During the offseason, tampabaylightning.com will talk to Lightning players to get their first-hand account of a moment from the 2017-18 season, an update on their summer or just what's on their mind currently.
Ryan McDonagh was part of a blockbuster deadline day deal in 2018 that brought the two-time NHL All-Star (2016, 2017) defenseman to Tampa Bay along with talented forward J.T. Miller to bolster the Bolts' roster for the stretch run and the Cup chase. As told to tampabaylightning.com beat writer Bryan Burns, McDonagh shares his thoughts on what it was like leaving the only NHL organization he ever played for, the frustration of an upper-body injury that delayed his Lightning debut and robbed him of a month of the regular season and the transition from captain of the Rangers to a Lightning locker room filled with veteran leadership.
"I think as the days continued to get closer to the trade deadline, I felt the percentage of a deal happening going up. I would have been more surprised to stay in New York than to have not been traded. And then there's the wonder and waiting to see where you might end up. It was a double whammy for me because I was injured at the time and I couldn't even play games to take my mind off of everything that was going on. Your mind just races. What will happen? Where will you be traded? And just to not be able to play games or practice with the team, to not travel with the team on the road and just kind of staying hunkered down, the days definitely seemed longer that's for sure. It wears on you mentally and then put a little bit of stress on everything with the fact of not knowing where you might end up.
It's no fun being injured in any sport and not fun being injured at any point during the season. You work so hard beginning of the season, training camp and whenever you're playing games to help your team be successful and win games. And then when you're out and injured and not able to help out, you ask anybody, you just want to get back as soon as possible and help the team again and play the game that we love to play. It is a frustrating time, but you've got to understand that injuries are a part of the game. You've just got to control what you can and try and focus on staying in shape and getting healthy as fast as you can and then when it is time to play again you're able to step in and play the way you need to play. Thankfully, when I ultimately did get traded to Tampa Bay, they were in no rush to get me back in the lineup. They were doing very well in the standings and they wanted me to take my time and make sure I got close to 100 percent before I jumped back into game opportunities with them.
It was a pretty chaotic year as far as the season and how it was going in New York. We were kind of sputtering down as far as our play and the standings go. Those aren't fun years when you're part of a team like that. So to kind of flip the switch and do a 180 and join a team like Tampa Bay who at the time of the trade was I think first in the League standings, having played them a couple times in the season, knew the skill level and the talent level and how deep the team was, how experienced the team was, the possibility of having a good chance to win there and joining a good group of guys and a bunch of teammates I'm familiar with or players I've played against for a while, I figured that was going to be the smoothest transition of any team to get traded to. There was a familiarity with them and the excitement of knowing you're joining a team and a group that's poised for something special hopefully.
Video: Ryan McDonagh on joining the Lightning
I think the biggest thing that's going through your head when you're traded to a new team is you just want to show your new teammates what you can do to help them win, play to your strengths and do whatever's asked of you from the coaching staff. You can get to know guys away from the rink and off the ice, but you really build that chemistry, that respect, that camaraderie and everything that goes along with building a team by playing in game situations with them, going and showing your courage and showing your willingness to battle and compete and do whatever it takes to win. Those are things I try and keep in my game regardless of the situation and hopefully it feeds off to the rest of the guys in the team to continue to push themselves and raise their game as well so the team is ultimately better.
I think I got - I don't know exactly what it was - 10 or 11 games in the regular season with Tampa Bay and I probably needed every one of them to kind of get the chemistry and get the feeling of the type of pace and the type of plays that are expected of you and the position you need to be in as far as where we want our defensemen up in the D zone and up the ice and special teams-wise getting used to new groupings and pairings there. But I felt honestly it came quicker than I would have anticipated. I've never been traded before midseason but 10 or 11 games seems like a lot. It goes quick in our sport and then come playoff time was really where I felt I was able to gain confidence and it kind of became second nature as far as just read and reacting and playing the way you want to play as a defenseman.
Coming into a new locker room, particularly when you've been a captain for your previous team, is just a feeling out process. The Lightning locker room was full of guys with experience and leaders in different fashions, more talkative guys, more lead by example guys and a great mixture of guys that keep the room loose or keep the room focused when it's time to bear down and get to work. So, for me, it was just making sure to get to know guys and trying to introduce myself and share the type of guy I am in kind of one-on-one situations. When you're hanging out after practice or talking about the game as soon as it's over, I think that's where I kind of wanted to start building relationships with some of these new teammates that I maybe hadn't met before. As far as the in-game stuff, I think you need to really focus on just playing well and not forcing anything. Stammer [Lightning center Steven Stamkos] is the captain, but he's got a lot of support there, so it's never the same guy talking or saying things that need to be done differently or calling guys out or calling the team out for not playing the way we need to play. I think it just kind of rotated around from one guy to the next.
Video: TOR@TBL: McDonagh nets top-shelf goal from high slot
I try to be both a lead by example leader and a vocal leader. Obviously, you want to be a voice for the team and you have to be in certain situations when it's called upon. I like to try and keep my emotions in check at all times just because it is such an up and down game and sometimes when things are going bad, they're not as bad as you think and when things are going good, it's not as good as you think either. I just try and keep an even keel as far as my approach and talking about our team's play or talking to somebody one-on-one. It's all about just keeping positive and keeping focused on what you can control and how you can get better to help the team. I think as I go through more experiences with the team, I'll feel more comfortable speaking up. I didn't get too many games in the grand scheme of things to really feel respected in the room. I feel like my teammates respect me obviously, but just with being around them more and going through more situations together, those situations will come up where if I feel like I want to say something I'll feel comfortable doing so. That will come I'm sure at some point this season. This group is extremely experienced and that's tough to find today in the NHL where there's a group of guys that are still hungry and very motivated but have been through a lot of ups and downs and can really relate to one another. Sometimes, not a lot needs to be said too. That's what's kind of unique about this group. They won a lot of hockey games before I got there and won some games after I got there. It didn't take much to notice when our group was off and it didn't take much to be said either to kind of turn the tide and get guys going in the right direction again.
I'm extremely excited to get rolling again in Tampa. There's nothing like the start of a season to build your excitement. All the team bonding you do, going on those first couple road trips, going through the hard work and preparation of training camp and the meetings and everything that goes along with training camp, it just helps you kind of get off on the right foot with your teammates and start something fresh and build from there. Obviously, it's my first training camp too with a new team, so it'll be fun to experience what that's like. But just having gotten to know a handful of teammates and for the majority of the team to return - we have almost the exact same team coming back - it's great for me that I don't really have to meet many new players and everybody's gotten to meet me at least at some point last year. That helps me feel good about myself even more going into this season.
Defensively, I think we found out - at least in my short amount of time with the team - we've got a lot of different guys that can play in a lot of different situations. That's a big key to success for a team is you're not relying on one, maybe two guys to play in all situations. We've got guys that can fill in different roles and mix and match pairings, and our coaching staff wasn't afraid to throw different guys out with different partners depending on what was going on in the game and that's a sign of a good group with a lot of depth. I think our D corps recognized that as the season and the playoffs neared that no matter what kind of situation was thrown at us we felt we could handle it. If we needed a goal or we needed to protect a lead, we felt we had the guys on the back end there to get the job done. It's exciting knowing we have all those pieces back and we can continue to build as a group."