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Ryan McDonagh And J.T. Miller Trade: Breaking It All Down

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New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

You all know by now the Rangers blew it up. Like, really blew it up. They didn’t just trade Nick Holden, and Michael Grabner. They didn’t just move on from Rick Nash. They traded J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh as well, in a blockbuster move with Tampa Bay that totally alters the landscape of the Rangers and their future as we know it.

Adam has a great piece with a deeper look at the prospects and players the Rangers got back. You should read that article first since I’m going to cite it a few times below and the prospect stuff is far meatier. Yes, the breakout of this story is similar, but it has my flavor on things and also a look from the Rangers’ perspective.

Moving Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller

Obviously there’s a lot to digest here. I did expect both to be moved by the draft this summer, because as I’ve pointed out on twitter before things exploded, Ryan Spooner, Miller, and Kevin Hayes are all the same player.

What I didn’t expect was for both to be moved together. I would have argued moving Miller and McDonagh separately would have netted the Rangers’ a better return, but after a night of thinking about it, I’m not so sure. The market for McDonagh might have contained more suitors at the draft, but it also would have been undermined by the Erik Karlsson saga, as Adam outlined in his article on the trade:

There are a number of good arguments for making the trade nonetheless. Ottawa will almost certainly be trading Erik Karlsson in the summer, and as such the Rangers would have their market undermined. He also would have held less trade value as a one-year rental, whereas now Tampa Bay paid to get him for two playoff runs.

The Rangers obviously had an eye on this situation as it developed, and made the call to pull the trigger now, when they knew what they had on the table. You can’t discount the fact that the Senators floating Karlsson to the world made this a near impossible task for Gorton. The teams interested in Karlsson were also interest in McDonagh, some teams had offers on the table for both players, and it would make sense for trade partners to prioritize Karlsson over McDonagh. Working in that environment, the haul the Rangers got back might not be what we were hoping for, but it also might have been unrealistic given the environment. Also, now that we know Karlsson wasn’t moved, as Adam said above, the Rangers would be dealing with the same exact problem at the draft — AND the situation with McDonagh in the room the rest of this year would have been really awkward and assuredly would have driven his value down further.

There’s other factors at play here too, mainly the money.

The Rangers moved on from McDonagh now because they want to avoid the incoming 7-to-8-year contract worth at least $7-million per. That’s a smart move. Despite all McDonagh has given to this franchise, and all the love and respect he deserves, the Rangers need to learn a critical lesson from their post-Cup run mistakes. The biggest of which is: Don’t pay a guy tomorrow for what he did yesterday. As much as you love McDonagh, as much as you think he has three to four elite years left, that contract is going to be a minefield, and the Rangers gingerly avoiding dancing in it was a smart (although painful) move.

The same goes with Miller. Coming off a career 56-point performance last year, Miller has 40 points in 63 games this season, and with the Lightning’s offensive units around him for support could break 60 points when all is said and done. That contract is going to be big and heavy (he has arbitration rights and is coming off a “show me” contract), and I’m not so sure Miller is capable of living up to a 5-year, $5-million (ish) deal he’ll certainly demand. I’ve always liked the game Miller plays, but I do think he’s been overrated thanks to some of his inflated point totals, and he has had an up and down year. His underlying numbers aren’t the best, there’s a reason to think Grabner helped prop him up last year in terms of his breakout year, and between himself, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes he was the most logical target to move. I thought the Rangers would be able to sell high on Miller, but if you look at the trade in segmented blocks (which you really can’t do, but it makes it simpler to digest) I see Vladislav Namestnikov as a big upgrade over Miller. (Miller, by the way, will be 25 in two months, making him just four months younger than Namestnikov.)

Final point on this deal: James Mirtle did a trade deadline review for The Athletic (paywall) for the Leafs view of how things played out. He states Toronto wasn’t moving on from William Nylander or Mitch Marner (sad face for Joe) and Toronto was not including Timothy Liljegren in the deal. That ended up being a deal breaker — since per reports the Leafs’ deal was on the table with Tampa’s in the dying moments of the trade deadline when the Rangers pulled the trigger. Gorton got the best deal he could, but if you think there were better options out there, just based on what Mirtle said, it seems the Leafs’ offer was 50-60 cents on the dollar. Florida’s late push and their offer remains a mystery as of this writing.

Vladislav Namestnikov

Like I said above, where I think Miller is on the peak of where he’ll finish as a player, I think Namestnikov is just starting to reach for his. He’s been buried on a very good Lightning team, and this summer came in number four in Raw Charge’s Top-25 Under-25.

