The NHL’s best and worst this week: How a move to the Lightning rejuvenated Shattenkirk

When Kevin Shattenkirk was bought out by the New York Rangers this summer, he was ticked off — and ready for his next opportunity.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were among the first teams to express interest in the 30-year-old defenseman. Of course Shattenkirk talked to GM Julien BriseBois and coach Jon Cooper, but his most important conversation was with former Rangers teammate Ryan McDonagh, now a defenseman with the Lightning. Shattenkirk wanted to know about the culture in Tampa Bay. The Lightning were the league’s most dominant regular-season team last season and tied an NHL record with 62 wins, but were stunningly swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Especially after last year, I wanted to ask him a lot of questions about what was going on,” Shattenkirk said. “I wanted to know what the locker room was like, how the guys all got together, things like that. I knew going into it, I was probably only going to be here for a year anyway, but I had to make sure it was going to be a good fit.”

McDonagh explained how the team was handling last season’s collapse. The more McDonagh shared, the more intrigued Shattenkirk was about Tampa Bay. He signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Lightning.

“[The way last season ended] weighed on them a little bit; you can’t hide from it,” Shattenkirk said. “Everywhere we go — until at least the end of January — every new city we go to, people are going to be asking about it. As a team we said from the get-go, we’re not going to shy away from it. That’s what excited me. The guys on the team seemed to share the same mentality I had after I was bought out. Having that chip on our shoulders is something that we want to use to our advantage: not forget about what happened in the past and wipe our slate clean, but work hard and get better and prove people wrong.”

Through 20 games, Shattenkirk has done just that. The Lightning are still finding their groove, which might be a good thing. If they get through early adversity, they can hit their stride when it matters. But even through it all, Shattenkirk looks like his old self, the elite puck-moving defenseman whom the Rangers coveted in 2017.

He is tied for fourth on the Lightning in scoring with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) while manning the top pairing with Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay’s system fits exactly into Shattenkirk’s offensive mentality, which he got away from in his injury-plagued, two-year stint with the Rangers.

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“How they want us to play with the puck really matched up with my style,” Shattenkirk said. “We’re not called out if you make a mistake, if you try something or join the rush. I came in here, and I wasn’t asked to do anything more than what I know I’m capable of. I think I got away from that in New York. I was trying to do more than I should have. That falls on my shoulders.”

Shattenkirk was one of the most sought-after blueliners in free agency in 2017 when he made headlines by taking less money and term to sign a four-year, $26.6 million contract with the Rangers, the team he grew up rooting for. (A native of New Rochelle, New York, Shattenkirk first skated as a kid at the Rangers’ practice facility in Rye.)

But Shattenkirk’s Blueshirts tenure was frustrating. On the first day of testing at his first training camp, Shattenkirk tweaked his left knee. It turned out to be a torn meniscus. But because there was so much hoopla and expectation after he signed, he felt pressure to play through the injury. “I was definitely the force behind that, driving that,” Shattenkirk said. “I didn’t want to have to start the season getting surgery. It wasn’t bad enough that it wasn’t manageable.”

Shattenkirk got a cortisone shot. “That kept it at bay,” he said. “But it kind of wore off by December.”

He wasn’t able to train as much, and lost a lot of strength in his leg. By January, after his knee didn’t respond to a platelet-rich plasma injection in the way he hoped, Shattenkirk stopped delaying the inevitable. “It wasn’t the pain that caused me to get surgery,” he said. “It was the fact that I couldn’t perform, couldn’t skate.”

About three weeks into Shattenkirk’s stint on injured reserve, Rangers management announced in a letter to fans that the team was entering a rebuild. The Rangers said goodbye in the coming months to many veteran players, including McDonagh, as they embraced a youth movement. Shattenkirk felt hopeless while sidelined.

“I was just upset because I thought we had a really good team and we could have made it work,” Shattenkirk said. “When they put out the letter, we were three points out of the playoffs. It felt like we had enough veteran leadership in there — guys who had been there before — to turn it around. That’s the thing that killed me. We were good. We were fine. We just needed a kick in the butt. Eventually, they winded up firing the coach [Alain Vigneault] and doing all of that stuff, and who knows if it had happened during the season. Maybe we could have turned it around.”

