Last week, the Lightning made the biggest move of the trade deadline, acquiring defender Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, forward prospect Brett Howden, defender prospect Libor Hajek, a 2018 1st round pick, and a 2019 second round pick that becomes a 1st rounder if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2018 or 2019.
This is the kind of deal that alters the course of franchises in a meaningful way. The Bolts gave up significant current and future assets to get better in the short term. The Rangers pressed the reset button on their team. This trade will have ramifications for both franchises for years.
To break down this trade, we’ll first look at each asset that the Lightning acquired and then look at the ones they traded to try to understand how this deal is likely to impact the Lightning in the short and long term. We’re going to rely on heat maps for each NHL skater traded. All the data in those heat maps comes from corsica.hockey. To read them, blue is good and orange is bad.
Let’s start with the biggest piece of the trade: defender Ryan McDonagh. He was the Rangers 1D, their captain, and on a great contract at just $4.7M per year. Before we go any further, let’s look at his heat map.
From 11-12 to 15-16, he was one of the best defenders in league. He scored at a high rate and had an exceptional impact on his team’s expected goal generation. His overall impacts were impressive in almost ever area. His last two seasons haven’t been quite as good. His scoring rate has dropped and his impacts on shot metrics have also fallen to a less impressive range.
At just 28, it seems unlikely that he would be experiencing an age-related decline. Instead, I suspect that we are seeing the effects of playing on a Rangers team that has disintegrated over the last two seasons. Alain Vigneault coaches an unusual system that puts a ton of pressure on his defense and goaltender. Vigneault also had a proclivity for pairing McDonagh with a slogging partner like Dan Girardi or Nick Holden and playing him in difficult minutes.
This season, everything seems to have finally fallen apart for the Rangers as they are no longer able to rely on their trademark counter attack style and the wizardry of Henrik Lundqvist to win them games. Instead, their tendency to systemically bleed shots has taken its toll. And because of that, they’ve decided to rebuild their team including trading McDonagh.
So what did the Bolts get back? Do they have the high end 1D from 15-16 or the middling second pair D from the last two seasons? My guess is something in the middle. A reasonable expectation would be for him to look better than he has the last two seasons but not quite as good as he did at his peak. If he plays like a 2D, that would be huge for the Lightning who are desperate for someone besides Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, or Mikhail Sergachev to play like they belong in the top four. Without McDonagh, this roster has five third pairing defenders and that’s been a problem all season.
Where he slots the lineup will be an interesting decision for the coaching staff. He’s left-handed and the Bolts already have two good lefties in Hedman and Sergachev. If we assume that the coaches will go Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev down the left side, then the question becomes who will fill each pairing on the right.
The options are many but the most likely partner for McDonagh seems like either his old buddy Dan Girardi or Anton Stralman. If the coaches put Stralman on the top pair, it will likely be Girardi. But they could also try bringing Jake Dotchin back to the first pair, playing Stralman with McDonagh, and Girardi on the third pair with Sergachev. That last option would offer more balance while the first is a more traditional arrangement.
The most important part of this trade is that McDonagh regains some of his form from before the last two seasons. The Lightning paid for a top-pair defender and those are the results they need to get from McDonagh.
The other players involved in this deal feel connected because they’re both young versatile forwards. We’ll start by looking at J.T. Miller. The first thing that jumps out is that his development seemed to be on a normal track until the last two years. He went from improving every year to looking much worse the last two seasons. He’s 24 years old so obviously age related decline makes no sense here.
I see two possible options for his drop in results. The first is that he hasn’t been able to handle the increase in ice time. But that doesn’t seem fully plausible because his minutes haven’t increased that much from his best season in 15-16. The second option is the same one we identified for McDonagh. The general decline of the Rangers has tanked his numbers.
