Ryan McDonagh was everything the Lightning could want ... until he wasn’t

The Tampa Bay defenseman anchored the defense in the regular season but looking nothing like himself in the playoffs.
The performance of defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) helped fuel the Tampa Bay Lightning's record-tying regular season. His struggles underscored Tampa Bay's problems in a first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
The performance of defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) helped fuel the Tampa Bay Lightning's record-tying regular season. His struggles underscored Tampa Bay's problems in a first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published May 15

This is the 12th in a series this month looking at each player on the Lightning’s roster. Up next: Ondřej Palát

TAMPA — Over and over, coach Jon Cooper was asked the same question: What makes this year’s Lightning different from last year’s? His answer took on a few forms, but defenseman Ryan McDonagh was a constant element.

“You can’t discount the effect of a healthy Ryan McDonagh,” Cooper said. Sometimes he came down heavy on the months of adjustment made by McDonagh, having moved his family to a new city the year before after he was acquired from the Rangers at the 2018 trade deadline.

[ MORE LIGHTNING: A player-by-player review of Tampa Bay's season ]

McDonagh served a major role in the Lightning’s regular-season success. He took some of the load off Victor Hedman’s shoulders. McDonagh gave Tampa Bay a defensive defenseman to anchor a top-six pair. He anchored the penalty kill and provided another strong voice in the dressing room.

In short, he was everything the Lightning could have wanted him to be for 82 games. And then he wasn’t.

McDonagh looked like another player entirely in the Blue Jackets’ four-game first-round playoff sweep of the Lightning. He made bad decisions, highlighted by jumping in offensively and making a bad cross-ice pass that turned into Columbus’ first goal of the series. He put himself in bad positions and was spun around like a top, getting beaten on plays.

For some players, the sweep was a matter of old issues cropping up. These were new issues for McDonagh, so much that you have to wonder if something was wrong.

The Lightning gave no indication he was hurt. Neither general manager Julien BriseBois nor Cooper commented on any specific injury, saying everyone is banged up by playoff time.

Was there some other reason he looked nothing like the player he had been? Because something wasn’t right.

[ MORE ON McDONAGH: One year later, has Ryan McDonagh made you a believer? ]

That playoff series demonstrated just how important McDonagh is to the Lightning, especially in tandem with Hedman. Together, they are one of the best defense duos (not pairs, because they never played together) in the league.

The Sharks might be the only other team with a similar duo, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

Hedman, who won last year’s Norris Trophy for best defenseman, is once again up for the honor. At midseason, Cooper said if the award went to the best overall defenseman rather than the best offensive defenseman, he’d lobby for McDonagh.

None of that mattered in the playoffs, where Hedman didn’t play like himself in the first two games before sitting out the second two injured. Hedman anchors the power play and McDonagh the penalty kill, two areas where the Lightning couldn’t find its footing.

[ MORE LIGHTNING: Is Dan Girardi getting better or older? ]

Ryan McDonagh’s season in review

High: McDonagh had three three-point games, in wins over the Devils, Senators and Panthers.

Low: The veteran didn’t demonstrate any of the elements that made him so important to the Lightning in the first-round-sweep playoff loss to the Blue Jackets.

By the numbers

3:08

McDonagh’s average shorthanded ice time this season, which led the Lightning. Overall, only Victor Hedman had more ice time than McDonagh.

46

Points, a career high. The defenseman’s nine goals were his most since 2016.

82

Games played, McDonagh’s first full season since 2011-12 and the second of his nine-year NHL career


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