TAMPA, Fla. — It’s never easy being traded during a season, but if you’re going to get dealt, it might as well be to the best team in the NHL, with familiar faces all over the locker room.
As Tampa Bay makes a push for the Stanley Cup, the Lightning made a major move at Monday’s trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the Rangers as the Blueshirts move into a rebuild with younger players.
“It’s not too often you get traded to the top team in the league — that’s the way I look at it,” said McDonagh, 28, who played eight seasons in New York, finishing as a team captain before the trade. “It’s a group that’s had tremendous success already this season, and I hope I can add another element here and continue to find ways to win games.”
Adding talent at the trade deadline is one thing, but it’s another to have some level of chemistry already built in with a new club. There’s a strong Rangers presence in the Lightning locker room. Four years ago, Tampa Bay brought in another New York captain in Ryan Callahan, who remains a veteran leader and part of the Ranger reunion.
“It’s so hard to add a guy like that, top four, on to your team at this time of the season,” Callahan, 32, said of McDonagh. “It’s huge for us, and we’re so excited to have him, and I think he’s going to add so much to our d-corps and what we already have back there.”
The same summer that Callahan was re-signed, the Lightning signed Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman as a free agent. He now is 31, having spent more time with Tampa Bay than he did with the Rangers. This past offseason, Tampa Bay added another veteran defenseman in Dan Girardi, 33, who has remained close friends with McDonagh.
“There is a little bit of a running joke going on in the room that we are the Rangers of the South,” coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday. “The big thing for us is they’re competitors. We need guys who can play hard, can play against big players, have played in big moments. They check all the boxes.”
The Lightning has had good luck with former Rangers. Until this season, Tampa Bay had another leader in Brian Boyle, who played for the Rangers from 2009-14 and was a Lightning fixture before being traded at this time last season.
McDonagh is still recovering from a hand/wrist injury and hopes to make his Lightning debut on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. The Rangers, by coincidence, come to Tampa on Thursday night, so one of his first games should be against his old team.
One of the new Rangers, center Vladislav Namestnikov, has jumped right in, getting a goal and an assist in his debut for the Blueshirts in an overtime win over Vancouver Wednesday night.
McDonagh said he’ll use the week of recovery as a transition to pick up a new system, and having familiar faces around him will only make that easier.
“It’s everything — stuff off the ice, getting settled, sitting around the rink and figuring out the way practice is run and drills,” he said. “You get around the team and it’s hockey once again.”
It didn’t take long for Miller, wearing the same No. 10 jersey, to make his presence felt with Tampa Bay. In his second game, he had two assists Thursday night to help the Lightning to a 5-4 overtime win over the Stars.
“It’s such a fun hockey team to watch play,” said Miller, still just 24 and eager to contribute to what already was the league’s top-scoring offense. “We weren’t planning on having the year we were having in New York, so this is different, but it’s a good surprise to be here. It’s a really talented group, a lot of skill and speed, so if I can just bring a physicality, get to the net and let these guys make plays with the puck, I can be helpful.”
The schedule will take McDonagh and Miller back home before the month is over, with games at the Islanders (March 22) and Devils (March 24) before the next-to-last road game of the regular season, at the Rangers on March 30.
Former Blueshirts on the Lightning and how they were acquired:
Ryan Callahan, RW
March 5, 2014, deal that brought Martin St. Louis to Rangers
Dan Girardi, D, and Anton Stralman, D
July 1, 2014: Free agent signing
Ryan McDonagh, D, and J.T. Miller, C
Feb. 26, 2018 deal for three players and two draft picks