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Ryan McDonagh Extension Solidifies Left Side

July 2, 2018, 12:32 PM ET [30 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
At some point, preaching provident spending until the Lightning’s two best forwards are signed is old news. The Lightning are living in the moment. I guess re-signing Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point is next summer’s concern. Right now, Tampa Bay is busy re-signing players they picked up in last summer’s big trade deadline swap.

Ryan McDonagh’s contract is too long, and the AAV is high for a defenseman whose offensive capabilities seem to have leveled off at single-digit goals and 20- to 30-ish assists. But Steve Yzerman’s bet is that he wins a Cup with Tampa Bay or he won’t be around to clean up the mess. Securing McDonagh past this upcoming season ensures that the left side of the top four is taken care of. The cap will go up, and it will reduce the severity of the AAV in the remaining few years when McDonagh’s efficacy inevitability erodes.

McDonagh is a useful player. If there is one thing the NHL has taught us repeatedly it is that context matters. Pittsburgh is the best example of a franchise that helps miscasts thrive in a new milieu. Justin Schultz was run out of Edmonton with pitchforks; Trevor Daley was traded for Rob Scuderi! Obviously, McDonagh was never a miscast in New York, but Pittsburgh is a useful example of how environment matters, and Tampa Bay knows that McDonagh’s best attribute is that he sacrifices himself for the team’s greater good.

McDonagh’s usage has consequences for the rest of the defensive group. During the postseason, the Lightning used McDonagh and Anton Stralman as a shutdown pair. They played against opponents’ top forward lines, logging 22 minutes a game. They were invaluable on the penalty kill. Logically, that sucking up of minutes against the most fearsome opponents relieves the pressure on the other four defensemen.

In the first two rounds, the drop-off from the first to the second line was obvious, like in the Boston series when McDonagh and Stralman were deployed against the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line. And when they played New Jersey, it was the Taylor Hall line. That freed up Hedman to ferry the puck up the ice and attack off the wing. The Lightning need playmakers from the back end, and Hedman is one of the best in the game at engineering offense on and off the puck. One of the biggest problems against Washington was that there was not a drop-off from first to second line.

From a zone-start perspective, McDonagh and Stralman had 75 faceoff starts in the defensive zone, highest on the squad during the playoffs. That makes life way easier for Mikhail Sergachev and Braydon Coburn, who started 50 draws in the offensive zone and only had 18 in the defensive zone. McDonagh and Stralman act as a shield for the most vulnerable defensive pair [Sergachev and Coburn) and as a springboard for their most creative defenseman [Hedman].

The Lightning still have Dan Girardi for another year, and in that time McDonagh can mitigate all the damage that Girardi is capable of inflicting. The two have experience from their time in New York, and during the regular season, in 14 games together, they had a -1 Corsi Plus-Minus. That isn’t great, but Victor Hedman and Girardi had a -66 Corsi Plus-Minus, albeit in 69 games as a pairing. One way to keep Hedman fresh would be to keep Girardi away from the Norris Trophy winner, and McDonagh is capable of suffering so others can thrive.

At age 29, McDonagh likely can’t improve from a skill perspective. He is not going to become faster or more dynamic. But he can become smarter. The most important aspect for any defenseman in today’s NHL is how quickly he can get the puck off his stick. McDonagh would be wise to use the regular season to practice catch-and-release shooting and making quicker outlet passes on retrievals. In today’s NHL, mobility to retrieve and defend in one’s own zone and pinch in the offensive zone are requisites, but to be truly effective come postseason, the Lightning defensemen need to get the puck off their sticks faster. Tampa Bay succumbed to rigor mortis against the Capitals as the shooting and passing lanes evaporated and their attempts were denied (and sometimes turned into counterattacks).

McDonagh’s job is to stifle opponents’ best forwards and keep the offense humming. With Florida as his permanent residence, it is time to get to work on improving his game through a snappier release on shots and passes, and helping the Lightning make good on their Cup window.
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