He is quite a thing to watch if you zero in, artfully gliding up and down the left side of the ice, as effortless a skater as there is in today’s game.
For the New York Rangers, it’s a welcome sight every night.
For the Montreal Canadiens, it’s anything but.
He is, quite simply, the franchise player that got away, and those always hurt.
Sometimes they hurt a lot.
Typically lauded for his defensive efficiency, Ryan McDonagh has been so much more in this series. Recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him pointless in the first round, he has caught fire against Montreal, with six points in the first two games and several terrific, game-saving backchecks in Game 3 on Brendan Gallagher, further painful reminders of what the Canadiens are missing out on.
All is well for the Habs, overall, but it’s hard not to imagine if they had a top pairing with McDonagh on the left and PK Subban on the right, the fruits of a 2007 draft that – with the added benefit of taking 39-goal man Max Pacioretty – should have went down as a Hall of Famer.
Instead, it’s remembered for what was lost in one of the worst trades ever made.
“Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come,” the Canadiens then-GM Bob Gainey said back on July 1, 2009, moments after landing Scott Gomez and his $7.36-million-a-season cap hit from the Rangers for, among others, the smooth-skating 20-year-old defenceman from Minnesota that Montreal had drafted 12th overall two years earlier.
The deal was widely panned at the time, but few knew what McDonagh would become: A 25-minute a night workhorse that very well could have a Norris Trophy in his future.
And who – to hear those around Madison Square Garden tell it – should be the Rangers next captain, despite being only 24.
“It’s been so long now that my heart and soul is with New York,” McDonagh said of his ties to the Habs, which primarily consisted of wearing the sweater on draft day seven years ago.
For Gainey, the Gomez deal was the end result of chasing the elusive No. 1 centre for years, a hunt that took him down dark alleys ending with aging, declining stars like Mats Sundin and Vinny Lecavalier. It was a Rangers-like pursuit that involved taking – and eventually buying out – the Rangers garbage.
In all, Gomez played less than 200 games and produced 21 goals in a Habs uniform.
In his fourth season as a Ranger, McDonagh already has 54 in the postseason alone.
This is all two general managers ago and ancient history for the Habs, who appear now to be in solid hands with Marc Bergevin in charge. But this deal more than most is illustrative of how damaging valuing the short term over the long can be in a league where youth and speed is quickly becoming everything.
McDonagh has oodles of both, and unlike the man he was traded for, he’s incredibly economical, too, signed through his prime for well under $5-million a season.
He is also what Montreal is missing: A minute muncher to play with Subban on a duo that could handle every tough assignment and vie for the title of top pairing in the league.
As it is, their blueline lacks the kind of dynamic speed that is more in demand than ever in this league, with teams like Chicago leading the way in possession stats primarily due to their ability to heft the puck from one end of the ice to the other in a few short seconds.
The Rangers aren’t far behind on that, as aside from Dan Girardi, their strength is skating and managing the puck. McDonagh leads the way there, which certainly helps given he plays nearly half of every game.
It’s a subtle difference between them, but then these are the times where subtle differences matter most, when only good teams remain and a bounce here or there decides who moves on.
In this series, the one that got away could have been the one that changed the outcome – if only he didn’t play for the other side.
And that hurts.