The Rangers replaced Vigneault with David Quinn, Shattenkirk’s old coach at Boston University. Shattenkirk returned in 2018-19, but everything had changed. It was a youth-oriented team now, and he was one of several veterans who were healthy scratches by Quinn, as they were expected to do more. Shattenkirk scored only 26 points in 73 games for a career-low 0.38 points per game and averaged less than 19 minutes per night for the first time.

The media coverage, predictably, wasn’t too kind, and Shattenkirk got in a bad habit of reading articles about himself.

“It’s a bit toxic in a sense that when you’re playing well, you’re looking to see the gratification, and when you’re not playing well, you’re telling yourself not to look, but it’s so hard not to,” he said. “In New York, it’s heightened because of who they are, especially when the team isn’t doing well. I think in New York now, after the letter and everything was blown up, it seemed like everyone was being evaluated from an individual standpoint from the fans and the media versus how the team is doing. And I think that has become part of the mindset and the culture there for the players. And that’s tough to get over.”

Shattenkirk said the toughest part of being bought out was “coming back from injury and working through the rebuild and trying to see it through, investing so much time in it and not being able to see where it ends up.”

This past summer, Shattenkirk and his wife, Deanna, welcomed their first child, a boy named Connor, in July. And Shattenkirk got a full summer of training in without having to rehab, too. He worked with trainer Ben Prentiss and Vegas Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty in Connecticut. “I got to go against Max Pacioretty two-on-one pretty much every day,” the veteran defenseman said. “He’s a lot bigger and a lot stronger than me, so when you’re chasing a guy like that, it pushes you to limits you didn’t really know you could exceed.”

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Shattenkirk feels rejuvenated living in Florida while playing for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. There are different kinds of pressures now, a different visibility living in a smaller hockey market and a different spotlight. As he puts it, “there are bigger stars on this team than me.”

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Shattenkirk said. “To get back with a winning team and a team that has that mentality that we can win every game is exciting as a player.”

Even so, when he looks back on his time with the Rangers, Shattenkirk isn’t resentful.

“I have no regrets about it,” he said. “I’m so happy that I did it and that I had a chance to play for the Rangers. But looking back, and still talking to those guys there, it’s a long road ahead for them. I was forced to move on, and I have, and it’s been perfect. I was actually talking to Ryan the other day, and I told him: ‘It was like I got a get out of jail free card.'”

Jump ahead:
Emptying the notebook | What we liked this week
What we didn’t like this week | Three stars
Biggest games coming up | Quote of the week

Shattenkirk said playing with Victor Hedman took a few games to get used to, and that Hedman is probably the most talented defenseman he has even been paired up with. “He plays defense like nobody else in the league,” Shattenkirk said. “He’s able to cover so much ground on the ice in terms of sweeping across defensively and almost killing rushes before they start. In the offensive zone, I don’t want to call them risks, but the aggressive route he takes in the offensive zone to go skate at a puck below the blue line when it’s loose … I mean, his ability to get from A to B is so quick and so fast, it has allowed me to be a little more patient knowing he can recover on a lot of plays that maybe don’t work out. I think we think the game pretty similarly, and that’s the fun part about it.”

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As the Detroit Red Wings manage an injury to leading scorer Anthony Mantha, they called up one of their top prospects in Filip Zadina, the No. 6 overall pick of 2018. The 19-year-old got nine NHL games last season, but at times looked out of place (he scored only one goal and two assists). Ideally, the Red Wings would have wanted Zadina to remain with Grand Rapids in the AHL a little longer, but Zadina also earned this call-up; he was riding a six-game point streak upon his promotion, having scored seven goals and six assists in 19 games this season.

