Timing of Ryan McDonagh Trade Made Sense for Him and The Rangers

Given the situation the Rangers are in, it made sense for them and McDonagh to go their separate ways.

The trade that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay is just a few days old, and there has been no shortage of opinions on the deal. The opinions range from the Rangers being fleeced by Steve Yzerman to Jeff Gorton getting a good return given the circumstances; there have been other opinions that fall somewhere on the spectrum between those thoughts.

This story isn’t going to focus on that, but instead the reality of the situation involving the Rangers and McDonagh. A situation that only had one outcome – the dealing of the Rangers’ captain.

You can argue the merits of trading him now rather than later, say at the draft, but given the situation I feel that the team would have received less for him in June. The first reason being that McDonagh would have been a one-year rental, not a playoffs and plus-one; secondly the Rangers would be operating from a position of less leverage. Chris Watkins of Blue Seats Blogs talked about that concept and the McDonagh trade as a whole here.

The Rangers sent out a letter on February 8 to the fan base announcing their intentions of rebuilding. It was clear, direct, and explicit in terms of what was going to happen. This process wasn’t going to be a rebuild on the fly, it was going to be a rebirth of sorts that focused on going back to basics by building through youth and the draft.

The exact words were:

As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.

Enter Ryan McDonagh, an eight-year veteran in the fifth year of a six-year, $28.2 million contract signed in the offseason that preceded the Rangers going on a run to the Stanley Cup Final. In no way shape or form was he going to fit into the plans of a rebuild. Even if you operate under the assumption that McDonagh would accept being an elder statesman during a rebuild, him remaining with the team didn’t make sense tactically for the team, and financially it was in his best interest to go elsewhere.

I am not going to get into the concept of McDonagh not being the leader needed, as written in the New York Post, but that was something that apparently factored into the trade. Personally I think that says more about the coach than anything else, but that’s just me.

On June 13, McDonagh turns 29 and on July 1, 2019 he will be 30-years-old and looking to sign his first and only big-ticket contract. He was one of the rare players to avoid a bridge deal under the Glen Sather regime, as he went from making $875,000 in 2012-13 to $4.7 million in 2013-14. The Rangers got an amazing value for his age (24, 25, 26, 27 and part of his age 28 season). Had he been bridged, odds are McDonagh hits the bank and has a cap hit in the range of $6 to $7 million a year in his next contract.

While history shows that defenders are unlikely to repeat their performance of their 20s once they hit 30, that doesn’t mean a team isn’t going to line up to pay McDonagh. For more on age curves, check out this post, and this post from Hockey Graphs. The summer of 2019 has the potential to feature a free agent class that includes Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and McDonagh. Others such as Anton Stralman, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jake Gardiner could be available, but the hype is centered around the number one defensemen.

He may not be a team’s first choice considering the others that are available, but when those players either don’t hit the market or are signed by another team, there is going to be a contingent of suitors willing to throw money McDonagh’s way.

The cap will be higher than it is now then, as the 2018-19 salary cap is projected to be between $78 million and $82 million. You can only imagine what the bump will be for 2019-20. That gives teams more of an opportunity to show how much they really value what he brings to the table financially. Not only will teams be compensating for his NHL performance, but they will consider his pedigree within the league as an All-Star and his various selections to represent the United States in international tournaments.

There’s a good chance he values term over average annual value of his contract in negotiations because as we have seen with players like Michael Sauer, your career can be over in an instant. He likely will also reflect on the various injuries Marc Staal has gone through as well. Given that perspective, McDonagh assuredly will seek long-term financial security considering he has a young family.

We may never know all the teams that were on McDonagh’s list. Elliotte Friedman wrote in 31 Thoughts that the Pittsburgh Penguins were interested, but they couldn’t make it work financially after already doing the Derick Brassard deal. He also mentioned this:

7. Sounds like the Panthers, Rangers and Wild discussed a three-way that would have sent McDonagh to Florida. I don’t think Toronto ever got really close to snaring the New York defender.

The Panthers were another team that reportedly were very interested, but prices were too high according to general manager Dale Tallon. Teams wanted Henrik Borgstrom, a center from the University of Denver who is the Panthers’ top prospect with 41 points in 31 games, and he’s a player the Rangers likely coveted.

Additionally, we won’t know what packages were offered for him. But when you consider that McDonagh took a team friendly deal earlier in his career, this could have been a situation where the Rangers, A.) got a deal they liked and B.) had an opportunity to do him a solid. It appears they did that with trading Michael Grabner to New Jersey and Rick Nash to Boston, although in both cases it is fair to say the team got a solid return once you look at the returns of the deadline in context.

