Aside from locking up 40-goal forward Filip Forsberg to a long-term contract extension, shoring up the blueline was perhaps the next-most important item for Nashville Predators general manager David Poile to check off his offseason to-do list.
And while Sunday’s trade that sent defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for fellow defenseman Philippe Myers and prospect Grant Mismash was nothing more than a salary dump for Tampa, there’s no question that the Predators’ defensive group is significantly better than it was at this point last year.
"If we didn't live in a flat salary-cap world, it would never have crossed my mind to ask Ryan McDonagh to waive his no-trade clause,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois told reporters on Sunday. “I would've been ecstatic to know that I had him under contract for four more years.”
Added McDonagh: “It’s tough to move on after everything that we’ve done in Tampa as a group. Some special years and special players, but in the end, this is a business and you’ve got to just keep moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it; it’s a great opportunity here. … It’s encouraging when a new group is excited to have you.”
McDonagh has four more years left on his contract with an average annual value of $6.75 million. The Predators, who now have $18.1 million in cap space according to CapFriendly, now have three blueliners with a cap number over $6 million per year in McDonagh, Roman Josi ($9.059 million) and Mattias Ekholm ($6.25 million).
But along with a high price tag, McDonagh brings a wealth of experience and playoff savviness to the Predators. He’s never missed the playoffs in his 12-year NHL career, that includes two Stanley Cup championships and another two Stanley Cup appearances with the Lightning.
Waiving his no-movement clause to facilitate the trade to Nashville, McDonagh said he chose Nashville because he believes in the franchise’s upward trajectory and potential for postseason success.
“The first thing that stood out to me is where the team is at competitively,” McDonagh said. “Anybody that’s played Nashville knows the group that they have there and how they’ve made the playoffs and tried to be a contender to win the [Stanley] Cup. As a player, you want to be a part of teams that have a chance to win the Cup, so when Nashville showed interest, it was right away a big point for me to realize that this group is competitive and have all the pieces that I believe you need to win a Cup.”
Apart from jettisoning two prospects that had no NHL future in Nashville, the Predators bolstered their blueline by adding a prototypical, defensive defenseman.
McDonagh logged the eighth-most penalty kill time in the NHL last season (230:50) and he played the fourth-highest percentage of his team’s penalty kill time (64.7 percent) — good news for a Predators team that ranked just 18th in the league on the penalty kill.
The 33-year-old also ranked 26th in blocked shots during the regular season (137), and his 430 blocked shots in the playoffs is the most in NHL history. McDonagh has 1,555 blocked shots over the course of his career, which ranks 25th all-time and 16th among active players.
Head coach John Hynes now has options. He could slot McDonagh in right next to Josi. This pairing makes sense for a number of reasons. Josi is one of, if the not the top offensive defenseman in the NHL, and McDonagh’s stay-at-home ability could allow Josi to take more liberties offensively and drive the play even more and contribute on the rush more than he already does.
McDonagh is more than capable of shouldering the responsibility that comes with a top-pairing roll, as is evidence by his 22:26 of average ice time last year — third-most on the Lightning. He even stepped up his game in the playoffs, ranking second behind only Victor Hedman among Tampa blueliners in average ice time in the postseason (22:26).
Hynes could also choose to play McDonagh next to Ekholm. This could be Nashville’s smartest move as both players have a similar mind and skillset.
Ekholm (3:16) and McDonagh (3:15) ranked first and second, respectively, in shorthanded time on ice per game in 2021, and they combined for one short-handed goal allowed.
The duo also put up similar numbers in several other defensive-specific areas including high-danger chances allowed (Ekholm 323, McDonagh 320), defensive zone starts (Ekholm 412, McDonagh 331), and team on-ice save percentage (Ekholm 89.9, McDonagh 91.5).
The Predators enjoyed their most success with a shutdown second defensive pairing anchored by Ekholm and P.K. Subban. While McDonagh and Subban play a different style of game, they both excel when matched up against an opposing team’s top six.
“Josi is obviously one of the premier, elite defensemen in the league,” McDonagh said. “He’s been up for the Norris, won a Norris, he’s just unbelievable to watch. When you play him, he just seems to be all over the ice at all times. To be able to be on the same side as him is going to be a thrill.
“Ekholm, has been a huge piece there … one of the core guys who’s been there a while with a ton of experience and a great leader in that room for sure. I think we all bring our strengths to the game and hopefully that translates to success on the ice.”
Regardless of where he plays, McDonagh’s presence opens the door for the Predators to get back to their bread and butter: smothering defense and shutdown goaltending.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_