The New York Rangers’ mega-trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 26, 2018, wasn’t the first big move of their rebuilding project, which had been formally undertaken with a letter to fans from team management early that month.
No, their first big deal had occurred the day before, when the Rangers sent forward Rick Nash to the Boston Bruins for three players and two draft picks. However, that trade was hardly surprising to the Blueshirts’ fan base, with Nash’s contract set to expire at the end of the season and his time on Broadway nearing an end one way or the other.
It was the deal with the Lightning 24 hours later that showed just how serious the front office was about tearing it all down and starting anew. The Rangers sent Captain Ryan McDonagh and homegrown forward J.T. Miller south in exchange for prospects Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, a first-round pick in 2018, a conditional second-round pick in 2019 and forward Vladislav Namestnikov.
Suddenly, the rebuild was real. Trading away McDonagh, the player who looked to be on his way to becoming the next Brian Leetch before that didn’t quite happen, AND Miller, the talented enigma in whom the team had invested so much time and energy in an attempt to extract consistency?
That’s when the paradigm shifted for every fan. There was no going back, and no one would be spared. A high-profile New York City team was really going to engage in a full-on reconstruction.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here to grow as a team and make our team better,” general manager Jeff Gorton said then. “That’s our goal. That’s our mission. That’s what we’re going to do. I feel like we’re just starting.”
Gorton has proven to be sincere over the past two-plus years, helming a patient, methodical and ultimately impressive rebuild that looked to be ahead of schedule this season before the NHL was forced to pause due to the coronavirus crisis.
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That progress has obscured an at least somewhat troubling fact: The high-profile trade with Tampa Bay has yet to bear much fruit so far. Judging trades shortly after they happen is about as useful as predicting success or failure for a draft pick with him still wearing the team hat and jersey given to him for photo ops after being picked. Time and perspective are needed.
More than two years out, though, at least a partial conclusion can be drawn. And while the Blueshirts can’t help be excited about the near future, discernible returns on the then-stunning trade with the Lightning have yet to materialize.
As it happens, Tampa Bay hasn’t reaped huge rewards from the deal either, but our focus here is the Rangers, so we’ll take a look at how each element of the deal has worked out for them to this point.
While the Blueshirts likely knew they weren’t going to be able to pry young center Brayden Point away from the Lightning, they insisted on Hajek, the Czech defenseman, being the centerpiece of any deal. Gorton got his man, but the 22-year-old has yet to deliver on the promise the Rangers foresaw for him.
Hajek impressed in his first callup, a five-game cameo in 2018-19, then made the team out of camp this season. He had his moments, pairing effectively with newly acquired Jacob Trouba for a while after the latter’s failed team-up with Brady Skjei to start the season. Yet Hajek was clearly overwhelmed at times, no more so than when he posted a minus-4 rating in an ugly 7-4 loss to the Boston Bruins on Oct. 27.
Hajek then suffered a knee injury on Dec. 5, made an uneven return Jan. 11 in which he was a minus-2, and then was wisely sent to AHL affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack to re-establish his game. Disturbingly, though, Hajek has struggled to find his form there, recording no goals, five assists and a minus-26 rating in 23 games.
The Rangers were happy with Hajek’s contribution to their remade defense’s mobility before things went south for him. They’ll continue to hold out high hopes, and it’s worth remembering that along with Hajek just turning 22 last month, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2016 has only played 33 NHL games. It’s too quick to pass judgment on such a talented player.
The 27th-overall pick in the 2016 draft was coveted for his supposedly well-rounded game, hockey sense and intangibles, with the Rangers projecting an ideal third-line center who could defend and score and utilize his strong skating. However, Howden’s time with the Rangers has been confusing at best.
Howden, who turns 22 on Sunday, has received ample opportunities with the Rangers, playing 66 games last season and 70 in 2019-20. Yet the production hardly seems indicative of a player on a steady developmental track — he’s recorded 15 goals and 27 assists in his 136 contests.
The Rangers have raved about the aforementioned intangibles and supposedly sound all-around skills, yet advanced analytics paint a different picture. With the qualifier that there’s no perfect metric and linemates certainly factor into the puzzle, Howden’s numbers aren’t pretty. His Corsi For percentage of 40.42 and xGF% of 39.43 (courtesy naturalstattrick.com) rank close to the bottom of the league. There’s enough of a sample size at this point to see that Howden doesn’t drive possession or scoring, and is generally a liability when he’s on the ice.
Puzzlingly, though, Howden at times has seemed unable to play his way out of the good graces of coach David Quinn, who has otherwise established a roster-wide culture of earned ice time for young players. Howden has benefited from an uncommonly long leash, with Quinn moving him to wing at times in an attempt to spark him rather than send him to the minors for seasoning, as he has with numerous other youngsters.
