2009, exploded on to the scene. Hobey Baker award winner Matt Gilroy was signed to a 2-year contract in the same year with the hopes of adding offense and speed to the back line. We won’t mention what the Wade Redden signing has meant to the Rangers; it hurts too much.
All the obstacles in Sauer’s path didn’t stop him from developing his game down in Hartford and waiting patiently for his chance. A chance that came about in training camp this season.
With coach Tortorella steadfast in assimilating more youth into the Rangers, he was keen on seeing what Sauer’s game could bring to the team. After seeing his poise and penchant for making simple plays on defense, he felt Sauer was primed to make the team ahead of other players like Alexei Semenov, Pavel Valentenko, and Ryan McDonagh.
Since opening night, Sauer has progressed in each game he’s played in. He’s earned the trust of his head coach, meaning Sauer has played more minutes and in key situations. Plus, within the past 3-4 weeks, Sauer has arguably been one of the best Rangers defensemen – a bold assessment considering Marc Staal and Dan Girardi playing 26 minutes a night.
As for Ryan McDonagh, the St Paul, Minn. native has experienced a much different journey. McDonagh, originally drafted 12th overall in 2007, was part of the trade that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal and brought back Chris Higgins, defenseman Pavel Valentenko along with McDonagh. Rangers’ fans rejoiced, seeing a disappointing player and his bloated contract sent out for younger players. On the other hand, Montreal fans writhed in anger, watching a potential stud on defense leave for New York.
He signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers on July 6th, 2010, deciding to leave the University of Wisconsin to play professional hockey. His teammate at Wisconsin, Derek Stepan, did the same as well.
In training camp, Rangers management was happy with their observations of McDonagh. He possessed speed, a good first pass out of his zone and quick decision-making. However, they felt some time in Hartford would be good for his development in an effort to ease his way in to playing at the NHL level. He took the news in stride and went about his business.
On Jan. 7th, McDonagh’s chance came, he was recalled by the New York Rangers and played in his first NHL game against the Dallas Stars. The games to follow were a showcase to Rangers management to what McDonagh could handle at the NHL level. Seeing the team needed some scoring punch and feeling comfortable in McDonagh’s play, the team traded veteran Michal Rosival, the longest tenured Rangers defenseman, to Phoenix for Wojtek Wolski. The trade indicated that, despite having one of the youngest defense corps in the NHL, the Rangers were confident they could win with McDonagh playing every game. And so far, McDonagh has not disappointed.
Both Sauer and McDonagh were paired up and have formed a consistent, reliable pairing behind the shutdown Staal-Girardi tandem, helping Tortorella find defenseman who can play confidently while Del Zotto and Gilroy, in their 2nd seasons, try to find their games.
The successes of the Rangers for the rest of this season and for season’s beyond will be associated with their youth. They have committed to playing their young players and developing them in order to achieve long-term success and building a contender. With Sauer and McDonagh, the Rangers have found a young, dependable defense pairing that can play for the Rangers for the next decade.