Four years ago, on February 26th, 2018, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. In the deal, the Lightning acquired defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, a 2018 first round pick, and a 2019 conditional first or second round pick that became a second round pick with the Lightning failing to win the Stanley Cup in 2018 or 2019.
A lot has happened in the last four years. The Lightning made it to an Eastern Conference Finals, falling to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals. The Lightning won the President’s Trophy and then proceeded to get swept in stunning fashion by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Then the Lightning went on to become back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions during two seasons severely impacted by the pandemic.
Now is a good opportunity to look back on that trade and what the players involved have done since then.
When McDonagh was acquired, he was still recovering from an injury and it was a couple of weeks before he joined the line-up. He got off to a slow start offensively with the team only recording two goals and three points in 14 games and followed that up with five points in 17 playoff games.
In the summer, the Lightning re-signed McDonagh to a long term deal of seven years with a $6.75 million cap hit that would begin the following season, giving the Lightning eight more years total with McDonagh. At the time of signing, I thought that the deal was a little too long and still think it’s at least a year or two too long. McDonagh is now 32 years old and has showed his age a bit and has declined from what he was at his peak as a shutdown defenseman. He’s still effective, but for how much longer that remains true is a question mark as he continues to get further away from 30 years old. McDonagh will be 36 years old at the end of the contract.
In his second season, McDonagh had one of his best offensive seasons in his NHL career posting nine goals and 46 points playing in all 82 games for the Lightning. He was held scoreless in the first round series against the Blue Jackets. Soon after, McDonagh found a defensive partner in Erik Cernak that complimented his skillset very well. McDonagh’s offensive output the past three seasons hasn’t been anywhere near what it was in the past, but with Cernak he has given the Lightning a shutdown defensive pair that frees up Victor Hedman to play against lesser competition and feast.
Since the trade, McDonagh has played in 243 games with the Lightning recording 18 goals and 91 points. He’s also recorded five points shorthanded which puts him tied for 4th on the Lightning’s career defensemen ranks.
Miller was the surprise acquisition in the trade. The rumors had been out there that the Lightning wanted McDonagh, but Miller was also suspected to be on the trade block as well as a pending restricted free agent. You can almost look at the trade as being two separate trades, with Namestnikov and Miller almost being a one-for-one and the rest of the assets being for McDonagh.
Miller jumped into Namestnikov’s spot in the top six right away and immediately clicked, posting ten goals and 18 points in 19 games after the trade. He added another two goals and eight points in 17 playoff games. In the summer, the Lightning re-signed Miller to a five year deal with a $5.25 million cap hit.
The next season, Miller bounced around the line-up a bit more. He didn’t find the same chemistry he had previously and ended up playing on the fourth line at different points of the season. Even with never getting settled on a line, Miller contributed 13 goals and 47 points in 75 games adding two assists in four playoff games.
The following offseason, the Lightning were in a severe salary cap crunch and needed to make some room. There were rumors about a possible Tyler Johnson trade that were not realized at the time, and instead it was Miller that ended up being traded just before his No Trade Clause took effect. The deal the Lightning were offered was too good to pass up, and they took it. In the trade, the Lightning sent Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for Marek Mazanec (for contract reasons as he was a pending unrestricted free agent), a 2019 third round pick, and a first round pick that would be in 2020 if the Canucks made the playoff, which they did.
Miller has turned into a top line force for the Canucks since then and with one year remaining on his contract and the Canucks struggling, he’s now turned into one of the top trade targets in the NHL this trade deadline season.
The Lightning used the third round pick to select goaltender Hugo Alnefelt who has the potential to be a back-up for Andrei Vasilevskiy within the next few seasons. The 2020 first round pick was eventually traded to the New Jersey Devils along with Nolan Foote for Blake Coleman. And hopefully you know how that one turned out.
Namestnikov was experiencing a career year playing on the top line for the Lightning. The front office though rightfully saw that it was more happenstance of playing with elite players than it was Namestnikov finally getting over the hump. He had posted 20 goals and 44 points in 62 games that season prior to the trade.
Since then, Namestnikov has bounced around a bit. He spent the rest of the 2017-18 season and 2018-19 season with the New York Rangers after signing a two-year extension as a restricted free agent. He began the 2019-20 season with the Rangers, playing in two games, but was traded to the Ottawa Senators shortly afterwards for a prospect and a 2021 fourth round pick. At the trade deadline, the Senators traded Namestnikov to the Colorado Avalanche for a fourth round pick.
Namestnikov finished out the season with the Avalanche and then signed a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent with the Detroit Red Wings. He’s remained an effective middle six center, though he has his defensive weaknesses and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. With the Red Wings out of the playoff hunt, Namestnikov putting up around a half point per game, and only having a $2 million cap hit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved to a team needing some depth at the trade deadline.
Brett Howden and Libor Hajek
Howden was originally a first round pick of the Lightning in 2016 and was still playing in the WHL when he was traded. He jumped right into the New York Rangers line-up in 2018-19 as a 20 year old. He putting up decent offensive numbers, but struggled defensively and his offensive output saw a decline over the past two seasons. Perhaps seeing that Howden needed a change of scenery, the Rangers traded Howden to the Vegas Golden Knights last summer for Nick DeSimone and a 2022 fourth round pick.
With the Golden Knights, Howden has rejuvenated his game and has put up eight goals and 18 points in 38 games and is on pace for his best offensive season of his career. In 216 career games, Howden has recorded 24 goals and 67 points.
Defenseman Libor Hajek was the Lightning’s second round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and like Howden was still playing in the WHL at the time of his trade. He didn’t jump right into the NHL, but spent most of the next season in the AHL. He later made his NHL debut playing five games for the Rangers. He split the 2019-20 season between the NHL and AHL and then spent all of the 2020-21 season in the NHL. This season, he has again split between the NHL and AHL. In 91 career NHL games, Hajek has put up three goals and 11 points.
I’ve grouped these two players together because they have a similar story.
If these players had remained in the Lightning organization, it’s unlikely they would have made the jump to the NHL as soon as they did. Both would have started in the AHL, and it may have been two or three full years in the AHL before they found their way into the Lightning’s line-up. Who knows what would have actually happened, but it seems clear that for both players, their development was impacted by going to the Rangers, and in the case of Howden, was perhaps mishandled.
The Draft Picks
With the two draft picks, the Rangers selected defenseman Nils Lundkvist and forward Karl Henriksson. Lundkvist made his North America debut this season and has spent time in the NHL and AHL with 25 games and four points in the NHL and 14 games and four points in the AHL. Henriksson has been signed to an entry level contract, but was loaned back to his SHL team Frolunda where he has three goals and nine points in 29 games this season.
This trade has been highly valuable for the Lightning and if we could go back in time I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. While the team gave up a lot to get McDonagh and Miller, they recouped some of it in the Miller trade, and ultimately won two Stanley Cups with McDonagh being a major factor in both runs to the championship. So far, none of the prospects and picks the Lightning gave up have been stars in the NHL and aren’t looking like they will become one. On the other hand, Miller has become a star but was a casualty of the salary cap. With the assets picked up in the Miller trade, the Lightning look to have a future back-up goaltender in Hugo Alnefelt and got half of the trade chips for Blake Coleman who was also a major factor in both Stanley Cup victories.