When Steve Yzerman struck a deal for defenseman Ryan McDonagh at the 2018 trade deadline, the Tampa Bay Lightning general manager did so knowing he'd have McDonagh for at least two potential playoff runs with designs on signing the former New York Rangers captain to a long-term contract.
Yzerman made good on that vision on the first day of 2018 free agency, inking McDonagh to a seven-year contract extension that will take effect after his current contract expires at the end of the upcoming season, meaning McDonagh will remain in a Lightning sweater through 2025-26.
"We really liked his two-way game. We like the fact he's big, strong, a good skater, a strong skater, especially like the character of the person," Yzerman said. "When he came in, we felt he made us a better team. We knew he made us a better team."
McDonagh could have waited until the end of next season -- when he would have become an unrestricted free agent and free to pursue a new contract with any team in the NHL -- to sign an extension. But after hearing how he fit into Yzerman's future plans and witnessing first-hand the atmosphere surrounding the Tampa Bay area during the Bolts' latest playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final, McDonagh decided he wanted to remain with the Lightning organization long term.
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"For me, it's not like I'm signing into a blind situation where some of these free agents now that are signing with teams that they've never been to or never played with and I think that's where I feel so comfortable and confident and why do the extension now," McDonagh said via phone conference call an hour after the extension was announced. "…It's a great situation at all angles: hockey wise, the city and everything it has to offer and family-wise it's pretty much a total package for where I'm at in my career and where my family's at."
McDonagh said despite having to sit out with a hand injury for 10 games following the trade to the Lightning, he felt he fit in seamlessly with the team, the Bolts' style of play allowing him to do what he does best: move the puck, get up the ice and make plays in the offensive zone.
"Once I got my feet kind of back underneath of me and we were kind of heading full steam into the playoffs, it definitely felt like I could help the team be successful playing some good minutes," he said. "It only helps having some great depth on the back end there."
McDonagh averaged 22:31 minutes a game and 2:04 shorthanded time on ice during Tampa Bay's playoff run, second most on the Bolts for both. He also blocked a team-most 35 shots and contributed five assists, tied for second-most among Bolts defensemen, during the postseason.
At 29 years old currently, McDonagh's extension will keep him with the Lightning through age 37. Asked if he's in the prime of his career, McDonagh said it's all about timing.
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"The team we have right now in Tampa is so deep and so talented and skilled, hopefully it's not as physically taxing on my body going forward where you're having to play a ton of minutes," he said with a chuckle. "We have so much depth there where we can roll all our lines and keep playing at a good pace and play guys in certain roles, special teams, and kind of keep everybody fresh as we go about the season. For me personally, I still feel like I can get stronger, get better every summer working on different things that I need to keep improving on. And certainly being able to get a taste of what Tampa's system is, their style, is going to help me this summer even more going into next year, that pace and that skill and that style that we want to play."
With McDonagh now locked in long-term as well as the eight-year extension Victor Hedman signed two offseasons ago, Tampa Bay now has two cornerstone defensemen under contract through at least the 2024-25 season. Plus, up-and-comer Mikhail Sergachev still has two more years on his entry-level contract before he's a restricted free agent. The Bolts blueline will look much the same this season with Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev back along with Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn, all unrestricted free agents in 2019. McDonagh said he's looking forward to coming returning next season with relatively the same group to try and finish what they came oh-so-close to accomplishing last season when they lost in Game 7 of the ECF to the eventual Stanley-Cup champion Washington Capitals.
"That was a big point of emphasis the coaching staff and management told us is that we got this far and came this close with this group, it's not going to change too much," McDonagh said. "Tt might here and there, just naturally a couple of moves, but in the grand scheme of things it's going to be the majority of the same players back. So if we can improve and have a really good summer of training and stay healthy this season, we give ourselves another chance to hopefully get over that hump and get back to being in that last stage and finish. That's what we're all trying to accomplish."