It’s not easy to watch former core players on another team

So this is what it’s like to feel conflicted. To be perfectly honest, it was very strange to see former Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh make his Lightning debut in that ugly dark navy blue jersey earlier today.

There he was wearing the trademark number 27 he donned for eight years on Broadway. It was different than what I’m used to. It’s one thing to see Rick Nash in a Bruins jersey with Nick Holden. But quite another to see five former core members all in Bolts uniforms.

Maybe that is too much for even me. Tampa Bay has become the destination for former Blueshirts. Another former captain Ryan Callahan stayed after being part of the first ever captain for captain trade at the deadline in 2014 which brought Martin St. Louis to New York. He was a huge part of a amazing run that included a emotional goal on Mother’s Day with Mom France gone in a epic 3-1 comeback over the Pens. He also scored that awesome overtime winner from Carl Hagelin to beat the Canadiens in Game 4 as part of a Conference Final the team won over the Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Ironically, it ended for St. Louis against his former team in 2015 in a gut wrenching home Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Captain Cally as he was well known in these parts has been gone long enough by now. He recruited Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman to Tampa and they were part of that 2015 Lightning roster that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Like the Rangers, they didn’t win the Cup but came close.

Fast forward three years later and Dan Girardi is on the Lightning with Stralman and Callahan. Girardi was the scapegoat for recent Ranger failures but he’s landed on his feet with the Bolts, earning praise from coach Jon Cooper. He probably has the same respect as former bench boss Alain Vigneault.

At the recent trade deadline, the Rangers made it in time sending McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning for Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, a 2018 first round pick and conditional second in 2019. It was like the thunder snow storm we had, ending a era at MSG.

These days, it’s not easy watching the new Rangers. The rebuild has begun as promised. A couple of parts acquired by GM Jeff Gorton have shown promise. Ryan Spooner continues to fit in seamlessly with Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award candidate Kevin Hayes on a very effective checking line. Following a three point effort (1-2-3) in a 5-3 loss to the Lightning, Spoon Man is now up to 10 points (2-8-10). He’s proving why Gorton coveted him for a while finally getting Boston to bite in a very good deal for Nash that also netted a first round pick and prospect Ryan Lindgren with the Rangers taking Matt Beleskey off Boston’s hands.

Namestnikov has shown flashes of brilliance with his game breaking speed and aggressiveness which is a stark contrast from how most of the leftovers play. Though only with a goal and helper thus far, it’s not from lack of chances. Tonight, he’ll get a look with Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey. Something I’ve kinda suggested. I want to see how Namestnikov and Buchnevich do together. I don’t view it as a demotion for Buchnevich, who’s played mostly with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. They’ll get Jesper Fast in tonight’s game at Florida. That leaves Hayes and Spooner with Mats Zuccarello.

While the current roster plays out the string, I still can’t get over seeing all five ex-Rangers in Lightning gear. At one point with Miller off for boarding, Cooper had McDonagh, Girardi out with Callahan killing the penalty. Later, Miller was used on a successful penalty kill. An area he wasn’t utilized this year by Vigneault for unknown reasons after he and former Ranger Michael Grabner were a lethal combo in ’16-17.

Not much makes sense anymore. So seeing five players many Garden Faithful loved for what they brought was overwhelming. There was this empty sinking feeling. It’s one that will be even worse on March 30 when those former Blueshirts visit The Garden for the final home game. The building that’s mostly become a ghost town will be emotional on the first night of Passover which coincides with Spring break. You know McDonagh will get a nice video tribute on Gardenvision. Miller will also get a acknowledgement during a stoppage.

It’s really strange seeing all these former players we cheered for trying to help other teams. The Lightning won their home game over the Canadiens in a shootout. McDonagh was back with familiar partner Girardi on the third pair. Both looked like they didn’t miss a beat. Miller played mostly with breakout star Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde. But Cooper moved Miller up for a key shift with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Sure enough, a aggressive Miller got in behind the net and finished a check to take a Hab off the puck causing the tying goal with Stamkos finding Kucherov in front for his 34th.

That’s the kind of play Miller’s capable of. He is better off. He’ll be given more freedom in Tampa. The chemistry with Point and Gourde is undeniable from the game’s I’ve watched.

Meanwhile, Callahan has come back healthy playing his familiar meat and potatoes style with Chris Kunitz and Craig Paquette on a cohesive checking line. Stralman was on the second pair with gifted rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who GM Steve Yzerman stole from the Habs for Jonathan Drouin. It’s funny the way everything seems to work out for Yzerman.

All the ex-Blueshirts fit. The Bolts became the first team to hit the century mark with 100 points. They will be a big favorite this Spring to win the Cup. Even more so than Pittsburgh or Boston.

What I felt was a mix of emotions watching our former players. There was anxiety, excitement and sadness. The final part being that they’re no longer here. That run is over. I guess it’s gonna take time to get used to this.

Left behind is Henrik Lundqvist with Marc Staal, Zuccarello, Kreider, Hayes and Jesper Fast. All part of the run in ’15 that included the miracle Game 5 with former top center Derek Stepan setting up Kreider for the tying goal followed by Fast forcing a turnover that led to Stepan dropping for McDonagh’s emotional OT winner to stay alive versus the Caps in Round 2. A series they came all the way back in rallying from another 3-1 series deficit with Stepan leaping so high into the air after following up a Girardi shot that rebounded off Braden Holtby right to him in Game 7.

It’s amazing how many players are gone. Zuccarello is next. He doesn’t fit in anymore. The popular Ranger with the giant sized heart despite being five-nothing. He’ll likely be traded in June during the NHL Draft.

Who will be the next core? The organization has some tough decisions ahead with Hayes, Spooner, Vesey, Namestnikov and Brady Skjei all restricted free agents this summer. I can’t wait for the warmer weather to get here. I wish we could just skip the playoffs. It doesn’t matter anyway.

There’s probably a lot of Ranger fans who feel similarly. It truly is a weird time.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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