Adam went into a ton of detail on Namestnikov, so I’m not going to step on his toes, but I will add a few things:

I think the Rangers look at Namestnikov as someone who is trending upwards, and a more shot oriented center. The Rangers don’t have any of those (maybe Mika Zibanejad is), and his defensive work will help shore up the Rangers’ lack of forward depth in that department. Can he be a 30-30 guy? Maybe, depending on his role and linemates (Ilya Kovalchuk?). It sure looks like he could be at least a 25-goal guy, especially if he finds his way to be the Rangers’ number two center — and right now I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be. He’s also an elite-level player at getting the puck forward and generating offense, something the Rangers prioritize and hopefully will continue to make a point of focusing on after Alain Vigneault is fired. This from the Raw Charge article above:

The chart above shows zone exit results for forwards and defenders on the Lightning relative to the rest of the league. Namestnikov’s impact in this area is genuinely among the best in the NHL. He almost always gets out of his own zone successfully and frequently does so with possession. The bubbles in the graph are sized by how often that zone exit leads to a zone entry and again, he is among the best in this area as well. Clearly, one of Namestnikov’s specialties is getting the puck out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone, and into the offensive zone successfully.

There’s a hell of a player here. One the Rangers did their homework on and obviously wanted back. I’ve heard the Lightning tried to force Tyler Johnson back on this deal, but the Rangers didn’t bite on it — which they shouldn’t have. Vlad is a player who can help the Rangers, even when they’re re-building. I really like his inclusion here.

He’s got a cap situation to monitor as well. Also coming off a career year, Namestnikov makes a shade over $1.9-million this year, and is an RFA this summer. Will his past performances keep him cheaper than Miller’s upcoming extension? I think yes, but there’s a longer story there coming.

Brett Howden and Libor Hájek

Again, I don’t want to step on Adam’s toes here, so just a little on my own flavor on the return.

As Adam pointed out in his story on them, there seems to be varying degrees of heat when it comes to both players and their returns. The standard response from people in the know seem to be that Howden is going to be an excellent 3C and potentially a top-six center at his best, while Hájek is going to be around a second-pair defenseman.

Howden himself is having a fantastic year for Moose Jaw, with a 22-36-58 line in just 38 games — he also went 3-4-7 in seven World Junior games for Canada. ElSeldo (a Raw Charge prospect writer) had this to say on Howden:

Good, skilled two way centre who isn’t a worry at either end of the ice. One of the Lightning’s best forwards not in the pros, he’s been about a PPG since his sophomore year in the WHL and passed his brother Quinton on the Warriors all time scoring list to move into 9th all time. He’s not an easy prospect to let go, even with the Lightning’s depth up front. Very possibly a Memorial Cup MVP (I’m way ahead of myself here), the Warriors should be there if they get past the Swift Current Broncos in their division.

I’ve seen the biggest variation on Hájek, though, who came in #24 in Raw Charge’s Top-25 Under-25 rankings. Hájek’s placement might not blow you away, but these were done this summer, and it’s universally agreed upon that he’s had a breakthrough season. Alex Nunn had this take on him:

He’s a big, smart guy who plays a good d-zone game and shuts things down tight. Strong, mobile skater. Solid shot, and can chip in with offense. Czech’s best defenseman at the last WJC.

That World Juniors performance saw Hájek notch a 1-7-8 scoreline in seven games, play multiple games where he saw over 30 minutes of ice time, and was the Czech’s anchor on defense in a surprising run through the tournament. In the WHL his offensive numbers aren’t explosive (35 points in 52 games), but it’s a big jump from where he was the past two years in the WHL, and the Regina Pats traded a haul to get him to lock down their defense for the upcoming Memorial Cup (which they are the hosts). A few European prospect people like him a lot more than the people Adam spoke to (which is normal). He’s a guy to keep an eye on. Steve Kournianos had this to say on both players:

Both players also look exceptionally well when compared to their peers in the WHL:

There’s a lot to like here on both of them. It should also be noted that the Rangers demanded Hájek’s inclusion to seal the deal (per Elliotte Friedman), and they’ve made a much bigger Czech (and Russian) push the past two years in terms of scouting. Hájek also played with Filip Chytil at this year’s World Juniors, so the Rangers assuredly had eyes on him there, too.

The Draft Picks

Just a quick review: If the Lightning win the Stanley Cup this year or next year, the 2019 2nd round pick becomes a 2019 1st round pick. That’s a solid bet for the Rangers, but at worst they have a 2018 1st and a 2019 2nd in this deal. Not all picks are created equal, and the pick this year int he 1st round will likely be a very, very late 1st (so almost a second). Still, there’s value to be had there, and the Rangers are setting themselves up to have a massive June.

Overall, I don’t think this trade is a disaster. It can be viewed as underwhelming (and that would be fair), but I think with all the factors at play, Gorton did a really good job. Throw in everything the team has done, and this has been a fantastic week for Gorton.