If that’s the case, it would be hard to fault the team trading him somewhere he can show his abilities and maximize his earning potential, while genuinely being in contention for a Stanley Cup.

All of that aside, that doesn’t take away from the fact that in order to properly rebuild, McDonagh couldn’t be on the 2018-19 opening night roster. This year the Rangers are bad, but they are fifth, sixth or seventh overall bad. To maximize the rebuild process you want the team to be finishing in the bottom three, because that is where you can get elite franchise changing players.

That’s where you get a Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Leon Draisatl, Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and so on. This is not to say you can’t get good players later on, with these players serving as notable examples:

I opted not to include Mitch Marner (No. 4, 2015) and Seth Jones (No. 4, 2013) for example because arguably you could have made a case for them to be in the top three, it really comes down to preference. The players listed above were available later in the draft, and the teams capitalized on that. A team’s best bet is usually the top three, but there are always exceptions to the rule including those amazing finds in the even later rounds of the draft.

With all that said, a defense anchored by McDonagh doesn’t help the Rangers in their goal of securing a top three pick. You may point to the team still having Kevin Shattenkirk, and that’s a legitimate point. Where he fits in to this remains to be seen, but him being the lone veteran isn’t the worst thing in the long run.

The questions surrounding Shattenkirk also apply to Lundqvist, but I would say there’s a good chance his workload will be lessened next season in alignment with the organizational goal of rebuilding. Who the backup is remains up in the air, but the team would be best served with someone like Alexandar Georgiev as opposed to a veteran on a one-year deal in the $1 to $1.5 million range.  Development is the name of the game here, and if winning right away isn’t the plan, you can afford to go through growing pains with a goalie who is in-house.

Jeff Gorton was adamant though that this is only the beginning. Per the New York Post, he said:

We’re trying to build a team. We’re adding these assets and doing all these things, but listen, there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of players we need to be out there watching, find out what’s going on in the draft, free agency. There is a lot of opportunity here to grow as a team and make our team better. That’s our goal, that’s our mission, that’s what we’re going to do. I feel like we’re just starting.

Overall, it is okay to feel lukewarm about the return. It is okay to like the return. However, you decide you feel about the return is okay. Feeling one way versus the other doesn’t make you a bad fan.

The main point to be focused on is that the team is rebuilding and it is a process that is going to take some time; it shouldn’t be as long as the process the Edmonton Oilers have gone through, and it may not be as quick as the Toronto Maple Leafs rebuild that started in 2013-14 that was enhanced by the addition of Brendan Shanahan in the front office, the hiring of Mike Babcock and some great drafting. The issues that plague the Rangers will take time to fix, but they’re are closer toward fixing things today than they were at the start of the season. And they will be closer to fixing things post draft than they are today.

Even after acknowledging and accepting all of that, it is still okay to miss McDonagh too, and the other player that went to Tampa Bay, Miller.

In the words of Aaron Eckhart as Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent, “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” Take solace in the fact that the team is committed to doing things the right way. The games may be painful to watch but ask yourselves this: What is more frustrating? Watching a team get so close and fail, not learn from its mistakes and do it all over again, or a few years of sloppiness and learning?

I know the last few years have been personally frustrating as the team has been done in by mistakes and improper personnel deployment. In many ways you could say the eventual outcome was all but expected, and all you could do was watch it unfold in slow motion. Coaching is another hot spot of contention, and one that will come to a head one way or another.

For the first time in a while there’s excitement that the franchise has the potentially to add a number of impactful players. Players they will draft and develop, and hopefully transform into All-Stars. Actual homegrown Rangers, not ones purchased with James Dolan’s American Express Centurion black card through free agency. In recent years the team has had made some good finds in outside the first round adding players like Derek Stepan, Pavel Buchnevich, Carl Hagelin, and Jesper Fast among others. You can only imagine what they can do with three first rounders this year, and the ability to add more on draft day.

It will be tough for some to embrace this new world the Rangers are entering, because the memories of 2013-14 are still so fresh. Memories of an amazing ride that just fell short; Adam went into great detail on that with this fantastic story. To that I say, don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it’s over. Life is too short to be overly cynical, and instead try and dive straight into something that could be one hell of a ride, ending in something that’s been almost 30 years in the making.

Trading McDonagh was a necessary part of the process, and something that was better to have been done sooner rather than later.