It’s impossible at this point to project Howden as a key part of the future, and he could end up being used as expansion draft fodder after next season. Given the organization’s high regard for him, it’s difficult to tell what’s next. The first two years can hardly be classified as clearly encouraging. Howden is young, but his talents haven’t translated to NHL success as of yet.
1st-Round Pick, 2018, 28th Overall
Time will tell, but this selection could eventually prove to be the best part of the mega-deal for the Rangers. They used the choice on defenseman Nils Lundkvist, a right-handed shot who made a quantum leap with Lulea HF of the Swedish Hockey League this season, recording 11 goals and 20 assists in 45 games. The front office will likely make a strong push to sign him and get him into training camp this offseason — whenever that happens to be.
Lundkvist, who could give the Blueshirts another driver of offense from the blue line in the Tony DeAngelo mold, doesn’t turn 20 until July and won’t be rushed. The Rangers, though, hope they’ve gotten a steal with this late-first-round pick.
The forward was viewed as a throw-in to the trade and did nothing to dispel that notion. He delivered 11 goals and 20 assists in 78 games for the Rangers in 2018-19, bouncing around the lineup, then was dealt to the Ottawa Senators for a minor-league defenseman and a fourth-round pick in 2019 after two games this season. The Sens moved him to the Colorado Avalanche before the trade deadline this season and he was performing well before the league’s pause, with four goals in nine games, though he scored on 40% of his shots — obviously not a sustainable level.
Namestnikov, the 27th-overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Lightning, recorded 20 goals and 24 assists in 62 games in 2017-18 — totals clearly helped along by finding his way onto Tampa’s top line with stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. The Rangers took him on in the trade as a stopgap with the potential to perhaps be more, but his early departure from the team hardly came as a surprise.
Conditional 2nd-Round Pick, 2019, 58th Overall
This pick, which would have become Tampa’s first-rounder had the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2018-19, was used to select Swedish center Karl Henriksson. He led Frolunda HC J20 in scoring with 49 points on 13 goals and 36 assists last season, then added nine points in six playoff games. He recorded three goals and six assists in seven games to help lead Sweden to the gold medal at the Under-18 World Championships. Henriksson also competed in the U18 Worlds this winter, playing seven games and scoring one goal with two assists.
Henriksson earned a promotion to Frolunda of the SHL and played two games at that level last season, and eight this season while recording one assist. With a polished offensive game, agility and quickness with the puck, but lacking size and elite skating skill, Henriksson is a project the Rangers will look at down the road as he continues his development in the Swedish Hockey League for now.
As mentioned, it’s early, but the organization has to be at least somewhat disappointed it can’t yet point to a definite keeper from a deal that cost the club its captain along with Miller, who many fans didn’t want to be traded. Compare that to the Nash deal, which has been considerably more productive for the Rangers so far: Old-school defenseman Ryan Lindgren is a regular in the lineup and looks like a future cornerstone, the 26th-overall pick in 2018 acquired in the trade allowed the club to move up four spots and take highly regarded defense prospect K’Andre Miller, and Gorton flipped throw-in forward Ryan Spooner to the Edmonton Oilers for Ryan Strome in November 2018, in what has become a lopsided deal on the side of Blueshirts.
So what of the Lightning’s side of the trade? McDonagh, the centerpiece, turned in a career-best season in 2018-19 with 9 goals, 37 assists and a plus-38 rating after inking a seven-year, $47.25 million extension before the season. But he missed a month with a lower-body injury this season and had just returned when the league paused. He’s recorded 1 goal and 12 assists in 50 games, and his contract might prove ill-advised in future years to cap-challenged Tampa Bay.
A major subplot to the deal’s ultimate fate exists, one that’s truly worrisome for both clubs — the key player that’s no longer on either team’s roster. The Lightning signed Miller to a five-year, $26.25 million contract the same month as they did McDonagh, convinced they had been able to get through to him in a way the Rangers couldn’t after he recorded 10 goals and 8 assists in 19 games following his acquisition that season.
Then 2018-19 came, and Miller’s inconsistency resurfaced, as he totaled 47 points in 75 games. Needing cap space — and perhaps determined to avoid a repeat of the Rangers’ oft-maddening experience with the player — the Lightning sent Miller to the Vancouver Canucks that offseason for goaltender Marek Maranzec, a third-round pick in 2019 and a conditional first-rounder in 2020.
For that price, the Canucks got a 26-year-old forward who delivered career highs of 27 goals and 45 assists this season before the shutdown. His power, speed and um, youth would certainly play well on Broadway or in sunny Florida right about now. Did both teams do Vancouver the service of developing an emerging star?
The Rangers and Lightning certainly hope to eventually come out on top in their blockbuster trade, and both have assets from it that can’t yet be fully evaluated. However, they also have to have their fingers crossed that when this deal of two years ago can be revisited with the benefit of full hindsight, it’s not remembered primarily for a player who got away from both of them.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.