NEW YORK — Shortly after the Lightning signed veteran defenseman Anton Stralman on July 1, associate coach Rick Bowness said he spoke on the phone with his good friend, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
Stralman, 28, had played for Vigneault the previous season.
"He told me, 'You're going to love this guy,' " Bowness said. "(Vigneault) loved Stralman; he really did. He was disappointed to lose him. And I can see why."
The Rangers' loss has been the Lightning's gain, Stralman playing the best hockey of his career in the first season of a five-year, $22.5 million deal. Stralman, an unsung stalwart on a deep Rangers blue line, has shined on Tampa Bay's top pairing with fellow Swede Victor Hedman, a big reason the Lightning is in the Eastern Conference final and facing Stralman's former team in Game 2 tonight at Madison Square Garden.
"He's definitely one of those guys you do not appreciate until you have him on your team," coach Jon Cooper said. "His preparation, his calm, his hockey sense, everything, it's phenomenal. He's the total package. That was an unreal signing for us, because he's changed the dynamic of our defense, and it's him that's changed it."
If it were up to Stralman, he would still be a Ranger. He wanted to remain in the place where he rejuvenated his career after leaving a Devils training camp tryout without a contract in 2011-12. Vigneault said Stralman "played a major role" in the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup final last season as a top-four defenseman who "played big minutes against top players."
"Every team has (salary) cap issues," Vigneault said. "And we had cap issues at that time."
Yet, the Rangers still signed former Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle to a two-year, $9 million deal last offseason, thinking he could spark their power play.
"Honestly, all I wanted was to come back," Stralman said. "I don't think a cap issue was an issue. Definitely not. I think they wanted to move in another direction, and that's fine with me. The only disappointment I had was they should have told me.
"I think when a player puts in heart and soul for a team, if they don't want to keep you, you should have the respect to tell the player. It had not been handled nicely."
It might have been a blessing in disguise for Stralman. He has flourished, given more freedom in the Lightning's system where he is encouraged to jump into the rush. He also has been given an opportunity on the power play, something he rarely got in New York. As a result, Stralman said, he has gained confidence offensively, racking up career highs in goals (nine), assists (30) and points (39) in the regular season. He had seven goals and 31 assists in the past three seasons combined.
"I think I'm moving in the right direction, what I want to become as a player," Stralman said. "I've been trying the last couple years to combine my newly discovered defensive part of my game and the old offensive part.
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"It seems like I'm taking the right steps at the right moment and feel comfortable with the player I am and where I want to be."
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh isn't surprised, saying Stralman has always been consistent and a very elusive puck mover.
"You think you put a puck in an area where you think you can get a good lick on him," McDonagh said. "And he uses his skating ability and strength to fight us off."
"It's remarkable what he does," Lightning All-Star center Tyler Johnson said. "He makes it look so easy. People call him, 'Mr. Casual;' it's who he is. He makes some of those plays where, if you're watching, you wouldn't think it's a hard play to do. But when you're in that position, you don't know how he does it. He makes everything look easy."
Cooper said Stralman might not have received the fanfare of fellow defensemen McDonagh, Dan Girardi or Marc Staal with the Rangers, but he is one of the top-five defensemen in the league.
"He may never win the Norris Trophy, but his partner will," Cooper said of the award for the league's top defenseman. "That's how good he can make you look."