Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Fork In The Road To Montreal

By Elliot Olshansky,, August 23, 2007

(Robert L Note: A very interesting piece on two future pillars of the Habs defense. Definitely worth archiving for later reference.)

When the Montreal Canadiens drafted Ryan McDonagh with the 12th pick of the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Canadiens director of player recruitment and development Trevor Timmins told the assembled media that Minnesota's 2006-07 "Mr. Hockey" winner could see time alongside another Minnesota "Mr. Hockey" once both reach the pros: Minnesota rearguard David Fischer, the Canadiens' first-round pick in 2006.

Of course, as Timmins hastens to point out, he's not a coach, and he wasn't envisioning any particular chemistry between the two blueliners.

"That's all up to the coaching staff at the time," Timmins said. "I just think they're two players who are going to play in our top four down the road. I'm not looking at anything like matching one up with the other. That's totally up to the coaching staff."

Kevin Patrick, however, is a coach. More specifically, he's an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin, where McDonagh will be a freshman this season, and having seen plenty of both McDonagh and Fischer, it's not hard for him to understand the possible pairing.

"They're two prospects with a lot of talent," Patrick said. "A good physical presence as far as their ability to move on the ice, good size, and I think their games will complement each other.

They're both guys that like to be involved and are responsible defensively. I think they both complement each other well that way. Ryan being a left shot, and David being a right shot, some teams like to make sure they have right and left shots together so they don't have guys playing the offside."

Neither McDonagh nor Fischer particularly minds the talk of a potential pairing. The two displayed a good rapport off the ice at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., a friendship developed while moving in many of the same circles growing up just outside the Twin Cities.

"My junior year and his senior year [of high school], in the fall, we played in the Midwest Elite League together," said McDonagh. "We were actually D partners in the end-of-year tournament together. That's when we first got accustomed to each other's style of play."

Of course, that's all well and good in 2007, but when January 2008 rolls around, the past in high school and the future in Montreal go out the window. Once McDonagh puts on the Cardinal and White of the Badgers, Fischer will have a much different opinion, as his once and future teammate will stand on the opposite side of one of the fiercest rivalries in college hockey, and in all of college sports.

"We'll be seeing Ryan in a few months," Fischer said with a smile. "Hopefully, he'll be laying down on the ice, and I'll be standing over him and laughing at him."

If Fischer wants the Gophers to stand tall and laugh against the Badgers and the rest of the WCHA this season, he's going to need to stand tall individually as well. Between the graduation of Mike Vannelli and the early departures of Alex Goligoski and Erik Johnson, the Gophers lost a total of 102 points from the blueline, to say nothing of the defection to major junior by Jim O'Brien, who was projected to move to defense in 2007-08.

"Lot of big shoes to fill," Fischer said, "not only for me, but for the rest of our defensive corps.

We only lost one or two forwards, so we've got a great core nucleus coming back, but everybody's going to be questioning our D corps. So it's going to be up to me and Pelts [Derek Peltier] and [Brian] Schack and R.J. [Anderson], and obviously [Cade] Fairchild and [Kevin] Wehrs and the other guys we've got coming in. We've got to be there for our squad."

Still, as a first-round draft pick with high expectations down the load, Fischer can expect much of the burden to fall on him.

McDonagh, meanwhile, arrives at Wisconsin with high expectations, one of three Badgers drafted in the first round in June. The Badgers also have holes to fill on defense with the graduation of Jeff Likens and the pro signing of Joe Piskula, and like any first-round pick, McDonagh will feel the pressure to perform early.

"I'm going to be in a new group of players," McDonagh said, "trying to fit in there and continue to play my style and help the team win as much as possible. That's the most important thing: trying to help the team get to the national tournament and succeeding there."

The two defensemen's individual aspirations will first come into conflict in January, when the Gophers travel to Madison, and then again in February, when the Badgers come to Mariucci Arena.

"It's a healthy rivalry," Fischer said. "Each team has a lot of respect for the other, and it's always a blast when the two squads get together."

It's not hard to imagine that rivalry helping to deepen the bond between the two defensemen when they do eventually begin their pro careers.

"I think anytime you have a rivalry like the Border Battle," Patrick said, "you've got heated battles that are going to go down to the last play of the game, late in the game, most times. It's going to be heated, it's going to be at times for championship. While they're playing against each other, those games are going to be a great training ground for experiences at the next level."

But those concerns are further off. For the time being, the feelings will be as cold as the winter weather in Madison and Minneapolis.

"It's a couple of years down the line," Fischer said, "so for the next year or two here, it's going to be a bitter war to the end."

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