Lightning Strikes

After Patrolling The Broadway Blue Line For Eight Seasons, Ryan McDonagh Is Poised To Bring The Cup Back To Tampa Bay
By: 
Jessi Pierce

When the now infamous letter from New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton and president Glen Sather was released on Feb. 8, 2018, captain Ryan McDonagh could read the writing on the wall.

It laid out in black and white that the Rangers were looking to rebuild, and longtime franchise pieces like McDonagh, who had been a mainstay on the Broadway blueline since his first game in the league in 2011, could, and likely would, be moved. The 29-year-old defenseman who had called New York home for seven years prepared himself for a shakeup.

"When you hear something might go down, you just wonder what team it's going to be [to pick you up]," said McDonagh, who had captained the Rangers since 2014. "My agent kept me in the loop of teams that were approaching, and I started to think about where I'd like to be."

At the NHL trade deadline McDonagh along with forward J.T. Miller were sent 1,138 miles down the east coast to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that instantly became a heavy favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

McDonagh admits, as anyone would understand, if you're going to get traded, you hope it's to a team in good standing-and the Lightning were at the top of the list."

[Being traded], it's mixed emotions for sure," said the St. Paul, Minn., native. "I had to say goodbye to teammates and staff members that I've known for eight years. Then there was trying to get used to a new locker room and a whole new team.

"But the fact that I was joining a team that was in first place in the league at the time, and had high hopes of going far in the playoffs, that's what you want to be a part of as a player. So the fact that the team wanted me, at the end the excitement and the opportunity at hand really was what I hoped for if I was going to be moved."

 

Traditional → Non-traditional

McDonagh doesn't mind the cold. In fact, before moving to the Sunshine State, it had been all he'd known. 

It was a traditional upbringing in traditional hockey markets.

Growing up in Minnesota, he was on the ice by age 4, following his older brother Colin around to every indoor and outdoor rink he could. He admits he was good, but not always quite good enough. He was cut from the Mounds View Squirt A team.

"It was one of the tougher moments that I can remember growing up as a kid," said McDonagh, whose dad, Sean, took over coaching duties of the B-squad to add to the positive experience for the dejected 10-year-old. 

"My older brother had made the A team, and two of my closest buddies made the A team, and it was really crushing. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my mom and dad, and my brother's out playing hockey in the cul-de-sac and I was so upset with myself I couldn't get away and go and play that day. I didn't think about quitting, but I was just frustrated, heartbroken. 

"As an athlete you want to play on the top team, but it doesn't always work out that way. It was a learning lesson for me, and it ended up being one of the more fun teams to be a part of. It turned out to be motivation, and it added a chip on my shoulder.

"He excelled from there on out, making the A team the following year. 

In high school, McDonagh moved up to the Cretin-Derham Hall varsity team his freshman year, playing the season as a forward before going back to defense for his final three seasons.

In 2006, he helped the Raiders to the program's first Minnesota State High School championship and capped his high school career by being named the 2007 Minnesota Mr. Hockey, given annually to the best high school hockey player in the state. 

McDonagh was drafted 12th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft but opted for the college route, defecting to Minnesota's neighboring state at the University of Wisconsin. He had 14 goals and 46 points in three seasons with the Badgers before signing an entry-level contract with the Rangers, who acquired his rights from Montreal in 2009.

Today, he's one of the top NHL defensemen, known for his skills on the ice, and character off it. In 530 career NHL games, McDonagh has amassed 53 goals and 188 points with an average ice time of 23:30. 

Oh, and he's an Olympian too, suiting up with Team USA at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.

"Just the way he plays and the way he carries himself, it's not hard to see how he rose to become one of the top-end D-men in the NHL," said Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards, who was also a part of the 2014 U.S. Olympic coaching staff.

"His leadership qualities are just outstanding and he just brings this presence with him that we're excited to include as a part of our team."

And while McDonagh doesn't deny the strong hockey hold his previous Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York markets held, he acknowledges that folks shouldn't be so quick to write Tampa Bay off as a hockey hotbed.

"It's a hidden gem down there as far as hockey markets go," McDonagh said. "All it takes is experiencing a game there to realize that fans are very energetic, they're loud, they follow the game and there are a ton of kids there at the arena. All over Tampa there's big 'Go Bolts' signs hanging and signs of the guys on street lamps. It's definitely a place where the success they've built there, they've created a great hockey culture and it's fun to be a part of it."

 

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

McDonagh remembers being in high school and watching Tampa Bay lift the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 2004. In his opinion, last season's team matched that level, if not exceeded it.

During the 2017-18 season, Tampa Bay made a push into the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years, losing to eventual Cup champions, the Washington Capitals in Game 7. The Lightning, who went 54-23-5, led the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with 113 points.

This year's squad features the same central cast of players including league leading scorers Nikita Kucherov (31 goals, 69 assists) and Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 59 assists). Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Miller also return.

And then there's McDonagh, who signed a seven-year extension in the offseason. 

Keeping the core intact is what has McDonagh believing that this group could  make another big run at the Holy Grail come next June. He knows it has fans and opposition believing that too, putting a target on Tampa Bay's back as the heavy Cup favorites a second year in a row.

"I think it gives you added belief in your group when you hear those expectations," McDonagh said. "We put ourselves in that situation [last year] to get to the final round where we were one step closer to the Stanley Cup. There should be a lot of excitement in our group. All the guys are going to play similar roles they did last year, and I think guys are going to thrive and work their way up.  

"We still feel strongly that this group can accomplish something special. It's up to us to keep working hard, training hard, and get into the best shape we can to play even just a little bit better. Whether it's 3 or 4 percent more on the ice, hopefully that can get us over the hump and to where we want to be. That's what gives you excitement heading into the season, and I honestly can't wait."

 


Jessi Pierce is a writer and editor with Touchpoint Media in addition to writing for NHL.com and The Athletic.

 

 

Issue: 
2018-10

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