The Montreal Canadiens have an uphill climb to get back into their series against the New York Rangers. Unfortunately for Montreal, a former prospect is making that climb all the more difficult. Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh has been the best player on the ice, for either team, in this series. He has six points in three games, an outstanding production only overshadowed by his strong defensive play. Though they won Game Three, the Montreal Canadiens remain down in their series against the Rangers, and an old trade is one of the biggest reasons why.
Back in 2009, both New York and Montreal were at a crossroads within their respective organizations. The Rangers signed center Scott Gomez to a massive $51.5 million, seven-year deal just a few seasons earlier, one of the longest and highest paid contract at the time. A drop in production caused New York to put Gomez on the trading block, hoping to get out from under the hindering contract to begin a retooling phase. At the same time, the Canadiens were looking for a center to become the final piece for a Stanley Cup run. Gomez was the ideal piece for the Habs at the time, according to general manager Bob Gainey.
“He is an outstanding playmaker and an excellent skater,” Gainey said. “He brings to our team a lot of playoff experience. Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come.”
It may have been that desire to acquire Gomez that caused Gainey to pay a high price to acquire the center. The Rangers traded Gomez, along with prospects Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto, to the Canadiens for forward Christopher Higgins and prospects Doug Janik, Pavel Valentenko and Ryan McDonagh. At the time, McDonagh was considered Montreal’s best prospect, and it did not take him long to prove why. In only a few short years after the trade, McDonagh made it to the NHL on a competitive Rangers team, and he quickly rose through the defensive pairings to become New York’s No. 1 defenseman.
During this playoff run, McDonagh is proving worthy of that label. His defensive acumen allowed New York to survive a seven-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers, and his offensive game came about at the right time for the Rangers in the following round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. New York was down 3-1 in the series, but won three straight games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. McDonagh had three points in those three elimination games. His offensive talent has continued in the current series against Montreal, haunting his old team every time he steps on the ice. His goal just 17 seconds after Montreal took the lead in Game Two ended up providing the momentum for a Rangers win, and in Game Three, his tireless efforts denied a clear breakaway chance for Montreal forward Brenden Gallagher in the 1-1 game midway through the third period. His efforts in the playoffs have not gone unnoticed either.
“I’ve been with [McDonagh] a long time,” Rangers forward Derik Stepan said. “He’s never changed. He’s always been this player. He got rewarded this season and the last five games with production, but this is the player that [McDonagh] has been since he’s been here, and this time he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
The Canadiens may be frustrated by having an old trade gone wrong flaunted in their face game after game, but it could be worse. While McDonagh has had a lot of success with the Rangers, Montreal has developed their own young defenseman into a No. 1 by the name of PK Subban, easing some of the pain that may have developed after the trade. Subban and his team have a long road ahead of them if they want to make it to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since winning the Cup in 1993. If the Montreal Canadiens are unable to complete the comeback, an old trade may haunt them for a few years longer.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner