TAMPA — What did you want?
When the Lightning went looking for a defenseman at the trade deadline last year, did you want flash? Sizzle? A big name? Did you want two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson?
Because Tampa Bay got something else.
A smaller headline, yes. A lesser player, certainly. But, as we approach the one-year anniversary of Ryan McDonagh’s arrival in Tampa Bay you could argue the Lightning also got a more natural fit.
Offense has not been a problem around here for a while. Tampa Bay was the NHL’s top-scoring team last year and has kicked it up a notch this season. At the current pace, the Lightning will blow past last season’s franchise record for goals in a season.
So Karlsson’s offensive skills would have been a clear upgrade, but in some ways a bit of a luxury. What the Lightning needed then, and now, was a more defensive-minded player. A steadier hand. A guy who competes in the corners and stands firm in front of the net.
What the Lightning needed was a player who looked a lot like Ryan McDonagh.
“For the guys on the bench, when you see Mac go down on one knee and turn his head and take a shot in the back of the shoulder,’’ said Tampa Bay assistant coach Todd Richards, “it’s hard not to go out on the ice on the next shift and, if somebody is going to shoot, to get out of the way of that shot.’’
This is not an argument for McDonagh instead of Karlsson. It’s more of a snapshot in time. The Lightning needed a defenseman who could routinely take on an opponent’s top lines and stars.
The Lightning may be a team best known for its skill and scoring, but it ranks seventh in the league in hits per game (25.5). #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning @TB_Times @dianacnearhos https://t.co/Cy8gF2vJxQ— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 11, 2019
Victor Hedman was already playing the role of a puck-moving defenseman for Tampa Bay, and was eating up an appropriate amount of space under the salary cap. With Karlsson scheduled to be a free agent this summer, the Lightning would have struggled to fit him in on a future payroll, which means he would have essentially been a 15-month loaner had they traded for him last February.
Instead, they got McDonagh, 29, and signed him to a seven-year, $47 million extension.
A year later, the Lightning has improved from 13th to 7th in the NHL in goals-against average and Hedman’s per-game ice time is the lowest it’s been since 2013-14. That bodes well for both the Lightning and Hedman with the possibility of a long postseason ahead.
“We knew what we were getting when we acquired him, and he’s been great for us,’’ Hedman said. “As you say, he’s evened out (our) ice time a little, and he’s going 5-on-5 against the top lines and playing on the (penalty kill) for us. This wasn’t something for a quick run, we wanted him here for a long time.’’
It’s been a few years since McDonagh was making All-Star teams and getting Norris votes but the numbers suggest he’s playing at the same high level he did early in his career with the Rangers.
It had been 10 games since Nikita Kucherov scored a goal for the Lightning, but coach Jon Cooper wasn’t too concerned. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning #FlaPanthers @faiello_mari @TB_Times https://t.co/vtjrxYfsOb— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 11, 2019
He leads the Lightning in blocked shots and plus-minus and is tied for third in even-strength assists. Over the past seven seasons, his plus-minus mark of 122 is second in the NHL behind Brad Marchand and just ahead of players such as Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. If you’re counting from 2014-15, McDonagh actually leads the NHL in plus-minus at 98.
The point is, the Lightning found a player who checked most of the boxes they were looking for last February. The price was high (Vladislav Namestnikov, two prospects and two high draft picks for McDonagh and J.T. Miller) but it’s had a rolling effect on the rest of the roster, including 21-year-old Eric Cernak who has been his most recent partner on the blue line.
“He helps me everywhere, on the ice and off,’’ Cernak said. “Even when I do something bad, he’ll come tell me not to worry about it because we all make mistakes. He trusts me, and that’s important to me.’’
So ask yourself again what you really wanted at the trade deadline last year.
Because a little less might turn out to be a little more.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes