NEW YORK -- Nobody should've been surprised when Martin St. Louis ended his dizzying first day as a Tampa Bay Lightning icon-turned-Rangers winger by saying he absolutely thought of himself as a piece that could transform his new team from a club on the fringe of missing the playoffs to an overnight Stanley Cup contender.
Hadn't he just forced his long-rumored trade to New York less than four hours before Wednesday's 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline -- first by angrily telling Tampa Bay he wanted out after Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman initially passed him over for the Canadian Olympic team, and then adding that the Rangers were the only NHL team he'd waive his no-trade clause for?
Then, with his wish granted, hadn't St. Louis hopped a plane, arrived at Madison Square Garden less than 90 minutes before the Rangers played Toronto, and walked into a dressing room that he knew was filled with four or five players who echoed defenseman Brian Boyle's assessment just hours earlier that they didn't want to see their own captain, Ryan Callahan, traded away? As Boyle said of Callahan, "We want him here. We need him here."
The players' show of loyalty was understandable.
But the unsentimental truth is, as much as Callahan was indeed the soul of the Rangers' team -- an exemplary leader, a cool voice of reason, a gritty winger who routinely threw himself in front of shots with little regard for his own welfare, even in this, his contract walk year -- St. Louis, even at age 38, has the sort of skill to make Rangers fans forget Callahan.
Even if St. Louis arrives shouldering the added pressure of immediately making the Rangers a win-now-ask-questions-later team.
The lack of nostalgia isn't meant as some dismissal of Callahan's many contributions in eight years with the Rangers.
It's just a clear-eyed acknowledgement that St. Louis -- a two-time NHL scoring champ and a one-time league MVP when Tampa won the 2004 Stanley Cup -- plays a far more exciting and high-scoring game than Callahan, even if Callahan is 10 years younger. St. Louis is a more skilled and dynamic presence. And that was obvious from the moment the 5-foot-8 St. Louis jumped over the boards and took Callahan's old spot alongside Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards, a former Lightning teammate and still an offseason training partner of his.
On his very first shift as a Ranger, St. Louis spun and shot a one-timer from just outside the left circle in the game's first minute that thudded off Toronto goalie James Reimer's pads -- and the Garden crowd roared in delight. As the game went on, he relentlessly drove to the net. With about six minutes left in the first period, St. Louis might've even been able to bury his first goal as a Ranger if he'd just been able to handle a pass that Hagelin flicked to him.
All told, he managed three shots in 20:11 of ice time.
"He's just so easy to play with," Hagelin said.
"You can see his playmaking ability, his skating ability," added Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who scored the first of the Rangers' two third-period short-handed goals that brought them winging back from a 2-0 deficit -- only to lose, 3-2, just 1:08 into overtime when the Leafs' Phil Kessel found Tyler Bozak all alone in front of Henrik Lundqvist.
Like the man he was traded for, St. Louis is a dressing-room force. He was the Lightning's team captain and a mentor to young Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos. It also says something that his character and quality of play was commended Wednesday even by Yzerman, the GM with whom he was warring. Even Yzerman -- who did double duty this year as manager of Canada's Olympic team -- couldn't overlook how St. Louis' trade demand coincided almost exactly with his tear of 12 goals and 11 assists over his last 20 games.
"I'm am emotional player," St. Louis said when he finally spoke to reporters after the Rangers' loss.
St. Louis admitted the Olympic snub "was a part of wanting to leave" Tampa Bay but added other reasons played a role. He and his family spend their summers in Greenwich, Conn. He said he'd always thought about playing in big-market New York and believes he has the guts to handle the scrutiny.
"I know what comes with it," he said.
So there's no need to overthink why Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, "I really believe this [trade] makes us a better team."
And there's no mystery why Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather made this trade, even though Sather readily acknowledged all the risks involved could blow up in his face.
Sather allowed that he might have overpaid and mortgaged the Rangers' future by sending what could turn into not one but two first-round draft picks to Tampa Bay if the Rangers advance to this year's conference finals. And yes, Sather admitted he was "absolutely" concerned that subtracting Callahan might disrupt the Rangers' chemistry.
But Sather still had a blunt message for his team if it felt "sad or depressed."
"They have to suck it up. That's the way it is," Sather nearly growled. "The deal is done. It's not going to change."
Sather said in the end, Callahan's demands for a six- to-eight-year contract struck him as too high. (Callahan reportedly wanted to average about $6.25 to $6.5 million a year -- or about $1.5 million more than St. Louis will make next year.)
But Sather stressed that Callahan's additional request for a no-trade clause was "the one thing that really bothered me."
"You give too much away when you give that. ... It really ties your hands," he explained. "We were getting closer on the money. But in this league, eight years is an awful lot of money for Ryan Callahan, or anybody else, as a matter of fact. Unless you're a first All-Star team player that's won Stanley Cups."
Sather could've -- but didn't -- driven home that St. Louis has had that kind of career. He won his latest scoring title just last year, and began play Wednesday sitting eighth in league scoring with 61 points (29 goals and 32 assists).
If the season ended right now, the Rangers would be one of the East's last three or four playoff teams.
But as St. Louis noted before heading out to get some rest Wednesday night, he hasn't played a lot of postseason hockey these last few years.
So bring it on. Being cast as the man who replaced the popular Callahan or -- bigger yet -- the missing piece for a Rangers' Stanley Cup run is fine with him. "I think I can be," St. Louis said.