During training camp, I asked GM Steve Yzerman about his philosophy on calling up prospects and whether he was worried about impeding their development or confidence if they were playing on a Red Wings team that wasn’t very competitive. “Whether the team is good or not is not as important as, is the player ready to play in the NHL?” Yzerman said. “Meaning, can he contribute in a positive way? Can he keep up? As a defenseman, can he defend? If he’s a scorer, can he score? We want them to be successful, we want them to feel like they’re making progress, not drowning. The more guys that can play positive roles on the team make your team better.”

• I really enjoyed talking to Brendan Smith about how he salvaged his Rangers career by switching to forward even though it could present some risks with future contracts. Smith said one of the reasons he wanted to share his story was that it could possibly help younger players who are going through adversity early in their careers. And speaking of younger players, I asked Smith about how Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko is fitting in with the team. It sounds like Smith and other Rangers veterans have taken the 2019 No. 2 overall pick under their wing as the Finnish teenager still gets used to life in the NHL.

“I spend a lot of time with him because he lives out by me,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t call myself his personal chauffeur, but I pick him up a lot and make sure he gets to the rink on time. And the biggest thing with him is that it’s a big adjustment. He’s coming from Europe to North America. There’s a smaller ice surface. The food is different. There’s a lot of different things he has to adjust to. He’s a diabetic and a celiac, so there’s a lot of things he needs to be aware with, especially with food. But he’s a very mature kid. What is he, 18? I forget that all the time. [He is, indeed, 18 and turns 19 in February.] He’s got All-Star written all over him.

“The biggest thing is to make sure, as a team, we stay inclusive. He’s very quiet. There’s obviously a language barrier he’s working on. I enjoy being around him, but I need him to talk more. I’m trying to break his shell, that’s my job I guess. We’ve had a couple car rides where I think he just says ‘good morning’ to me and that’s it. So I’m working on him, trying to ask him more things. I’m going to try to learn some Finnish, I think. The more comfortable he gets, the more skill and fantastic plays you’ll see on the ice.”

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• The Canes have won six of their past seven games to slide into third place in the Metropolitan Division. One thing Carolina players are excited about? The 11-forward, seven-defenseman experiment seems to be over for now. (The Canes were forced into that lineup for three games as they managed injuries to several forwards, including Jordan Martinook and Erik Haula, but went 0-2-1.)

“When you say 11 and seven, you’re really saying 11 and six because it’s tough to play seven D,” coach Rod Brind’amour said. “It’s not really a good rotation of seven. It has its advantages — working your better players in sometimes — but it can have its disadvantages too because you take certain roles of guys, and it changed. It didn’t work as well for us this time around because we had to change some roles and it didn’t really work.” Added captain Jordan Staal: “It’s always nice to have your line. Sometimes it gets a little finicky when you have a shortage of forwards. In general, when there are seven D, you know you’re playing a little more which is nice, but there’s good and bad to it.”

• Staying with Carolina here, 20-year-old Canes forward Martin Necas has worked his way into the Calder conversation with 16 points in 24 games. I caught up with Necas in Chicago last week. “It’s always interesting to hear your name mentioned, but I don’t really care about those trophies,” the Czech forward said. “I just care about being part of this team and helping this team. We’ll see what happens. You always check how the other guys play and you can see that Cale Makar is producing a lot. That guy is unbelievable. His first year, he’s so good.”

• Defenseman Keith Yandle lost nine teeth in the first period of the Florida Panthers‘ Saturday night loss. He missed the second period but then came back for the third. Twenty-four hours later, he skated with the Panthers on Sunday night. Find me an anecdote that better personifies a “hockey guy” than that. I’ll wait. Yandle, by the way, has now played in 821 consecutive games for the fifth-longest streak in NHL history.

• We’ve been spoiled by some spectacular saves through the first seven-plus weeks of the season. But wow, Marc-Andre Fleury. Have yourself a day. (He also became the fastest goaltender to 450 wins. Martin Brodeur did it in 821 games, while Fleury accomplished it in his 816th contest.)

