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Top Shelf: Ryan McDonagh ready to embrace the New York Rangers

Ryan McDonagh has spent the past three years with the Wisconsin Badgers. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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Ryan McDonagh has spent the past three years with the Wisconsin Badgers. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Ryan McDonagh’s eyes are as wise as they are wide.

On the whole, elite-level NHL prospects are a pretty groomed group these days - for every ‘aw shucks’ or shy kid you run into, there’s probably three who seem like they started dealing with microphones 10 goals after picking up a stick.

And some of them did.

Still, well-articulated answers aside, not many next-wavers have the perspective McDonagh possesses. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound defenseman was destined to wear the bleu, blanc et rouge until a trade in June of 2009 shifted his future to the Blueshirts. More than a year after the Montreal Canadiens included McDonagh as part of the package to acquire Scott Gomez from the Rangers, the youngster still recalls being floored by the news.

“It was a shocker,” he said while in Toronto with a number of other top NHL prospects as part of a 2010 rookie showcase. “I didn’t expect to get traded before ever signing my first contract or playing any kind of pro game. But it taught me a good lesson that this game is a business as well - things are going to happen and you just have to roll with the punches and get used to it.”

McDonagh had no say in the events that changed the course of his future from the Bell Centre to Broadway, but he had a lot to think about this summer when deciding whether he wanted to sign a contract with the Rangers or return to the University of Wisconsin for his senior year. For a while, the 21-year-old indicated he would return to the Badgers, thus making him a free agent as of Aug. 15, 2011. But the guy drafted 12th overall by the Canadiens in 2007 ultimately decided he was at ease with the notion of making the leap this year with New York.

A big part of his initial hesitation was a lack of familiarity with the organization.

“For me it was a comfort thing,” McDonagh said. “I got traded during the Rangers’ development camp last summer, so I never met any of the staff or met any of the players. I kind of wanted to go out to their development camp (this summer) and meet some of the players and staff before I made the decision.”

McDonagh put pen to paper in early July following that gathering and can now concentrate on trying to crack the Rangers roster. Obviously the jump from college, where he was one of three Badgers to share the captain’s ‘C’ last season, is a big one, but then again, large leaps are nothing new for the St. Paul, Minn., native.

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“It was a big step coming right out of high school to college and I felt I handled it pretty well, so I think I can go in there with some good confidence and do well,” he said.

Even with restricted free agent Marc Staal still to be signed, it’s clear the Rangers are undergoing a youth movement on the back end. Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy broke in with the team last year and you have to think McDonagh will be given a good, hard look at camp this year, especially if inking Staal ultimately means there’s no option but to send Wade Redden and his $6.5-million cap hit to the minors.

McDonagh is seen as a strong, stay-at-home type, but with the foot speed to occasionally push the attack.

“First, I try to be a good leader, good character guy, someone who works hard,” he said. “On the ice, I want to be solid in my own end for sure, I don’t want to be on for goals-against and then use my skating ability to create some offense and jump up in the play and make something happen.”

Now, equipped with the first-hand knowledge he won’t always be able to control happenings off ice, McDonagh is more ready and anxious than ever to show what he can do on it.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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