The Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers at the 2017-18 trade deadline. Along with McDonagh, the Lightning also acquired J.T. Miller. In the process, they gave up a 1st and 2nd round pick, former first round picks Vladislav Namestnikov and Brett Howden, and former second round pick Libor Hajek. It was a lot to give up for McDonagh and Miller. The Lightning recouped some of the value by trading Miller less than a year and a half later getting a 1st and 3rd round pick. The 1st round pick then went into the deal that brought Blake Coleman to Tampa at the 2019-20 trade deadline.
McDonagh and Miller both had more value than if they were just rentals since both still had a year of team control remaining in their contracts. In the case of McDonagh, he had another year on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Miller was a restricted free agent following the season and was re-signed to a long term deal a year before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks. The Lightning loved McDonagh as he gave them another elite defenseman to go with Victor Hedman while Mikhail Sergachev continued to develop. They rewarded him with a contract extension worth $6.75 million per year over seven years.
While he has dealt with some injuries in his time in Tampa, McDonagh hasn’t slowed down. He’s still an incredible defenseman. Along with Sergachev, he gives the Lightning tremendous depth on the left side, but he also is a big investment and a risk as he turns 32-years-old this summer and will have five years remaining on his contract.
The idea of McDonagh being given up in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken has been bandied about quite a bit among fans on Twitter. They rightfully point to his cap hit and the length of his contract as being potentially problematic down the road, especially if his abilities start to drop off as he approaches the wrong side of 35.
This is something I’ve pushed back on a lot too. I think that the front office doesn’t view McDonagh’s contract and future to be as big of a problem that fans do. I think they like having that depth of three high-end defensemen on the roster. With the salary cap staying fairly flat next season, and possibly staying flat for another season or two beyond, the front office has to examine the possibility of moving him.
I’ve previously explored trading Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat and how that would impact the salary cap next season. A couple of things have changed since then, namely with the Lightning’s RFAs.
Alexander Volkov has been in and out of the line up this season, mostly struggling more than succeeding on the fourth line. He was scheduled to compete with Mathieu Joseph for the last forward spot, but with Mitchell Stephens having been injured for a while, he’s instead been competing with veteran Gemel Smith and prospects Alex Barre-Boulet and Ross Colton. Even Taylor Raddysh’s name has come up with head coach Jon Cooper as he is now on the taxi squad and is expected to get a game sooner or later.
Cal Foote has been brought along slowly by the coaching staff. He hasn’t jumped in at the level that Erik Cernak did as a rookie. His development in the NHL is going well, but he’s not put himself into a position to command quite as much yet as I had projected he could. He still has half a season to change that outlook, but as things stand now, he’s likely to be on the lower end of my previous contract projections.
What I didn’t explore in previous salary cap top was the idea of letting go of McDonagh. One of my biggest concerns as we’ve gone through the season is how the top six would look if the Lightning traded all three forward options (Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat). The team would be left with Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, and Yanni Gourde as their only bona fide top six forwards.
Mathieu Joseph has shown enough this year that he could get a chance on the second line, but I don’t know that he can bring enough offense to stay there long term. Barre-Boulet has yet to have a real opportunity to shine and show off his offense while being stuck on the fourth line. Can he show enough skill and consistency to stick in the top six? Is his skating good enough to keep up with his linemates? Are there any other options? Not really, at least none already in the organization. An area of depth that the team has enjoyed for years would over one offseason turn into an area of inadequacy.
Mikhail Sergachev has continued to show that he is one of the best young defensemen in the NHL. He’s more than capable of being the number two defenseman behind Victor Hedman. The right side continues to be a weakness and we’ve seen Sergachev playing more on the right, especially with Hedman. That weakness is unlikely to go away next year as the Lightning are looking at having the same three right-handers in Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote all under contract.
Making the decision to let go of McDonagh in the expansion draft also carries with it the possibility of moving Tyler Johnson’s contract without giving up as much. It’s obvious that the other NHL teams want to get something to take on Johnson’s contract. It’s not that Johnson is bad, and he’s been playing better this season, especially since moving to center between Barclay Goodrow and Coleman. His contract is overvalued and too lengthy, and that’s what has cratered his value in addition to the Lightning’s cap situation.
By letting McDonagh go, along with moving Johnson weather to Seattle or another team, the Lightning would be able to keep Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. They’d also have a little bit of money to potentially bring back Goodrow on a new contract as well. By projecting Goodrow at $2 million, Colton, Barre-Boulet, and Andreas Borgman on league minimum contracts, Cal Foote at $1 million, and $1.5 million for a back-up goaltender, the Lightning would have about $1.5 million to add a depth left handed defenseman for the third pairing. I should also note that in this scenario, I have not brought back Volkov.
This would give the Lightning a line up that looks something like this:
Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - Steven Stamkos
Barclay Goodrow - Yanni Gourde - Mathieu Joseph
Pat Maroon - Mitchell Stephens - Ross Colton
Victor Hedman - Jan Rutta
Mikhail Sergachev - Erik Cernak
Free Agent Defenseman - Cal Foote
Andrei Vasilevskiy - Free Agent Goaltender
The Lightning would be giving up a high end defenseman in exchange for maintaining their skill and depth up front. Imagine if that line-up didn’t have Palat and Killorn and there was an injury to one of the top five. The Lightning would be in real trouble. Granted, the Lightning would still be in a bit of trouble of Sergachev or Hedman were injured, and even more so if Cernak was injured. It’s a balancing act for the team of where they need the depth and what gives them the best chance of making another run for a championship in 2021-22.
If the team didn’t bring back Goodrow, then instead they could have around $2.5 million to sign a little bit better defenseman. That would also open up room for Barre-Boulet to play on the third line and probably gives Taylor Raddysh a spot on the roster as the 13th forward.
It’s still a hard decision to make. Besides the question of which roster alignment is better for the team’s winning potential in 2021-22, the biggest factor that comes into play is if Seattle even wants McDonagh. The staff that they’ve been putting together is highly analytical. Will they see McDonagh as too good to pass up, even with the possible negative value on the back end of his contract? Could they be more interested because of his potential to be their first team captain? It’s hard to find a true number one defenseman, especially for an expansion team. Is that enough for them to take on Tyler Johnson’s contract?
We’re still a ways from getting answers to these questions. There’s a lot of hockey left to play in this season and the playoffs. These answers won’t come until July with the NHL Entry Draft and the Seattle Expansion Draft.