Marc-Andre Fleury… THAT IS BEYOND MEAN! 😱😱

• The Rangers stormed back from a 4-0 deficit to beat the Montreal Canadiens, 5-4, on Saturday night. It was incredible resilience, yet we’re almost becoming immune to all of these massive comebacks. New York became the fifth team to come back from a four-goal deficit this season, which has already tied the NHL record for most instances in a season. It’s not even December!

Philadelphia Flyers rookie Morgan Frost is off to a terrific start. Has he replaced goaltender Carter Hart as the fan base’s new savior? He has two goals and an assist in his first two games, and Frost’s chemistry with Claude Giroux is pretty exciting.

• Hometown boy returns home, does good. This was neat.

.@Jkellyhockey: “Who says you can’t come home?”
Pat Maroon receives his Stanley Cup ring and gets a massive ovation from the hometown crowd. #stlblues

• Remember when Blues goalie Jordan Binnington posted this video of a guy getting out of his car in rush hour traffic to come say hello? Well, apparently Binnington and the fan stayed in touch, and he attended the Blues game.

First hockey game for my guy tonight

• I absolutely hated this play from St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo after the whistle. He knew he was getting a penalty after the first cross check, then looked at the official, and did it again. That’s dangerous and shows intent to injure the other player (Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson). Bortuzzo, a repeat offender, was suspended for four games by the NHL Department of Player Safety and surrenders $67,073.16 in salary. Arvidsson is out four to six weeks with a lower body injury.

• A lot has been said about the dismissal of former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, and there have been a few interesting (and inflammatory) Twitter threads by former players criticizing the coach.

• One thing that felt very odd to me: Babock’s post-firing statement. He thanks only one player: Morgan Rielly. There must be some backstory there, but how awkward is that? Rielly is a popular player, but he must have gotten a few chirps from his teammates about that one.

• There’s something amiss with the Calgary Flames. They had the best record in the Western Conference last season and the second-best offense in the league (3.52 goals per game). They defeated the Flyers in a shootout on Saturday night, but doing so snapped a six-game losing streak in which they were outscored 23-5. If things don’t improve, this team could be active on the trade market. It was a rough week all around for Calgary.

Brock Nelson, C, New York Islanders: Nelson had four goals in three games this week, including this ridiculous overtime winner against the Penguins, which extended the Isles’ points streak to 16 games. (It has since jumped to 17.)

Sheesh, take a bow for this @EASPORTSNHL OT winner, Brock Nelson!

Jamie Benn, LW, Dallas Stars: The Stars’ captain had four points (three goals, an assist) in three games this week, and though it dates back to last week, he also had three straight games with the game-winning goal for red-hot Dallas.

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers: The stats for Leon Draisaitl and McDavid (No. 1 and No. 2 in scoring, respectively) are just getting silly. McDavid’s week included seven points (four goals, three assists) in four games to extend an 11-game point streak. It’s hard to even pick our favorite highlight this week.

Connor McDavid (@cmcdavid97), like c’mon.

Wednesday, Nov. 27: Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals

So you don’t want to go to your local bar on Thanksgiving Eve and see what everyone from high school is up to? Great, here’s an alternative. The two highest-scoring teams in the league square off in an Eastern Conference battle that’s sure to be juicier than any gossip about your former classmates.

Friday, Nov. 29: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars

If not for the Islanders, the Stars would be the hottest team in hockey. They get a key Central Division showdown against the defending Cup champions, who are weathering the injury bug right now.

Saturday, Nov. 30: Chicago Blackhawks at Colorado Avalanche, ESPN+

The Blackhawks have shown signs of life, but their current five-game stretch against Central Division teams could determine whether they are contenders or pretenders. The Avs, though, have already proved they belong in the contender category.

“I think we’ve come a long way in hockey. If [my nieces] decide they want to play hockey, they can walk into a hockey rink anywhere in Canada with their hockey bag and their hockey stick, and nobody’s going to look twice. They don’t have to cut their hair short and run into the bathroom and try to look like a boy like I had to do to try and blend in. Their road is just a little bit easier, and I want to thank everyone that made the road just a little bit easier for me. The game is truly for everyone.”

— Hayley Wickenheiser in her Hall of Fame acceptance speech