The Tampa Bay Lightning made the biggest splash of the 2018 trade deadline by acquiring Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller from the New York Rangers in exchange for Vlad Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, a first-round pick, and a conditional second-round pick that becomes a first if Tampa wins the Cup this year. McDonagh was the centerpiece of the deal, but the inclusion of Namestnikov and Miller moved the trade from big to blockbuster.
While the front offices would never admit it, the trade feels like two separate deals. The first is McDonagh for the prospects and picks. The second is Namestnikov for Miller. That’s probably an oversimplification. A more nuanced view would be that Miller is the more valuable of the two players and the excess value in that swap is needed for the Lightning to give up two good prospects and two high picks for McDonagh. But the reality is that for both fan bases, Namestnikov and Miller are inextricably linked.
Prior to the trade, the two players had similar reputations within the fanbases. Both were frequent topics of conversation because while they performed well in some areas, they didn’t perform well in others.
For Namestnikov, the questions surrounded his ability to score. Sure, he was a good play driver and competent middle-sixer, but would he ever become more than that? As a former first-round pick, fans had high expectations for him.
Miller put up the points Namestnikov couldn’t but wasn’t a consistent driver in terms of shot metrics. Perhaps most frustratingly for Rangers fans, he always seemed to hit a rough patch in the playoffs. The latter point is hard to pin on Miller. Weird things happen in small samples and more than likely, his lack of playoff scoring is just bad luck. But that doesn’t change the impact those results had on the perception of his play.
Last season, the Lightning coaching staff put Namestnikov on a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. They experimented with that line to positive effect in previous seasons, but because of injuries, weren’t able to implement it full time until the fall of 2017. The combination was a boon for all three players. The line was the best in the NHL for the first half of the season with Namestnikov experiencing an explosion in scoring compared to previous seasons. Some of that was due to playing on the first power play unit where he became adept at getting open for backside dunks while the opposition focused on Kucherov and Stamkos.
That scoring was never likely to continue once he was separated from Stamkos and Kucherov. But he’d been a valuable player through his career without scoring. So when the Rangers acquired him, they likely expected the scoring to slow and for him to revert to being a play driver with game built on strong work in the defensive and neutral zones.
In the same way that Namestnikov was likely to see a drop in his scoring in a different environment, the Lightning probably expected an uptick in Miller’s shot and expected goal impacts in a new environment. The Rangers under Alain Vigneault devolved into a black hole of hockey despair. A fast-paced counterattacking style slowly became one-way traffic with Henrik Lundqvist being bombarded night after night after night. Any player would look bad in that system, so a move to a new team would inevitably result in a bump for Miller.
The following chart shows the rolling 10 game average of 5v5 Game Score per 20 minutes for both players over the last two full seasons plus the first couple of games this year. Keep in mind that the “after” portion of the chart has far fewer games than the “before.” The lines are smoothed to make the trend easier to read.
The change at the time of the trade is stark. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the players were interchangeable because they each seem to be having nearly identical results as the other when put in the same environment. The “after” line for Miller looks strikingly similar to the “before” line for Namestnikov and vice versa.
In the “after” section, we’re starting to see some convergence of the two lines with Namestnikov climbing back closer to his normal territory and Miller dropping back toward where he was with the Rangers. But even so, both still have a ways to go to get back to where they were prior to the trade.
Game score isn’t the only metric we can use to examine both players performance before and after the trade. One of the weaknesses of game score is that it relies heavily on scoring. To make sure we’re covering all our bases, we should also look at how each player impacts their team’s expected goals.
The chart below shows each players impact on expected goal share. The measure here is expected goal share relative to teammates via Evolving Hockey. Put simply, this is how much better or worse a player’s teammates expected goal share was with them as opposed to without them.
Again, just like with game score, we see the two players flip flopping after the trade. Namestnikov went from having a strong positive impact to a negative impact. And Miller went from having a negative impact to having a strong positive impact.
We’ve now looked at two of the best metrics we have for samples of this size to assess player performance independent of team effects. In both cases, the two players have essentially swapped results before and after the trade.
This is the part of the article where one might expect to arrive at a conclusion. But I don’t have a bow to put on this one. I could make an unfounded claim about how the players’ results are driven by their environment. But we’ve tried to control for that and still see the effect. Maybe this is just a fluke of a small sample of games after the trade and both players will go back to their normal performance over the course of this season. But 20 games isn’t nothing in the NHL and this is a big enough sample to at least acknowledge the trend.
Whatever is happening here, it already had major impacts on both players’ careers. This summer, Miller signed a five-year extension worth $5.25 million per year. Namestnikov signed a two-year deal worth $4 million per year. One wonders what Namestnikov’s contract would have looked like if he stayed in Tampa and continued racking up on points.
The Rangers are so down on Namestnikov’s play that last week, they healthy scratched him in favor of Cody McLeod who was one of the worst forwards in the NHL last season. If they are that low on him, he might be a buy low candidate for a trade. Especially for a team that can figure out what was happening in Tampa that made him so successful.
And no, I don’t mean playing him with Stamkos and Kucherov. He was an effective middle six forward well before he got the chance on the top line. If the Rangers have soured on him, some other team might be able to acquire him and have themselves a consistent contributor on an affordable contract.
The performance of Namestnikov and Miller over the rest of the season will be an interesting story to watch. If the Lightning can continue to get more out of Miller than the Rangers did, that will help justify the heavy price of the trade. And if the Rangers can’t figure out how to put Namestnikov in a position to succeed the way he did in Tampa, they will end up with less than they expected in return for two of their better players last season.