As if the Rangers’ light return from the Lightning for Ryan McDonagh (and J.T. Miller) hadn’t been analyzed enough, along comes No. 27 with a Conn Smythe-worthy performance.
But more than three years later, the most intriguing part of the 2018 deadline trade in which the Blueshirts sent McDonagh and Miller to the Lightning isn’t so much that the Rangers, under then-general manager Jeff Gorton, whiffed on their evaluation of Libor Hajek as a must-have, difference-making, top-four defenseman, but that there was comparatively little interest in McDonagh when the Rangers placed him on the auction block.
This was no bidding war. Only a handful of teams were in on McDonagh, who was coming off a couple of down years, had been battered by injuries over the preceding four seasons and was a year away from unrestricted free agency. The two-playoffs rental at a club-friendly $4.7 million per did not hold much sway.
Tampa Bay was in from the start. Boston had initial interest, but that seemed to evaporate after the Bruins went all-in to pull off the rental deal for Rick Nash. Pittsburgh was in, but had little to offer. The Panthers were bidders, but weren’t willing to offer all that much in return.
Other than overrating Hajek, who is a serviceable third-pair guy about to be made extinct by some permutation of Zac Jones, Matt Robertson and a veteran import, Gorton’s mistake was plowing ahead with the trade instead of pulling back McDonagh and putting the captain back on the market at the time of the draft.
Again, though, the Rangers were certain they’d pulled off a coup in acquiring Hajek. In fact, they had to add Miller to the deal in order to get the defenseman. Imagine: McDonagh alone was not enough to get Brett Howden, a first-rounder and Hajek.
The truth is, McDonagh had peaked at age 24, plateaued at age 25 and began to decline at age 26. His eighth-place finish in the 2013-14 Norris balloting was the highest of his tenure in New York — and he slipped to 11th, 15th and 17th, respectively, the next three seasons.
His game never truly regained its glitter after he suffered his first separated shoulder on a cheap shot from Alexandre Burrows in the final minute of a two-goal victory in Vancouver late in the 2013-14 season. At that point, the defenseman had missed only two of a possible 248 career games.
After that, though, there was another left shoulder separation a month into the following season; at least one concussion while the subject of three different head shots; a broken foot during the 2015 conference finals on which he played three games; a broken hand that sidelined McDonagh for the start of the 2016 playoffs; and an upper body injury that sent him to injured reserve nearly three weeks before he was traded.
The injuries took their toll. Assuming the captaincy of a vessel that began to sink a year into his tenure took its toll. Shouldering the matchup-pair responsibility while partnered with Dan Girardi and then Nick Holden took its toll. Being expected to do everything took its toll. The shine was off the romance. McDonagh was a diminished asset at the wrong time.
The wrong time for the Rangers.
But the perfect time for the Lightning.
Speaking of the Lightning, the least interesting finals of the century produced the second-strongest Stanley Cup champion of the 2000s. Uncommon depth, both on defense and up front, superior goaltending, a group of marquee forwards, discipline and the ability to beat all comers at their own respective games constitute the links that bind the 2021 Lightning to the preeminent 2000 Devils.
No team in NHL history has ever matched Montreal’s Big 3 of the 1970s that featured Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. But I dare say no team has ever presented a six-man defense equal to the Devils’ second Cup-winner, which featured Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, Brian Rafalski, Vlad Malakhov and Colin White.
These double-dipping Lightning come close (though they are not quite equal) with their group featuring Victor Hedman, McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, David Savard and Jan Rutta. When deep enough to go with Sergachev on the third pair, you’re onto something special.
Yes, of course the Islanders should be in on Vladimir Tarasenko despite the convoluted cap situation general manager Lou Lamoriello would have to overcome, but the Devils simply have to be all in on the elite St. Louis winger who would be the perfect partner for Jack Hughes.
Here’s something else these Lightning and those Devils have in common — the ability to get players to sign for less in order to be a part of it. There’s more to it for Tampa Bay than being located in no-state-tax Florida. Ownership has created an environment that serves its group. So has the coaching staff. The Lightning do have inherent advantages. But they take advantage of them and exploit them. That’s the idea.
Once again, the hockey in the final was not of a particularly high level. But that’s what happens when the league goes all in on four rounds of smash-mouth, survival-of-the-fittest hockey that leaves finalists depleted, exhausted and wounded and the final round itself less than the showcase the sport deserves.
The Lightning’s loss in Game 4 in Montreal, which brought the series back to Tampa for the clincher, reminded me of the 1981 Islanders’ loss in Game 4 in Minnesota to the North Stars that set up the clincher for the following match at the Coliseum.
“Never in a million years did I ever think that anybody would do anything to lose a game,” Mike Bossy said during a conversation about the Dynasty during these semifinals. “But in a sense, I can tell you honestly I don’t think we cared that we lost it because we were so confident we were going to win.
“I think we just figured, oh hell, we’ll win at home and that’s even sweeter.”
The score of Game 5 was 5-1.