After the Rangers’ Game 7 win over the Capitals, I was ready for the Eastern Conference finals to start right after the handshake line. I didn’t think I would sleep between Wednesday night’s Game 7 and Saturday afternoon’s Game 1 and wanted the next round to start immediately. Thankfully, there’s just a two-day layoff between series and the Rangers can keep their momentous run alive.
With the Rangers and Lightning meeting in the Eastern Conference finals, John Fontana of Raw Charge joined me to talk about the Ryan Callahan-Martin St. Louis trade, former Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman playing for the Lightning and what to expect in the series.
Keefe: The Ryan Callahan-Martin St. Louis trade last season was the biggest non-Stanley Cup Final storyline of the 2013-14 Rangers’ season. The Rangers traded their 28-year-old captain for a 38-year-old former MVP because Callahan and his agent overpriced himself out of New York and because St. Louis wanted out of Tampa Bay and wanted to be close to his Greenwich, Conn. home.
So many Rangers fans were devastated that the homegrown Callahan was leaving and it seemed like fans were split 50/50 on liking and not liking the trade. I loved the trade for the Rangers and thought it was necessary.
Callahan had started negotiations with the Rangers at eight years, $60 million, overvaluing himself and overvaluing the “C” on his jersey as a player who had never scored 30 goals in a season. I didn’t get why Rangers were upset at all once he left because it was his choice to leave. He wasn’t willing to compromise with the Rangers and even as Glen Sather stupidly came closer and closer to Callahan’s demands, it wasn’t enough for the secondary scoring option. Ryan Callahan could still be a Ranger if he wanted to be and no one should feel bad for him.
What are your feelings about Callahan after watching him play 97 regular-season games and 16 postseason games for the Lightning?
Fontana: Before we begin, that’s a painful trade in Lightning history because of what was going on with the face of the franchise. Martin St. Louis didn’t like the changing scene in Tampa.
Let’s be fair here; Slats gave up on negotiations with how many months before free agency started? And the contract Callahan agreed to from the Lightning was something like a few hundred thousand dollars less than Sather’s last offer in New York. While the numbers you presented are certainly too much for Cally, there is the “C” and status with the club that propped him up on a negotiating angle.
At the same time, he’s still getting what comes off as more than he should for his toolsy, responsible game. He’s been playing first line wing with Steven Stamkos centering him and he’s put up a career high in points this season. While I like his game, his locker room presence and what he he’s doing on ice, the contract is still waaaay big. Fans down here in general like him too.
Keefe: On the other end of the trade, the Rangers acquired the captain and face of the Lightning in St. Louis, who was instrumental in helping the Rangers reach the Cup Final for the first time since 1993-94. With Callahan and without St. Louis, the Rangers don’t win the East last year.
For you, I can’t imagine what it was like to have a 13-year-old Lightning, captain and face of the franchise demand to be traded and then be traded to his place of choice at the deadline with the team in the middle of a playoff run.
What was it like to see St. Louis traded? Is is still weird to see him play for another team?
Fontana: There’s a lot to be said here. As a fan alone I reflect on that as the end of an era with this team. As a blogger and a blog manager there’s another degree with what went down with Marty that fans (Rangers or Lightning fans) wouldn’t necessarily think of — having to cover it, talk about it, write about it, try to understand it and more than a year later it still isn’t settled because the reasons keep being twisted for why he wanted out.
I could link to articles I’ve written since February 2014 through Thursday, May 14 that touch on this. It’s a sore spot. Marty’s handling it from start to finish has made it worse to have to reflect on and not just put to rest. This, having to come back to it all, is the downside of the entire series. While I expect New York fans to react warmly to Callahan’s return to Madison Square Garden (or Brian Boyle, or Anton Stralman), Marty is going to see a mixed reaction. We have such good memories of the man and how things transpired to end it all (and some spoken words by him since leaving) defile them a bit; we don’t want to remember St. Louis just because of the trade request and how it played out.
Some fans have moved past him and care more about Cally’s status for Game 1 and the series in general compared to having to deal with Marty again. Others, like me, have feelings renewed: Anger, disappointment, and surprise.
Keefe: Every season there is a target of mine in columns, podcasts and on Twitter and for nearly his entire Rangers tenure, Brian Boyle was that guy. I never understood the fans who liked Boyle as a former first-round pick whose career became as a fourth-line role player and when the Rangers didn’t re-sign him last offseason I was ecstatic. Now had I known that the Rangers were going to waste money on Tanner Glass, I would have gladly had Boyle back, but oh well.
Boyle recorded his second-highest goal total of his career with 15 in a full 82-game season for the Lightning and has chipped in with one this postseason. A lot of Rangers fans have forgotten about his weaknesses as a player now that he is in Tampa Bay and just see him helping out a team that has reached the Eastern Conference finals.
