The Tampa Bay Lightning are still feeling the void left by the departure of defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The team’s general manager, Julien BriseBois, was forced to trade the popular blueliner to the Nashville Predators during the offseason to remain cap compliant. The Lightning now go on the road to face the struggling Predators tomorrow evening (Nov. 19), and this will be the first time they will face their former player.
Now that the Lightning have played 17 games without McDonagh, let’s examine how the team has tried to fill the void and how he has fared in Nashville.
Ryan McDonagh Traded to Predators
As the Lightning marched their way through the 2021-22 postseason there was always a hint of dread because the team, coaches, and fans realized that they wouldn’t be able to retain all the players who had helped them reach three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and win two Cups.
There were many players who contributed to the Lightning’s success, but one of the biggest and most consistent was McDonagh. After five seasons with the team, he was traded to the Predators for defenseman Philippe Myers and forward Grant Mismash. So far, the Predators are the winners in this deal, as Myers may join Mismash in Syracuse to play for the Crunch, Tampa’s minor-league team.
Lightning’s Defense Without McDonagh
During the offseason, veteran Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian had surgery that has kept him off the roster to start the 2022-23 season. So, the team started newcomer Myers with Haydn Fleury, who was signed as a free agent from the Seattle Kraken.
Thus far this season, the Lightning have allowed 3.21 goals and rank 12th in the league on the penalty kill. In 13 games, Erik Cernak has 40 hits and 33 blocks. If he can stay healthy, he can pick up some of the defensive slack left by McDonagh’s departure. During McDonagh’s last season with the Bolts, he administered 96 hits, made 137 blocks, and scored 26 points in 71 regular season games.
Cernak always seemed like the logical choice to step into McDonagh’s role, as they have both made a career out of blocking shots that sometimes take them out of games for an extended period of time. Cernak missed the past three games after blocking a heavy shot from the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin. When the 2021-22 season ended, BriseBois rewarded him with a contract extension that will keep him in Tampa for eight more seasons. The team is counting on his experience to guide some of the younger defensemen.
In Cernak’s absence, Ian Cole has played on the top defensive pairing with Victor Hedman. Nick Perbix has six points in his 12 games for the Lightning, scoring three goals in the last four games. The 24-year-old is playing smart hockey with Mikhail Sergachev on the second defensive pairing.
McDonagh’s Impact in Nashville
Before the season began, ESPN ranked the Predators No. 13 in the league, right behind the St. Louis Blues. After 17 games, they are sitting at a mediocre 8-8-1 record, having won three consecutive home games. Their defense is allowing 3.19 goals a game and their penalty kill is at 83.3%. McDonagh has contributed 15 hits, 36 blocks, 16 shots on goal, and five assists with his new team.
When McDonagh was traded to Nashville, their fans were excited that he could be an excellent complement to veteran defenseman Roman Josi, who is often compared to Hedman for his productive scoring. He won the 2020 Norris Trophy as the best defenseman when he scored 65 points in 69 games. Although McDonagh started the season playing with Mattias Ekholm, lately he has been paired with Jeremy Lauzon.
McDonagh’s Departure Leaves Void in Defense
Although McDonagh’s better playing days may be behind him, he still contributed both defensively and offensively to the team. If the Lightning secure a playoff spot this season, his leadership will be missed, along with his shot blocks and timely takeaways. It’s still early in the season but so far, no current Lightning defenseman has been able to fill the void he left.
However, just because the Predators have McDonagh on the roster, doesn’t mean they are necessarily a better team. Predators head coach John Hynes is suffering from the same dilemma as Lightning coach Jon Cooper – defensemen whose hard work isn’t necessarily showing up in the win column.
When McDonagh returns to Tampa to play the Lightning on Dec. 8, 2022, it will probably be emotional for him, the team, and the fans. I’m glad that it doesn’t appear like the Bolts will face the Predators in the playoffs, as they are not making a strong case for the postseason (and the Bolts are chasing several teams in the Atlantic Division too). However, no matter when they play against McDonagh, his departure makes the reality of the salary cap a hard pill to swallow.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.