Lightning reacquire defenseman Ryan McDonagh from Predators

TAMPA — A week ago, Ryan McDonagh couldn’t picture himself returning to the Lightning. His mind was focused on helping the Predators take the next step and training in the offseason to keep improving his game as he’s about to turn 35 years old.

But then there was McDonagh on Tuesday morning, dialing a familiar friend, hearing Steven Stamkos’ voice on the other line and telling him the news that he was back with the Bolts.

Stranger things have happened in the salary-cap driven world of the NHL.

But it was a surprise move when the Lightning reacquired McDonagh, a lockdown defenseman who was an integral part of the team’s Stanley Cup-winning core, from a Predators team he was dealt to two summers ago as a cap casualty. Nashville will not retain any of McDonagh’s salary, which carries a $6.75 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

“I never thought there was a chance of that happening again, at least in the near term, but it’s happened now and it’s exciting again to feel that belief in the guys that we have and the excitement around it,” McDonagh said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work ahead to be done. But you’re willing to put in that work because you know the group has the right character behind it. I couldn’t be more excited to be joining Tampa again.”

The top offseason priority was upgrading their top-four defensemen to help keep the puck out of their own net. Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois didn’t see many opportunities to do so through this summer’s free-agent market. Those players available would be seeking money and terms the Lightning couldn’t provide.

Then, about a week ago, BriseBois received a call from Predators general manager Barry Trotz, who floated the idea of a reunion with McDonagh. The cost was nominal — one of the Lightning’s three seventh-round picks in this summer’s draft and a second-round selection next year — and the Predators gave up a fourth-round selection in this year’s draft that had belonged to Edmonton.

McDonagh is coming off a season in which he had a plus-19 plus/minus and recorded three goals and 29 assists in 74 games with Nashville. He now moves into a familiar position, rejoining Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak to form the Lightning’s top-4 defensemen who will eat up a majority of the team’s minutes at even strength and special teams.

“They’re all big, they can all skate,” BriseBois said. “So for most of the night, we have high-end defensemen on the ice wearing the right jersey, if you will. So that makes us better. And I also think that having Ryan on our team is going to make the other players better as well. Just his presence alone, his leadership, his demeanor.”

McDonagh was an integral part of the Lightning’s leadership core from a group that went to three straight Stanley Cup finals and won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021. The Lightning haven’t won a postseason series since trading McDonagh to Nashville following their 2022 Cup final loss to the Avalanche. And the stability of the team’s defenseman corps hasn’t been the same since his departure.

Now, McDonagh is excited to have another go-round with his former teammates. When he called Stamkos, the Lightning captain was just getting off the ice after skating with Nikita Kucherov, the two working out three weeks since being eliminated from the postseason by the Panthers.

“How can you not be excited to join a group of guys who are working on their game here after just being bounced in the first round,” McDonagh said. “And that’s the standard that the coaching staff, management and, obviously, the players have built there. That if you aren’t working all the time to improve and get better and be the best you can be, then they don’t want you to be a part of that room.”

The acquisition of McDonagh also was surprising because the Lightning were expected to shed cap space this offseason before adding a large contract like McDonagh’s, especially with the team focused on re-signing Stamkos, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. They’re also pursuing an extension with Hedman, who is entering the final season of his contract.

“We’re still able, in my mind, to get something done that makes sense for the organization with Steven even after acquiring Ryan McDonough,” said BriseBois, who added that discussions with Stamkos are ongoing. “And then depending on what happens with other players, we’ll address other needs. But we still have some cap space to get done what I think we need to get done this offseason.”

According to CapFriendly, McDonagh’s addition leaves the Lightning with just over $5 million of cap space with 18 players under NHL contracts. That doesn’t include defensemen Emil Lilleberg and Max Crozier, who are currently with AHL Syracuse.

McDonagh, for one, hopes a deal with Stamkos gets done. But on the surface, his addition makes it more difficult to do so without moving an existing NHL contract.

“He’s the definition of a Bolt,” McDonagh said of Stamkos. “He’s done everything in his career to be as successful as he could and bring as much success to that organization. He’s just such a competitor, such a gamer, a great motivator and a great leader by example and a vocal leader, too.

“I can’t say enough great things about him and the importance of bringing him back and hopefully they can find a way to make that happen, and we can keep building special memories here in Tampa together.”

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