NASHVILLE — When Ryan McDonagh went through the double doors that separate the hallways between the locker rooms at Bridgestone Arena following the Lightning’s win over the Predators on Saturday night, it took only moments for a crowd to gather.
Postgame activities on the road always are rushed, with players getting ready for the bus, and equipment bags and supplies being packed and loaded. Within 30 minutes, there hardly is a sign a team had been there.
But when Predators defenseman McDonagh emerged to say hello to his former Lightning teammates Saturday, seven players quickly circled him to catch up.
“We still talk pretty often, but anytime you get a chance to spend a little bit more time in person with him, it’s always nice,” said defenseman Zach Bogosian, part of a group of Tampa Bay players who went to dinner with McDonagh on Friday in Nashville.
“You know the bond that you have from winning together, it’ll never be broken. It’s a little weird to see him in yellow. We all miss him, for sure.”
It has been 4½ months since McDonagh was traded to the Predators after four-plus seasons and two Stanley Cup wins with the Lightning. He saw his old teammates in the preseason when the Lightning relocated their training camp to Nashville due to Hurricane Ian. This trip offered another chance to catch up and was the first time McDonagh faced his former team on the ice.
“Having left Tampa in the summer, you realize how special a place it is, how special a group it is, not being around them daily,” McDonagh said before Saturday’s game. “It will take some time.”
The Lightning have seen several pieces of their championship teams go elsewhere since last season, but McDonagh’s loss was especially difficult for players. It was unexpected, coming days after their season ended with a loss to the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup final.
“He is not just a hell of a player, but he’s a hell of a guy,” said defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. “He’s my favorite teammate, for sure. He’s (goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s) favorite teammate, I know that. It’s been a pleasure playing and learning from him, and I still like to watch his games sometimes. Just the stuff he does, the consistency of it, is on another level.”
On a team full of stars, McDonagh’s game wasn’t flashy, but his consistency and leadership made him a star among his teammates. While Victor Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev formed one of the top trios of left-shot defensemen in the league, McDonagh’s steadiness kept everyone calm on the back end.
He led by example, whether it was blocking shots or leading the penalty kill. He had a feel for when something needed to be said to push his teammates. And when McDonagh spoke, everyone listened. His absence has left a void.
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“It was really hard losing him,” Sergachev said. “But I think he’s in a good spot here, too. … The good thing is, we won two championships together and almost three. In my mind, that’s what I’m going to remember the most about him.”
The Predators, who have McDonagh paired with 2021-22 Norris Trophy runnerup Roman Josi, already have seen some of the things that made him special with the Lightning.
“His work ethic, for a guy that’s had a lot of success, the way he’s able to pay attention and translate things in meetings, he’s got good practice habits, I think it’s all those things,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “You think about a guy that’s had the level of success he’s had, now you see it for real and you realize not only how good a player he is, but all the reasons behind why he’s such a good player.”
McDonagh said he’s often asked by his new teammates about what led to the Lightning’s success, which he said helps him put what his former team accomplished into perspective.
“You’re coming into a new team, and the guys are saying how unbelievable it was to watch your team go on those runs,” McDonagh said. “The respect that you have from your peers, your teammates, other guys in the league, I think it shows just what a feat it was.”
McDonagh said that getting together for dinner with his friends on the Lightning “felt like old times, just comfortable.”
“I’m always checking in on them, seeing how they’re doing, how they’re playing, how guys are feeling and stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of ingrained in you at that point when you’ve accomplished what we did and with the bonds that you made with those guys. So, I always wish the best for them going forward.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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