Inside the Lightning's 'Rangers South' strategy: Will it pay off?

NEW YORK -- There's a human aspect of NHL player transactions that gets underreported or summarily ignored.

The stuff about uprooting families, selling houses and transitioning one's life from city to city. The stuff about how a comfortable daily hang with your closest friends suddenly turns into awkward glances at a roomful of strangers, like the new kid in class. The stuff about how seeing a friend pack up his gear for the last time can be difficult, especially when the new team is tangibly closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the one he's leaving.

That's why New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello is pretty bummed about Ryan McDonagh being traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He didn't just lose a captain. He didn't just lose a teammate. He lost a friend. One whose wife prepared him his first American Thanksgiving meal.

"We got a little drunk. I'm not going to lie," Zuccarello said recently, before a Rangers game against the Lightning. "I hadn't scored in the AHL before. Then after that night, I scored three goals my next game."

But when Zuccarello looks over at the Lightning, it's not just McDonagh he sees. It's five members of the Rangers' Stanley Cup finalist from 2013-14 that, almost unbelievably, have ended up together on Tampa Bay this season: Defensemen McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman, along with forwards Ryan Callahan and J.T. Miller.

"It for sure sucks to see that all of them have a chance to win the Stanley Cup," said Zuccarello, whose team has been eliminated from playoff contention.

While all of them acknowledge it was tough to leave the Rangers, none of them are complaining about the upgrade in postseason positioning.

"It's a good team, so it's pretty cool for us," said Miller. "And Mac and I knew some of the guys down here, obviously."

After a recent win against the New York Islanders, Stralman was seated among a row of lockers that wouldn't have looked out of place in Madison Square Garden -- near both McDonagh and Girardi, and within spitting distance of Miller.

"It's all good guys, quality players and quality persons. And we obviously had a very good team when we made the finals," said Stralman. "When you have a journey like we had there, you keep some very strong bonds."

The ex-Rangers are like a core within a core: a group of players that bonded together on another team that end up on the same roster somewhere else. This is commonplace for, say, minor league players -- please recall "Coop's Troops," former Syracuse Crunch players who followed coach Jon Cooper up to the Lightning and formed the basis of the Triplets Line (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov).

But it's much rarer to have five players who skated for another NHL team end up on another roster.

"I think it's a coincidence more than anything. But for me, having those familiar faces around has been such a huge help with the transition," said McDonagh.

Callahan was the first Rangers player who ended up in Tampa, sent there in March 2014 in the trade that brought Martin St. Louis to the Rangers. Stralman signed a five-year, $22.5 million free-agent deal with the Lightning in July 2014. Dan Girardi signed a two-year deal worth $6 million last summer, after the Rangers bought out the rest of his contract. McDonagh and Miller were traded to the Lightning at the deadline this season.

(Brian Boyle, currently with the New Jersey Devils, was another member of that 2013-14 New York team that spent time with the Lightning.)

"There's a running joke going on in the room that we're the Rangers of the South," said Cooper.

"You gotta think that Girardi, McDonagh and Stralman are going to have chemistry, having played with each other for years," he added. "But the biggest thing was that they're competitors. We need guys that can play hard, can play against big players and have played in big spots before. They check all the boxes."

In the case of Miller, Cooper's hoping that he's found a young talent who can hang in the top six with his elite players. He coached Miller at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and was impressed with his combination of skills and tenacity.

Callahan was happy to see him join the Lightning, too.

"He has a high level of compete, is a bigger guy who has a really good set of hands," Callahan said. "He's a guy who brings a lot to our team on the wing, just his size and his physicality, and his skill too."

In the case of Girardi and McDonagh, the Lightning are trying to re-create the past. For years, this duo was one of the most effective shutdown pairings in the NHL. When they played together in New York last season, it appeared the magic was gone: They had a minus-5.62 Corsi percentage relative to their teammates, and were a minus-4 in even-strength goal differential. The numbers haven't been stellar in Tampa yet, either: a minus-6.38 relative Corsi percentage and a minus-4 goal differential.

But the team hopes their familiarity breeds competence.

"It is weird sometimes when me and him go out there for a shift," said Girardi. "I get bought out last summer. I'm in Tampa. Everything is going well. Once the rumor mill started flying I was like 'Huh ... maybe we'll land this guy here.'"

McDonagh said Girardi was the first text he received from Rangers South, around 30 minutes after the trade first hit. "He was pumped to see me join the team," said McDonagh.

In turn, McDonagh was pumped to see him again.

"He was the guy I looked up to when I first joined the Rangers as a rookie," said McDonagh, who is five years younger than Girardi. "And he's a guy today that comes to the rink and puts in the hours that he needs to prepare himself, to play the way he needs to play. And that's what I learned from him. He's a warrior. A great leader to learn from."

Girardi played the role of locker room ambassador for both McDonagh and Miller, as well as concierge for the off-ice needs.

"I've only been here three-quarters of a year, but I try to help them out. They're asking me where to take the dog, and all that stuff. Little things I know now. When I came in, I knew Cally and Strals. You come to a new team, and you're already in with the guys. You have a liaison kind of thing," he said.

Miller appreciated it.

"It can be intimidating going into a team not knowing anybody. It's a different atmosphere. So to be able to come in and know a lot of the guys, take me under their wings a little bit, it's huge," he said.

On March 28, these former Rangers returned to their old stomping grounds, and Girardi and McDonagh went to their old coffee grounds: a Starbucks located near MSG.

Did the barista give them any returning-to-hometown discount?

"I wish," Girardi said with a laugh.

The two were quickly spotted by Rangers fans, who welcomed them back and asked for photos. "There was a girl in a Jimmy Vesey jersey that recognized us right away," said Girardi. "Not sure why she has his jersey, but I'll deal with that later."

McDonagh said that returning to MSG in a visiting jersey was surreal, if only because he wasn't sure where the visiting dressing room was located. He's still getting acclimated to his new home, too. "It's a different lifestyle, that's for sure. New York is a big city. [Tampa] is a small city. And I'm getting used to the climate change," he said.

The former Rangers are buddies of varying degrees. Girardi and McDonagh are tight. Stralman admitted that he didn't keep in close touch with them after heading to Tampa. Miller said they're all friends, but they're also in different phases of their lives.

"A lot of them have kids. When we're done, it's family time. I mean, it's been nice on the road, but we all have separate lives," said Miller, at 25 the youngest of the group.

What they share is a bond forged with the Rangers, and a common goal to lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup they fell just short of in New York. McDonagh hopes they'll eventually be known for what they accomplished in Tampa, rather than from where they all pulled up roots.

"If you ask me, I hope that doesn't stick too much longer. I'm proud to be part of this team. Proud to be part of the Tampa Bay Lightning," he said.

But, in the end, there's always going to be a little part of the Rangers they'll carry with them.

"I bled blue for 11 years," said Girardi, glancing at his similarly colored Lightning gear. "Well, I mean, I guess I'm still bleeding blue."
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