What are your thoughts on Boyle?
Fontana: Boyle’s been able to fit in just about anywhere he’s been asked. He has seen a lot of time on the fourth line but how Tampa Bay approaches fourth-liners isn’t the traditional grind-grind-grind limited, physical aspect. He’s been a standard-bearer on the penalty kill which Ranger fansx should be aware of. But his presence has been elsewhere too — he’s done third-line center time, he’s layed on the wing. He’s played on the power play as the guy near the crease. He’s not an offensive force, but he’s a presence.
Keefe: Aside from not wanting Boyle back last offseason, I also didn’t want Benoit Pouliot back and Edmonton signed him and I didn’t want Stralman back because I thought it would take overpaying for him to get him back. That one I wish I could take back.
After looking nothing like an NHL defenseman for long stretches with the Rangers and forcing fans to call for Raphael Diaz to be inserted into the lineup over him frequently last season, Stralman has come into his own with the Lightning and finally reverted back to being more of an offensive defenseman.
How has Stralman fit in with the Lightning?
Fontana: To keep this one short and direct: Norris Trophy candidate worthy to the point I don’t understand one iota why he wasn’t even offered a contract by the Rangers. He’s been in the lineup while hurt and still was the solid guy on the back end. He’s stabilized and improved everyone he’s played with.
No, he’s not a Norris finalist in 2015, but he’s been an unspoken MVP on the Tampa Bay roster.
Keefe: Dan Boyle was a highly-coveted free agent and took less money to be a Ranger. The former star and Lightning defenseman was supposed to provide consistent offense to the Rangers’ defense and captain what has been an embarrassing power play. But in the first year of his two-year deal with the Rangers, Boyle has been a liability in his own zone and hasn’t done much to help the Rangers’ power play. I guess I just need to accept that the Rangers’ power play will never be good.
Like St. Louis, what’s it like to now have to root against Boyle?
Fontana: Dan Boyle’s departure from Tampa Bay isn’t comparable to how things went down with Marty. Of course it’s also been seven seasons ince the one of the worst trades in franchise history went down and Boyle (who had been freshly re-signed before the 2008 trade deadline) was forced out by one of the egomaniac new owners of the Lightning — a former teammate of Boyle’s, Len Barrie.
Time and distance have literally and figuratively passed (he was in San Jose, so he didn’t haunt us. Long time fans like myself like the guy, respect him and all that. But we’re used to him as an opponent.
Keefe: This series scares me more than those two series because the Lightning are nothing like the Rangers and don’t experience the offensive slumps the Rangers do. The Lightning won all there games against the Rangers in the regular season, but those games came very early in the season before the Rangers are the team they are now and the team they became in the second week of December.
Losing this series will not only be devastating because it will mean the Rangers fell short of getting back to the Final and winning the Cup, but it will mean Callahan, Boyle and Stralman will be playing in the Final with a chance to win the Cup.
Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to be the difference in this series the way he was against the Penguins and the way he was in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Capitals in the Rangers’ comeback and I will never not believe in the King.
I predicted the Rangers to beat the Penguins in six and the Capitals in six. I was wrong both times, but the actual result worked out both times, so let’s make it a three-peat. Rangers over Lightning in six.
What’s your prediction?
Fontana: I have a belief that I’ve tried to restate when and where I can that I don’t believe the season means a thing at this point. What’s done is done. Way to go Lightning, rah-rah-rah King Henrik, etc.
Over, done with, moot. What Tampa Bay did against the Rangers in November, what they’ve done against Detroit and Montreal have no bearing on the Rangers. What the Rags did against Pittsburgh and against the Capitals are in the past (and the Presidents’ Trophy amounts to a scheduling object). We know what our teams are capable of when they’re playing their A-game. We know how ugly or painful it can be when they just show up to the gunfight with knives instead.
That being said, youth is on Tampa Bay’s side as is speed. They’re more than capable on the penalty kill but have struggled during the season and playoffs on the power play (though the Montreal penalty kill helped rectify that a bit during the second round).
The Lightning are capable of winning the one-goal games, they’re also capable of offensive showings. Do the Rangers have the endurance to keep up with the speed? We’ve also (both teams) known Carey Price was a beast this season and the Lightning put him into a different kind of place — the L column. Henrik Lundqvist is looked upon league-wide as a force and a great character, but will he (and the team around him) solve the Lightning where Price, or Petr Mzarek (and the Detroit Red Wings) couldn’t?
I don’t think this series goes seven games, that much I’m certain of. The winner is something I’m waiting to see for myself.