NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
There were four days between the Rangers buying out the final two years of Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract and the Lightning signing the 30-year-old defenseman to a one-year deal. Despite how swift his fortunes changed, there was a period of anger and frustration at not being able to make the “hometown boy returns” story work out.
Shattenkirk hails from New Rochelle, N.Y., which is about 20 miles outside of New York City. When he became an unrestricted free agent in 2017, it was clear that the Rangers would be atop his preferred destinations list. He would sign a four-year, $26.6 million deal to head home, but nothing went right during his two-season stop in the Big Apple.
During training camp in 2017 Shattenkirk suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee, an injury that would bother him during his entire tenure in New York. He played only 46 games in 2017-18, with surgery ending his season that January. Last season he managed to get into 73 games, but it was clear he wasn’t himself. He scored only two goals and recorded 28 points and was healthy scratched while trying to fight through the knee issue.
When the Rangers made the buyout official on August 1, he felt plenty of emotions.
“On a personal level, for not being able to make it work from my end, and when a team makes that decision you want to prove them wrong,” Shattenkirk told NBC Sports on Monday.
Shattenkirk was at a low point and began to question himself. But then the phone started to ring. Considering he’d been bought out, a team looking to add to its blue line wouldn’t need to shell out major bucks to sign him, and would be banking on a bounce-back season from the now-healthy defenseman. It was a rollercoaster few days, but the interest level from other NHL teams helped restore his confidence.
“All of a sudden you start to realize that there are a lot of teams out there that could use you and may value you,” he said. “In my mind, it was something I was able to move through pretty quickly and it allowed me to focus on the season again. I was pretty driven this summer to have a big bounce-back season regardless of where I was. I think being able to know I was coming to Tampa and being on this calibre of a team, I wanted to make sure I was ready to go when the time training camp started.”
The knee injury is in the past now and the results show it. Shattenkirk, who’s been mostly paired with Victor Hedman, is third on the Lightning in minutes played, averaging 20:30 a night, and he’s tied for fourth on the team in points with seven, which includes four goals. The pressures of having to perform in your hometown or having to play like a No. 1 defenseman and produce on a regular basis is absent now in Tampa.
“There’s a lot of guys who are above me in that role and it just allows me to fit in to my role perfectly,” he said. “It’s been comforting, it’s been nice to be here. Great group of guys, great fans, and I think they all appreciate for what I bring to the table. It’s up to me to not try to be more than they need me to be.”
Shattenkirk spent this past summer training in Connecticut with Ben Prentiss, who has worked with NHLers James van Riemsdyk, Jonathan Quick, Cam Atkinson, Charlie McAvoy, and Jack Eichel, among many others. He also focused on edge work in his skating with skills coach Erik Nates, whom Shattenkirk has used in the past.
“When you have an injury like [my knee], you tend to overcompensate and you don’t realize you’re losing a lot in your stride,” he said. “I had a lot of bad habits in there I needed to break. It helped me out tremendously.”
A healthy Shattenkirk returns to New York City Tuesday night for the first time as a member of the Lightning. Because Tampa’s games this week are at the Rangers, Devils, and Islanders, family and friends in the area won’t descend upon one specific game, they’ll instead spread out among the three, and others will be watching from Mustang Harry’s, a sports bar not far from Madison Square Garden.
It remains to be seen what kind of salute the Rangers have in store for Shattenkirk. The defenseman said he wasn’t sure what kind of reception he would receive from the Garden faithful, but knowing the area as well as he does, he’s ready for anything.
“I had a great time playing there. They were very supportive of me and obviously knowing what I was going through,” he said. “But it’s New York, and if you don’t perform in New York they have something to say about it. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of boo birds out [Tuesday] night, but that’s New York, and that’s something I’m accustomed to growing up there and being a New York fan. In a way, it’ll probably make me laugh a little bit on the inside, but that’s how you’ve got to approach it and we’ll see how it goes.”
Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call Lightning-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor tonight’s studio coverage with Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Sharp.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.