Part of the reason I lean in the direction of the second option is that his numbers have plummeted on the defensive side, which was a strength early in his career. Defense is also the area where the Rangers have been notoriously bad as a team. All the shot metrics in this chart are measured in a way that tries to take into account team effects as best as possible but I suspect that the Rangers unique system has an undue impact on their player’s results and that’s part of what we’re seeing here.
If Miller is the player he looked to be after the 15-16 season and gets back on that development track, he’ll be a solid option who can play multiple positions in the top nine. He’s a good passer, has some scoring ability and has a history of driving play. He’s not much of a shooter but the Lightning have plenty of shooting talent so another play driver and play maker would be a welcome addition and help fill the hole left by Vladdy Namestnikov.
Speaking of Namestnikov, the Rangers got a good player and he will be missed in Tampa. I’ve written in depth about him before so I’ll keep it relatively short here.
Before this season, he was an elite play driver largely because of his play in the neutral zone and his passing ability. This year, he added the scoring to round out his game and look like a legitimate top-line forward. A half season isn’t enough to know whether the scoring he showed this year is likely to continue. He certainly benefited from playing with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for much of the year. He’s also gotten more power play time. But that doesn’t negate his results. He’s been great and deserves to be thought of a solid top-six forward.
I don’t see much argument that Miller can be considered a one for one replacement for Namestnikov. The Lightning clearly weakened their forward core as part of acquiring McDonagh. The only question is by how much. What makes this question difficult to answer is the extreme environments both players have played in recently. Namestnikov has been in the best possible situation. Miller in one of the worst. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Namestnikov perform below the level he achieved in Tampa and Miller above the one he achieved in New York. And that could make them look closer than they do right now.
The rest of the assets the Lightning traded were all futures. Hajek currently projects as a fourth or fifth defender. Howden looks to be a solid middle six center. Hajek is perhaps the tougher asset for the Lightning to trade. The Bolts pipeline is thin on defense and Hajek was one of the few blue liners who looked to have an NHL future. But with Hedman and Sergachev likely holding down the left side for years to come, trading him looks more palatable. Howden is a good prospect but the Lightning are so stocked at forward that giving up one future NHLer seems like a no-brainer if it means the acquisition of a great player like McDonagh.
The draft picks are costly. Not having a first round pick this year means the Lightning won’t have a pick until the late fifties or sixties depending on how the playoffs go. Getting NHL players at that point or after is difficult so this year is unlikely to yield a significant prospect. Next year’s second round pick is easier to move. If the team plays well again next year, it will be another low pick. And if the Lightning do win the cup in the next two years, upgrading that pick to a first will be a small price to pay.
The other possibility to consider with regard to draft picks is that the Lightning may look to flip J.T. Miller this summer to recover their picks. The cap is a serious concern in Tampa and the possibility of having to trade Namestnikov already existed. If his contract demands reflected the way he was performing this season, it may not have been possible for the Lightning to retain him with new contracts coming up for Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy in the next few years.
If that was a concern, the front office may have felt that trading Vladdy now while his value was at its highest given his scoring outburst maximized their return on a player they weren’t going to be able to retain in the summer. And that would also suggest that they are in the same situation with J.T. Miller. If they feel his contract would compromise their ability to retain core players, they could try to move him for a first round pick to recover the one they sent to New York.
Overall, this is a deal where both teams got what they wanted. The Rangers accelerated their rebuild. They added two prospects who will be in the NHL in a couple years as well as two draft picks that will help rebuild their pipeline. They also added an NHL player in Namestnikov who can help them short term and is still young enough that he’ll be a useful player when the team is ready to be competitive again.
For the Lightning, they filled a gaping need on defense without giving up any of their biggest assets aside from the first round pick. Chances to trade for players like McDonagh don’t arrive often and the Lightning did the right thing by doing what they needed to do to get him. Regardless of what happens long term, this is a fair deal. The time to assess trades is when they happen and as of right now, both teams appear to have achieved their goals.
The Rangers are reloading for the future. The Lightning are loaded for a playoff run. The only thing to do now is wait for the results.