Reminiscing on the Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller Trade
With the Lightning set to return to MSG one year after their blockbuster with the Rangers, how has the trade panned out?
In the grand scheme of things, tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden is a blip on the radar of the NHL. The Presidents’ Trophy-bound Tampa Bay Lightning are in New York to take on a Rangers team just days removed from trading away 33% of their top six for draft picks and prospects. If any game had the makings of a one-sided blowout, this is the one.
By the end of the night, the Lightning will likely leave MSG with two standings points, while the Blueshirts won’t have anything except a taste of what’s to come for the rest of the season: A second consecutive season of going through the motions for six weeks before slinking away into another offseason without playoff hockey.
However, it’s fair to say neither team would be where they’re at now without the biggest blockbuster of the 2018 trade deadline. When the 3:00 PM EST deadline hit, word of the deal hadn’t gone public. Nothing on Twitter, nothing on TSN’s TradeCentre, and nothing on Sportsnet’s deadline coverage indicated that the Rangers had decided to move on from their captain. In the minutes after the deadline had come and gone, the future of both franchises changed dramatically:
When the dust finally settled later that afternoon, the Rangers had shipped Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning for a bevy of future assets to restock their cupboard. Vladislav Namestnikov was the only roster player who came back to New York, but the Rangers received the Lightning’s first round selection in the 2018 Entry Draft, a conditional 2nd rounder in the 2019 draft, as well as then-prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek. Jeff Gorton opted for a quantity over quality approach, and one year after consummating the trade, that approach has resulted in a relatively one-sided deal.
Heading into tonight’s action, the Lightning have 100 points through their first 63 games, putting them on pace to finish the season with a ludicrous 130 standings points. No team has even broken the 125 point barrier since the legendary 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, a Scotty Bowman-coached squad that featured seven future Hockey Hall of Famers on their roster. That Red Wings team, as well as the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, another Bowman-lead team with nine future HHoF’ers, are the only teams in league history to crack the 130 point barrier.
The Lightning were an elite team prior to McDonagh and Miller’s arrival, and their success last season, as well as their torrid pace this season, bear that out. The main drivers of Tampa’s success are Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. All three forwards are in the top 10 in the league raw scoring, and all three remain in the top 20 when adjusting for rate scoring at 5 on 5.
In spite of Tampa’s top-heavy success, it’d be remiss to ignore the contributions Miller and McDonagh have made to their team. Questionable contract aside, Miller has served as capable depth throughout Tampa Bay’s top nine and league-leading power play units over the course of the season. No forward outside of Tampa’s big three has more powerplay points than Miller, and his even strength contributions towards scoring and driving play plant him firmly in the middle of Tampa Bay’s forwards, ranking anywhere from 4th-9th among forwards with 500+ 5 on 5 minutes.
As for McDonagh, his arrival in Tampa has given Jon Cooper a second go-to defender behind Victor Hedman, and as a result, reduced Hedman’s workload and allowed Tampa to deploy a more balanced attack from their back end. From 2016-2018, Hedman averaged exactly three more minutes per game than the Lightning’s 2nd most used defender,(Anton Stralman) and over 6.5 more minutes than their 3rd most used defender (Jason Garrison, who currently plies his trade in the SHL after washing out of the NHL earlier this season).
Hedman still skates the lion’s share of minutes on the Lightning’s blue line, but his teammates no longer lag so far behind. Hedman averages only 42 seconds more per game than 2nd place McDonagh, and the 6.5 minute gap between Hedman and Garrison is larger than the gap between Hedman and Braydon Coburn, Tampa’s 7th most used defender since October.
Hedman has been more effective at driving play down the ice, posting similar or better relative results in Expected Goals For% (+2.83 vs -0.10) and Corsi For% (+2.19 vs +2.39). McDonagh hasn’t been too shabby himself, leading all Lightning defenseman in 5 on 5 scoring, and skating more minutes than any Lightning player on the team’s 2nd ranked penalty kill unit.
Back in New York, the Rangers’ on-ice struggles were to be expected. A sub-.500 team that loses their top defender and an effective middle six scorer in exchange for minimal present assets shouldn’t be expected to succeed, but the issues with the trade go far beyond current wins and losses. When Jeff Gorton consummated the trade, he acquired five assets in the form of prospects, picks, and a roster player. Of those five, no less than four of them were “B-level” assets at the time of the trade, and that outlook hasn’t gotten better over the last 12 months.
