Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
It was the tale of two seasons for the Tampa Bay Lightning last year. They had arguably the best regular season of any team in history but then fell apart in the playoffs, being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a similar trend followed by a few Lightning players, but none more than #27, defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Related: McDonagh Making His Norris Case
In many aspects, McDonagh had the best regular season of his career. He set career highs in points and plus-minus, and he also played all 82 games for the first time since 2011-12. In the postseason, however, he played an average of 23 minutes in four games, didn’t record a point and was minus-six. The playoffs were a disaster for the Lightning and McDonagh only added fuel to the fire.
Previous Playoff Experience
Before coming to the Lightning in 2018, McDonagh played in 96 playoff games for the New York Rangers. Through his first 37 playoff games, he only registered eight points and was plus-three. What’s more interesting are his statistics in the first rounds of the playoffs.
In 2011, McDonagh didn’t record a point and had an even plus-minus, and he was minus-three with zero points in 2012. In the first round of the 2013 playoffs — the same playoffs where he posted a total 17 points in 25 games — he didn’t have any points in seven games against the Philadelphia Flyers and was minus-two. He turned it around with four points in five first-round games in 2015 but then only played three playoff games in 2016 and didn’t get on the score sheet.
He had two points in the first round of 2017 and four points in five first-round games with the Lightning in 2018. In general, McDonagh isn’t a great first-round playoff performer. For his career, he’s minus-one and had 46 points in 117 games, and he’s averaged just over 25 minutes of ice time per game. With the Rangers, McDonagh averaged about 0.42 points per playoff game and with the Lightning, he’s averaging about 0.23 points per playoff game.
McDonagh isn’t a defenseman who’s always going to light the lamp, but the fact he hasn’t scored a point in multiple first rounds and has been a minus player is an issue. If the Lightning want to win the Stanley Cup in 2019-20, McDonagh will need to step up.
For most of the regular season, McDonagh was a constant on the second line with rookie Erik Cernak. However, in Games 3 and 4, No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman went down with an injury, and that’s when McDonagh and Cernak became the No. 1 pairing.
McDonagh was even in plus-minus in Game 3 with 30 shifts and 23 minutes of ice time. He had four hits and three blocks, but the Lightning went on to lose the game, 3-1. In Game 4, the Bolts lost to the Blue Jackets, 7-3, and McDonagh was a team-worst minus-four.
With the Rangers, McDonagh was a first-pair defenseman, but once he came to the Lightning, he was slotted into the second pairing. It had been a while since he had played top-line minutes, and jumping right into that role in the playoffs was no easy task, especially considering he was playing with a rookie in Cernak. However, impact players step up when called upon, and in this case, McDonagh simply wasn’t good enough to fill the role. Had the Lightning gotten past the Blue Jackets, it might have been a different story.
Related: Cernak’s Importance to the Lightning
It should also be noted that Cernak led the Lightning in postseason scoring with three points, so it wasn’t that McDonagh wasn’t getting opportunities. Cernak became the active, leading-the-rush defenseman in the pairing, and when he needed McDonagh to provide shut-down defense, he simply wasn’t there.
McDonagh’s Postseason Future
Against the Blue Jackets, McDonagh wasn’t making crisp passes and appeared to get caught flat-footed in transition. This led to grade-A scoring chances for the Blue Jackets, and credit to them for capitalizing. Watching some of the replays, it looked like he was trying to do too much on both sides of the puck.
The window for the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup is closing, and if they’re going to have any chance to win, McDonagh will need to step up big time in the first round. It’s fine if he isn’t scoring — that’s not the main part of his game — but he needs to be the best shut-down defenseman on the ice each and every night.