TORONTO — When the Lightning signed defenseman Darren Raddysh two years ago, they saw a player with untapped potential.
Raddysh was 25 years old and a four-year veteran of the AHL, but he had never played in an NHL game.
He had played four full seasons of juniors before that, ending with an 81-point season that earned him the Ontario League’s defenseman of the year honors. Still, Raddysh was never drafted, never considered a major prospect, and the Lightning were his third NHL organization in four years.
For his new coach at the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, he was an unknown other than that his younger brother, Taylor, was a forward prospect knocking on the door of the NHL.
“I didn’t know much about him,” said Crunch coach Ben Groulx. “I remember a conversation I had with Stacy Roest, our general manager, and he really liked (Raddysh). He was curious to see how things would play out being in our environment and where Darren was at in his career. And when we saw him, we knew right away there was something there.”
The Lightning need to unearth hidden gems like Raddysh to sustain their success because the salary cap doesn’t allow them to keep their roster riches. They need reclamation projects to pop. And going into this season, one of the biggest questions was how they were going to rebuild their blue line after trading dependable defenseman Ryan McDonagh and losing defenseman Jan Rutta in free agency. So Raddysh had an opportunity.
Raddysh didn’t make the opening-night roster, but went to Syracuse and continued to do what he has done his entire career: work to get better. After putting up 51 points (13 goals) in 50 games, excelling in every aspect for the Crunch, he first earned a callup, then earned the trust of his NHL teammates and coaches.
Fast forward to Tuesday night. With just 21 NHL games under his belt, Raddysh, at age 27, made his postseason debut in his hometown, Toronto. The Lightning lost two of their top defensemen, Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak, to injuries in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Maple Leafs, and Raddysh played 23 minutes, 37 seconds, his most in the NHL, while assuming Hedman’s spot on the second power-play unit and logging additional ice time on the penalty kill with Cernak sidelined.
With his family in the crowd — including his brother, now a forward with the Blackhawks — at Scotiabank Arena, Raddysh stepped up when the Lightning were down to four defensemen, logging five shot attempts, five hits and three blocked shots in the 7-3 win.
“It was cool,” Raddysh said of his playoff debut. “Playing in Toronto, it’s one of the biggest markets in the world. So to be here and playing in the playoffs was awesome. And to have the group that’s here now and how they’ve won the last couple of years and you know they know how to get it done and just to kind of lean off them and their experience … it’s just a good experience.”
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It has been a process for Raddysh. In his first season in Syracuse, Groulx saw him do little things well defensively — protecting his end, blocking shots, killing penalties and playing with physicality.
“I think this year, he let himself go a little bit more,” Groulx said. “He was more into the rush. He’s got a great shot, and he was hitting the net way more. I think that’s one part of his game that he has improved. He’s got a big shot, and he’s more accurate now.
“But for me, it’s more about maturity. The timing was good; he believes in himself. He knows what he has to do. He understands that he’s at the right place. He’s got the support of the organization. Everybody likes him here. All that makes you feel good. And all of a sudden you’re at the right time at the right place with the right people, and bang, it happens.”
Still, the AHL isn’t the NHL, but because Raddysh is older and has played a lot of hockey, his maturity is beyond that of a typical rookie. He is calm under pressure and has a quiet confidence, which is what you want from a defenseman. He’s not bothered by the postseason spotlight.
“He’s kind of that American League success story,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s paid his dues in the American League, and I thought Ben did a great job with him in the minors bringing him along. There’s a kid that just stuck with it and felt his progression and he felt himself grow.
“I thought there was a chance he could have made our team out of training camp. The numbers didn’t fit for him, and now he’s getting his chance, and boy, is he making the most of it.”
Raddysh has found a defense partner in Mikhail Sergachev, who was picked as the Ontario League’s top defenseman the year before Raddysh. Sergachev said that the way Raddysh plays with the puck reminds him of the comfort he had playing with then-partner Kevin Shattenkirk during the Lightning’s 2020 Stanley Cup-winning season.
“He has confidence with the puck and without the puck,” Sergachev said. “He’s dependable. You can put him in any situation and he will thrive. The most exciting thing for me is the puck play. I love it when my partner is playing with the puck, giving me the puck and I give it back to him knowing that the guy can make plays. It’s exciting.”
Though it took awhile for Raddysh to get to the NHL and become a contributor, he has quickly become an important piece of the Lightning’s defense corps.
“I give credit to a lot of my coaches that were down (in Syracuse),” he said. “They always believed in me, and they always believed in what I can do to get to the next level. I just think you learn a lot from playing a lot of hockey down there.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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