How the Lightning Built a Champion Through the Rangers

In any sport, fans will draw connections between their team of choice and opponents across the league. This comes in many forms, from a simple cross-state rivalry that brings with it decades of history, to a favorite player leaving for a new team and the fan base letting them know how they feel about that decision every time they come to town.

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From 2014 through 2020, there were many direct connections between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Over the course of roughly five years, the Lightning steadily poached talent from New York through trades, free-agent signings, and even a few buyout candidates that they used to build out their young core with veteran talent. In fact, players left the Rangers to join Tampa Bay so often that a common joke at the time was that they were, in fact, the Tampa Bay Rangers.

Tampa Bay Lightning 2021 Stanley Cup Champions
Throughout the 2010’a, the Tampa Bay Lightning built a Stanley Cup Champion by acquiring top talent through trades and free agency, often from the New York Rangers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This strategy worked, as the Lightning built a championship contender and Stanley Cup winner on the back of talent they acquired from New York. So, as these two franchises face off in the 2022 Eastern Conference Final, let’s take a look back at some of the former Rangers who helped build the recent success for Tampa Bay.

Lightning’s 2014 Blockbuster With New York Changed Their Future

The first recent move between the Lightning and Rangers was their blockbuster 2014 trade that sent Martin St. Louis and a 2015 second-round pick to New York for Ryan Callahan, first-round picks in 2014 and 2015, along with a 2015 seventh-rounder. While the initial deal had a number of conditions, this reflects the full extent of the trade after those were met.

While THW recently did a larger piece discussing this blockbuster trade, the long and short of it was this deal set off a series of events stretching past the initial scope of the picks and players acquired. In the deal itself, the Lightning acquired a starting veteran forward they re-signed to a long-term (albeit overpriced) contract, and numerous draft picks, one of which was used to select Anthony Cirelli. They also picked up Daniel Walcott with the additional seventh-rounder from New York, who has been a fantastic player on Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.

Related: The 2014 Rangers-Lightning Blockbuster That Reshaped Both Franchises

The largest impact from this trade wasn’t the picks or even Callahan’s play on the ice, however. After he came to the Lightning, the former Rangers’ captain used his presence to lure important free agents to Tampa Bay. In 2014, this included both Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle.

Even if neither player was a superstar, they both played an important role for the Lightning. Stralman took over a top-four defensive role for a team in desperate need of quality defensemen, where Boyle played a consistent bottom-six role, scoring at least 13 goals and 20 points each season.

Without these players, it’s doubtful that the Lightning would go on to reach the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and continue finding success in 2016 with a trip to the Eastern Conference Final. Also, when they eventually had a down year in 2017, they flipped Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a second-round pick and Byron Froese, maximizing his value.

Girardi and Big Trades Followed Lightning and Rangers

Following the 2016-17 season, when the Lightning missed the postseason by a single point, the team signed Dan Girardi, who the Rangers bought out of his contract after playing 11 seasons in New York. While this was just on a two-year deal, Girardi quickly endeared himself to the fanbase with his tough-as-nails play, even if he was no longer a dominant defenseman.

This wasn’t the last Rangers defensemen the Lightning would acquire for the 2017-18 season, however. At the 2018 trade deadline, then general manager Steve Yzerman swung one of the biggest deals of the season, acquiring defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from New York for Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Libor Hajek and Brett Howden, along with a first-round pick in 2018 and a conditional pick in 2019 that become a second-rounder.

With this trade, the Lightning acquired a keystone defenseman in McDonagh, along with a solid starting forward in Miller, who went on a bit of a tear with his new team. While they would fall once again in the Eastern Conference Final, the team looked primed to win a lot in 2018-19.

J.T. Miller Ryan McDonagh Tampa Bay Lightning
For more than a year, the Lightning’s blue line featured at least three former New York Rangers in their top six. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And win they did. Throughout 2018-19, the Lightning dominated the league while putting together one of the best regular-season performances in NHL history. However, as we all know, that squad would not win it all and instead was swept in Round 1 of the playoffs.

Undeterred, new Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois went back to Yzerman’s playbook and used his former New York assets to his advantage. First, he flipped Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2020 first-round pick and a 2019 third-rounder, which was used to select goaltender Hugo Alnefelt.

Next, he dipped back into the Rangers’ buyout pool by signing Kevin Shattenkirk to a one-year show-me deal. This was a perfect fit for the veteran defenseman, as he was able to thrive in a smaller role with the Lightning before going on to sign a major deal with the Anaheim Ducks. Finally, he flipped the first-round pick acquired in the Miller trade along with prospect Nolan Foote to the New Jersey Devils for Blake Coleman.

Lightning Won Two Stanley Cups Thanks to the Rangers

After coming up short for years, these moves finally helped push the Lightning over their Stanley Cup hump. They won the 2020 Cup in the bubble, with McDonagh, Shattenkirk, and Coleman all playing prominent roles. Following that, they won it all in 2021 again, this time without Shattenkirk.

Related: The 2014 Rangers-Lightning Blockbuster That Reshaped Both Franchises

In all, from 2014 through 2020, seven players who wore the Rangers jersey went on to play for the Lightning directly, while four more who were acquired through draft picks (either selections or trades) played at least one game with the franchise. These 11 players helped to shape Tampa Bay into a champion and act as a reminder as to how impactful one trade can be.