When the Los Angeles Kings welcome the New York Rangers for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, there will be many head-to-head matchups that will be watched closely. The goaltending matchup between the Cup-less but superb Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick, the struggling goalie with a Cup and Conn Smythe to his name. There's Marian Gaborik against the team that spurned him just a season ago, eventually trading him to the Columbus Blue Jackets. But there's one matchup that won't be so much a head-to-head as it is a showcase.
The Stanley Cup Final will feature two of the very best defensemen under the age of 25 in the NHL. Heck, at least one of them probably does not need that qualifier at all anymore. Drew Doughty of the Kings and Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers are each 24 years old, each supremely talented and each with perhaps their best seasons ahead of them. Drafted a year apart, from opposite sides of the 48th parallel and playing a style that is similar, but different, these two have the biggest stage the sport has to offer to show what they've got.
For McDonagh, it's more measuring stick than matchup because Doughty is already a seasoned vet with loads of individual and team accolades all before his 25th birthday.
Doughty, born the same year but drafted a year later than McDonagh with the second overall pick in 2008, has already been to the top of the sport. He has been the No. 1 defenseman on a Stanley Cup champion and has two Olympic gold medals to go along with that big silver chalice. He is already among the league's elite, young or otherwise, posting solid numbers at both ends of the ice and continually defying the old adage that defensemen take longer to develop; he made an instant impact at 19.
McDonagh, on the other hand, has been traded by the team that drafted him (the team he just helped beat with 10 points in the Eastern Conference Final, by the way), played three years of college hockey at the University of Wisconsin and really is only beginning to tap into his vast potential. Even if it took him a little longer to get to the NHL, it didn't take McDonagh long to make a serious impact when he got there.
At this point, McDonagh -- a mere six months Doughty's senior -- is playing catch up to his young counterpart. There's a long way to go in terms of individual and team accomplishments, but it is quite clear that McDonagh is reaching the upper-echelon of his profession. Now he'll line up across the ice from one of his peers on the biggest stage of his young career.
Doughty really is a special player. He has already made his impact over six full-time seasons, jumping right from the draft to the opening night lineup. He was a Norris Trophy finalist and Canadian Olympian at 20 and has compiled 221 points over 442 NHL games so far. He is as big a part of the Kings making it to two Stanley Cup Finals in three years as anyone else in the oganization.
For McDonagh, it really has only been over the last two seasons that he has jumped into the top tier among NHL defensemen. Logging close to 25 minutes a night, often matching up against opponents' top lines, McDonagh's impact on helping make the Rangers a Stanley Cup contender has been massive. How many recent Cup champions haven't had a workhorse like McDonagh who can do the job at both ends of the ice? Not a lot.
As his responsibility grew with the club in terms of minutes and the quality of competition he faced, McDonagh simply got better. Part of that was just the natural development, the kind most players need before they can make a full-time impact. But at his current stage, at 24 years old, he is as important to the Rangers as Doughty is to the Kings.
His 10 points in the Eastern Conference Final grabbed McDonagh plenty of headlines, but he really has been at a top level all season. He notched career highs in goals (14), assists (29) and points (43). He was a key defenseman on the U.S. Olympic Team as well. Now McDonagh is at the biggest moment of his young career and his team could not need his best more than they will against Doughty and the Kings.
This Stanley Cup Final isn't as much a competition between Doughty and McDonagh as it is a treat for hockey fans. These are two guys who very well could have a few Norris Trophies to their names before their careers are done.
Each are among the true two-way defensemen in the league, showing that you don't have to be a shutdown guy to play good, sturdy defense. They also have proven the importance of possessing offensive skill in aiding two of the most exciting transition teams in the league. That ability to turn defense to offense so quickly makes them stand out.
The scariest part about these two meeting on this stage at this point in their careers is that they're probably not at their peak and could get even better. And it's not just these two. The young defensemen in the NHL today are fast-tracking to stardom.
When you look at Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Roman Josi, John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Travis Hamonic, Cam Fowler, Jake Muzzin T.J. Brodie and the like, who are playing major roles all before they hit age 25 and even younger guys coming up like Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Seth Jones, Olli Maatta and possibly the upcoming first-round pick Aaron Ekblad, we could be entering a particularly exciting era for defensemen in the NHL.
These players aren't plodding ham-and-eggers, but defensemen with skills to contribute offensively while not leaving massive holes in defensive coverage. They're also, likely to become more of the norm as opposed to occupying only a few slots per team as they do now.
As the aging "shut-down" defensemen continue to slow down, more of the guys coming into the league will possess similar skill sets to Doughty, McDonagh and their peers. Perhaps so-much so that teams won't load up on the heavy-hitting and likely slow defensemen because they block shots, play the body and are (like always) good in the room. All of those things matter, but those same things are being performed by this new era of two-way defensemen and in a lot of cases, being performed better -- or perhaps more accurately, more effectively.
You need not look further than the defensemen that have gone in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft over the last few years. A lock-tight defensive defenseman doesn't usually get a sniff at the top 30 picks, with most first-round defensemen showing a flare for the offensive.
This Stanley Cup Final showcase of Drew Doughty and Ryan McDonagh isn't just about the two of them, it's about the league. They are the future, not just because they themselves will be successful long into their careers, but because every team is going to try and find four or five Doughty-McDonagh clones to fill out their defensive corps someday, probably soon. The good news is, there are plenty of guys like that in a lot of systems around the league. It's only a matter of time before more teams' defensive units are a sleeker version of what we see today, which should create faster and even more exciting hockey.
Until then, just sit back and enjoy two of the best young defensemen in the game competing for their teams and against each other for hockey's ultimate prize.