Namestnikov wasn’t expected to continue the torrid pace he was playing at with the Lightning, but his performance is disappointing even in a vacuum. A 10-16-26 stat line in 77 games since arriving on Broadway is far fall from grace compared to his time in Tampa, where he was seen as one of the organization’s brightest young stars.
Compared to his current teammates, the picture looks even uglier. Namestnikov ranks dead last among current Rangers primary points/60 at 5-on-5 since his arrival last February. The two year, $8 million extension he signed over the summer that leads directly into unrestricted free agency seemed to indicate that both sides knew he wasn’t long for New York. He’s been more or less a passenger in terms of play driving, one of the critiques of Miller’s game that led to his exit.
Aside from Namestnikov, the rest of the Rangers’ return for McDonagh and Miller is even more of a mixed bag than it was 12 months ago. The unconditional 1st round pick in 2018 landed at 28th overall, and was used on Swedish defenseman Nils Lundkvist. Lundkvist appeared in the World Junior Championships for Sweden, and has had a smooth season developing with Luleå HF in the SHL. With Tampa’s current performance, there’s a realistic chance the conditional 2nd rounder converts to the 31st and final pick of the 1st round in June’s Entry Draft. If not, the pick will fall somewhere from the mid-50’s to as low as 61st.
The weak point of the Rangers’ return in the deal stems from the two prospects they acquired. Brett Howden was the lesser of the two prospects, but he parlayed a strong training camp performance into a spot on the opening night roster. After scoring 12 points through the first 21 games of his NHL career, Howden appeared to assert himself as the prize of the Blueshirts’ haul.
Unfortunately, the Thanksgiving break serves as the bookmark for the tale of two seasons from Howden, and he hasn’t been the same player since. The 27 games since the break saw Howden fail to record a goal, tally only three assists, and serve crater New York’s on-ice performance every time he hopped over the boards.
He wasn’t much of a play-driver prior to the break, but Howden ranks dead last in relative Goals For%, Expected Goals For%, and Corsi For% since the holiday. That sub-par performance led to five games of skating less than 10:00 per game before being out of action since January 29th. Howden’s rookie season in the NHL has been a rough one, but it isn’t time to be worried yet. Howden isn’t even of age yet, and will likely have the next half decade or so to establish himself as an effective NHLer. A rough 48 games isn’t nearly enough to write Howden off, but it’s not particularly encouraging either.
While Howden’s season has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, it looks like a smashing success when juxtaposed with Libor Hajek’s first professional season. After news of the trade broke, word that Hajek’s inclusion was a sticking point for the Rangers’ brass emerged. Larry Brooks cited him as “the must-have defenseman” the team landed, and even Elliotte Friedman chimed in regarding New York’s affinity for Hajek, although the evidence of that seems to have disappeared:
At the deadline last year Elliotte Friedman reported Libor Hajek "was the guy NYR wanted to seal the deal," but that tweet has since been deleted.🤔 pic.twitter.com/u0NhnCW1pN— Zach Ellenthal (@zellenthal) February 17, 2019
Hajek’s adjustment to professional hockey has been rough. With three open spots on New York’s blue line heading into training camp, Hajek was a non-factor en route to starting the season in AHL Hartford. Adam Herman detailed how much of a train wreck the Wolfpack have been as of late, so Hajek’s struggles are certainly exacerbated by the lack of structure around him.
Even still, Adam also examined Hajek’s individual struggles earlier this season, and it’s been more of the same in the two months since. Even as a “defensive” defenseman, it’s hard to believe that Hajek is still averaging 0.088 points/game, still searching for his first goal in Hartford after 57 games. For a player who was touted as the prize of the deal, both by outside sources and the Rangers themselves, Hajek’s struggles are a major issue for the organization as they look towards future.
In terms of who won and lost a trade, that evaluation can only be fairly made the day a trade happens. The Rangers had one of the most prized assets of the 2018 deadline sitting in their lap, and that asset wasn’t one they needed to move right then and there. In spite of that, the team settled for a cavalcade of good but not great assets to all but cement their status as a rebuilding franchise. A year after its consummation, the deal looks similar to how it looked the day after.
And that’s not a good thing for New York.
*All data via NHL.com and Offsides Review