The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.
In 2017-2018, Ryan McDonagh never looked comfortable in Tampa. He paired at times with Dan Girardi and at times with Anton Stralman but struggled to find his groove through the end of the regular season and in the playoffs after recovering from an injury following his trade from the New York Rangers. Because of that, I went into the offseason wondering if we’d ever see peak McDonagh in Tampa.
The Lightning seemed to not have similar concerns as they signed the veteran defender to a long term extension last summer despite him still having a year left on his deal. As of now, that decision looks much better than it did at the time.
McDonagh had his best season by WAR since 2015-2016 and the second best season of his career overall. That number placed him 14th overall among NHL defenders this year, which was good enough to make him a fringe Norris Trophy candidate.
But if we look below the surface, the picture isn’t quite as rosy as his WAR total would indicate. The following card shows that as well as how the community graded him. Wins Above Replacement and the expected goal impacts come from Evolving Hockey. The xG impacts include all situations.
The readers and writers matched up perfectly here giving McDonagh an A-. That’s also exactly how I graded him. That seems fair considering how good he was this season.
But looking at the stats on the card, we can see a disconnect between his expected goal impacts and his WAR total. The most common reason for this to happen is that a player is getting better goal results than their underlying xG performance would suggest. The reason for this is that the offensive component of WAR is based on impact actual goals instead of expected goals. That’s good for evaluating how a player performed in the past but it probably isn’t the best way of thinking about how a player will perform in the future.
In that way, McDonagh’s stellar season should be met with a little skepticism if we’re trying to project it forward. If we consider only McDonagh’s xG impact, he looks more like a second pairing defender than the top tier player he appears to be by WAR.
But there’s another complicating factor here. In terms of even strength xG impacts, McDonagh was top 40 in the NHL, which while not as lofty as his WAR numbers, is solidly top pairing material. What pushed his total numbers down was poor metrics while shorthanded. The shotmaps from Hockey Viz show that the Lightning penalty kill was better without McDonagh.
So all told, McDonagh was great at even strength, not so great on the penalty kill, but got a bit fortunate so that his overall results looked even better than his underlying numbers would suggest. That’s not quite as good as his season looked at first glance but also not enough to raise concern of an immediate decline in his level of play.
McDonagh’s role on the team is secure. He’ll anchor the second pair behind Victor Hedman for the the next few years at least. He found a consistent partner in Erik Cernak and the two combined to be the Bolts’ best defensive duo. I don’t see any reason to expect that to change next season.
If McDonagh can continue to be a top 40 defender in terms of even strength xG impacts, the Lightning will be more than happy with that. If he can improve his play on the penalty kill, even better.
McDonagh turns 30 next month. His seven year contract extension will officially start a few weeks later on July 1st. That will become a problem at some point. Even a great player like McDonagh will not be able play at the level that would be expected for $6.75 million per season into his late 30s. The question is how soon that happens.
His results this year suggest that the team still has some time with him playing near his peak level. If they can get even two more years that look close to this one, they’ll probably take that. Two great years, two serviceable years, and then three years of trying to figure out what to do with the back end of the contract seems like a fair expectation for everyone involved.
Heading into this year, I was concerned that McDonagh’s play was already declining before his contract extension had even started. His performance assuaged those concerns somewhat. He played some of the best hockey of his career and definitely his best in the last three or four seasons.
The Lightning payed a steep price in picks and prospects to acquire McDonagh and then paid again to extend him through his 30s. For this season, he rewarded that confidence. The real test of that investment will be how he performs over the next few years. And of course, if he can be a key contributor in helping Lightning to win a Cup, no one will care what happens in the last few years of the deal.