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By Acquiring Ryan McDonagh at Trade Deadline, Lightning Make Themselves the Team to Beat

Ryan McDonagh joined the Tampa Bay Lightning ahead of Monday's trade deadline, adding to an already deep defensive corps and leaving Rangers fans rooting for their captain and his new team.

The most consequential deal in the NHL on Monday hadn’t been announced when the 3 p.m. Eastern deadline came and went. Minutes later, though, word came that the New York Rangers in the nick of time sent defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning for forward Vladislav Namestnikov (Miller’s cheaper equal) and a slew of prospects (Libor Hajek and Brett Howden) and draft picks (Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2018 and a conditional second-rounder in 2019).

McDonagh, under contract for this season and next with a team-friendly cap number, wasn’t the best player on the market—that was Ottawa’s two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who will likely find himself dealt in the summer—but he was the best player traded. Playing behind Victor Hedman he will bolster the Bolts’ already fearsome defensive left side. And his arrival makes it hard to conceive of the Lightning as anything other than the team to beat not just in the East but in the entire NHL. The Lightning already had the league’s best offense and best goal differential; the Vegas Golden Knights, nipping at their heels in both columns, acquired no player with a McDonagh-level impact, instead dealing three picks to Detroit, including this year’s first-rounder, for second-tier scoring winger Tomas Tatar. The Lightning can also breathe a sigh of relief at landing McDonagh without having to deal top prospects Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev.

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McDonagh is likely to anchor the second pair beside his longtime first-pair partner in New York, Dan Girardi, whose game has ticked up since he headed south last offseason for a reduced role. Funny enough, Hedman’s partner, Anton Stralman, was also a Ranger defenseman and frequent McDonagh partner from 2011-14, a span during which the team won six playoff series. (No word yet on if the Lightning are making a play for Stu Bickel.)

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While he remains a top-pair-level talent, McDonagh’s game has been trending down since those days; he peaked as a scorer and as a defender in 2013-14, when he was the best skater on a team that made a surprising run to the Cup Final. He finished eighth in the Norris voting that year, which has turned out to be his best finish to date. In fairness, he’s taken his fair share of battering since, including a 2015 broken foot (he played on it for several games in the playoffs) and a 2016 concussion. He’s also been made to cover for the shortcomings of his partners, including Girardi (although this is not infrequently part of a first-pair defenseman’s remit).

Rangers fans wouldn’t be wrong to wonder what might have been, when it comes to the captain’s Broadway career. He turned up with little fanfare, acquired in 2009 from Montreal, when he was still playing collegiately at Wisconsin, in return for Scott Gomez and his albatross of a contract.  There’s an alternate universe in which McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist lead the team to a Cup or two and McDonagh becomes a Brian Leetch-like Blueshirt legend. He leaves instead at 28, probably 16 months before he would have left the rebuilding club in free agency, headed to the very same Lightning that knocked out the President’s Trophy-winning club of 2014-15 in a seven-game Conference Final and had fleeced the Rangers in the Martin St. Louis-Ryan Callahan trade the year before.

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Rangers fans will be stuck rooting for Tampa Bay in the playoffs anyway. The conditional draft pick New York acquired in the trade Monday reportedly becomes a first-rounder if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2018 or 2019.

The Lightning will likely spend most of these playoffs, however deep they go, with one of Hedman or McDonagh on the ice. Hedman has averaged 24:26 of ice time in his 65 career playoff games (including 27:26 a game as the 2015-16 Lightning landed in Game 7 of the Conference Final), while McDonagh has averaged 25:43 in his 96-game playoff career, including 27:21 in the Rangers’ two rounds last spring. Good luck scoring on them.