The New York Rangers may have found the secret to turning around their struggling players: send them to Tampa Bay. Granted, that means the Blueshirts no longer have them, but it worked for Ryan McDonagh, who has been fantastic over the past two seasons with the Lightning, it worked for J.T. Miller, who provided secondary scoring depth for a couple of seasons, and it worked for Anton Stralman, who played the best hockey of his career in Tampa Bay.
So, naturally, it makes sense that a move from the Big Apple to the Sunshine State has worked wonders for Kevin Shattenkirk, too.
Following a two-year tenure with the Rangers that was shrouded in negativity, Shattenkirk landed in Tampa Bay this summer after the final two seasons of the four-year, $26.6-million deal he signed with New York in July 2016 were bought out. That allowed Shattenkirk to take a deep discount as a show-me signing with the Bolts, putting pen to paper on a one-year, $1.75-million deal that came on the heels of a rough two-goal, 28-point campaign in which Shattenkirk saw his ice time dip below the 19-minute mark for the first time in his nine-year NHL career. And so far, so good for Shattenkirk. As of Monday, he sits 10th among defensemen with four goals and 10 points in 13 games and leads all Lightning defensemen in offensive output while averaging 20:33 per game.
The surprise is that Shattenkirk has assumed such a role so early in his time with Tampa Bay. Expectations were somewhat low for the blueliner given he had been scratched four games into last season by the Rangers and that he seemed unsettled in a top-four role on a club that was building towards the future. But out of spotlight and into a secondary spot on the Tampa Bay blueline, Shattenkirk has thrived thus far. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that he has found himself skating alongside Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev this season, which is a stark contrast from his two most common partners last season, Fredrik Claesson, currently an AHLer in the Carolina Hurricanes system, and Brendan Smith, who has been moved to the wing by the Rangers.
Playing alongside strong partners has paid incredible dividends for Shattenkirk through the opening month of the campaign, and best of all, it’s allowed him to get back to the speedy, puck-moving ways that made him an offensive contributor in the past. Credit where credit is due, though: Shattenkirk has had a positive influence on those he’s played with as much as they’ve benefited his own game. In Sergachev’s case, his Corsi-for percentage without Shattenkirk is 52.3 percent and 62.28 with him at all strengths. With Hedman, Shattenkirk has an expected goals percentage of 63.8 percent through 10 games, good for the third-best defensive pairing in the league. And if you dig a little deeper, Shattenkirk’s individual Corsi-for percentage sits at 52.6, good for second among Lightning defensemen and above the team average of 49.9 percent. For comparison, his Corsi percentage was 49.2 during his stint with the Rangers.
Shattenkirk’s performance is proof that taking some of the load off of his shoulders while still rewarding him with important minutes is the way to get the best out of him. What Tampa Bay is getting now is the real Kevin Shattenkirk, the elusive offensive-minded defender who can quarterback a power play and move the puck with aplomb. In fact, coach Jon Cooper taking that tack with Shattenkirk arguably resulted in the defender playing the best hockey of any Lightning skater last month.
This is the redemption arc some believed we would see, and the Broadway musical might write itself: three seasons removed from being the top trade deadline asset, a miscast defender fails to find his way and is left to fight for his career. And if he keeps playing as he has through the first month of the season, Shattenkirk could get a fairytale ending.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)