TAMPA — In the moments after Tanner Jeannot learned he had been traded to the Lightning from the Predators, his mind started racing: a new team, a new city, new teammates, a new future — all coming at him at once.
The Predators were in Arizona, and Jeannot was a last-minute trade-related scratch. He knew he was going somewhere but didn’t know his destination. Shortly after being told it was Tampa Bay, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, now with Nashville, sent Jeannot’s contact info to a bunch of his old Lightning teammates.
Around the same time, Jeannot’s name and cellphone number popped into the Lightning’s leadership group text-message thread from general manager Julien BriseBois. Within minutes, while Jeannot was on a flight back to Nashville, he received messages from about 10 of his new teammates welcoming him aboard.
“They were saying, ‘Let us know if you need anything. We’re here to help,’ " Jeannot said. “It was huge to, in the midst of all the chaos, get that.
“It just takes that one worry away when you’re already welcomed in with the guys. You feel like, OK, that’s going to be good. Now on to the next thing. What do I need to do for my family? What do I need to do to just get ready?”
The welcome wagon has become almost an indoctrination into becoming a Lightning player in season, a gesture that doesn’t take much time but goes a long way with players acquired at the deadline.
“I just didn’t expect it,” said center Nick Paul, who was acquired at last season’s deadline. “I remember reading (Steven Stamkos’) text. And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool,’ and then also more like (Ondrej Palat) and McDonagh. All these guys started reaching out. And then just right from day one in the room, they just let me be who I am.”
The Lightning have mastered the art of assimilating new players into their group. It’s a process that takes work and patience from players and coaches alike, but the team’s ability to make its acquisitions feel comfortable on and off the ice is a significant reason the Lightning are in position to make a run at a fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup final.
It takes time
During his first few days after arriving from San Jose in a March 1 trade, center Mikey Eyssimont spent much of his time before games huddled with assistant coach Jeff Halpern, getting crash courses on the Lightning’s system and style. Eyssimont and Jeannot have immersed themselves in video study to help them get up to speed.
“As coaches, you get a little bit of a feel for how much they can process at one time, and you start asking guys if they can handle more,” Halpern said. “Every guy is different.”
Eyssimont remembers the first thing coach Jon Cooper told him: Just relax. Be yourself. Don’t get frustrated. It’s the same message Cooper gave Paul and trade acquisitions Brandon Hagel, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow before him.
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“He realizes it’s going to take time to jell,” Eyssimont said. “So that’s a good thing to hear.”
Said Cooper, “You’ve just got to slowly integrate them into your system. You understand that these are tiny looks, and you let the guys slowly become part of our group.
“You just tell them to play to their strengths and don’t try to do anything that they’re unaccustomed to because they’re trying to impress the coaching staff. We traded for you for a reason. Do what you do best, and then we’ll get the rest figured out.”
Faith in the process
Jeannot and Eyssimont can look to Hagel as an example. Hagel felt immense pressure to perform after arriving in a March 2022 deal that included two first-round draft picks going to Chicago. He started off slowly as the Lightning experimented with where he might fit.
“I think it worked out good for me because when I first got here, they gave me the example of Coleman and Goodrow (both acquired in February 2020), that it took them a little bit of time to kind of find their way and find the movement,” Hagel said. “And then the (2020 playoff) bubble hit and they’re known as one of the best lines in the entire league.”
Halpern, who was traded twice at the deadline as a player (including from the Lightning to the Kings in 2010), said change comes when players clear their head of the pressure that comes from joining a new team.
“You want to impress your teammates, you want to justify the trade, you want to prove other teams wrong, so you have all those emotions, and with that you’re trying to blend into the group,” he said. “The systems change things. And I think the biggest thing is when guys stop thinking about those changes and where they’re supposed to be on the ice and they’re just playing. That’s when you really get to see them as players, and that takes time.”
Hagel can pinpoint when that moment came for him: when the Lightning beat the Rangers in last season’s Eastern Conference final. Cooper had experimented with him on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn late in the regular season and went back to it after the Lightning fell behind the Rangers by two games. The trio played a major role in locking down New York’s top offensive threats as Tampa Bay came back to win the series.
" ‘Coop’ kind of came up to me and we gave each other a hug and he said, ‘It took a little bit, but we found your way,’ " Hagel said. “That’s kind of when I finally understood it as a player and put that mental side away from me. You just felt like you had a purpose, you had a role, and you’re back into the mix of something really, really special.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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