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Lightning acquire six-time All-Star defenseman at trade deadline

For weeks, the chatter around the Tampa Bay Lightning has been incredibly clear, succinct, and direct. This was a team in need of defensive help. Ever since the All-Star break, Bolts fans have clamored for Ottawa’s superstar blue-liner Erik Karlsson. Although the Lightning didn’t land Karlsson at Monday’s trade deadline, they got what many consider the next best thing: New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh.

Unable to complete what would’ve likely been a complex, three-team deal for Karlsson, the Lightning instead acquired McDonagh and center J.T. Miller in a trade with the Rangers. In return, Tampa Bay dealt forward Vlad Namestnikov, defensive prospect Libor Hajek, 19-year-old center prospect Brett Howden, a 2018 first round pick, and a conditional 2019 second round pick to New York. If the Lightning win the Stanley Cup either this year or next, that second rounder becomes a first rounder. This deal was literally a last-second move by the Bolts before the trade deadline ended.

Tampa Bay wasn’t the only team in on the McDonagh sweepstakes.

The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs were also believed to be in the running for the 28-year-old McDonagh. In 49 games this season, McDonagh has two goals and 24 assists while registering a plus-7 rating. Although he was considered by some to be having a down year, he was also stuck on a struggling team that publicly shared its desire to rebuild. In the last week, New York has jettisoned Rick Nash and Nick Holden to Boston, Michael Grabner to New Jersey, and now McDonagh and Miller to Tampa Bay. As a result, they now have seven picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. Three of those selections are first round picks.

Meanwhile, this is a clear indication that the Lightning are all-in for a Stanley Cup championship in both 2018 and 2019.

The acquisition of McDonagh helps build up the top four of the Lightning’s defensive corps. It’s no secret that the Bolts have struggled in their own end at times this season, particularly since the beginning of January. While goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is having a Vezina-caliber season, it was becoming clear that relying on him to stand on his head on a nightly basis was not a winning formula for making a Stanley Cup run.

Although McDonagh is not the right-handed shot that every team covets, he should give the Lightning more flexibility on their blue line. Mikhail Sergachev, the 19-year-old rookie who got off to a hot start only to cool off, can now slide down to the third pairing. That should take pressure off him, allowing Lightning head coach Jon Cooper to deploy him in more selective, sheltered situations. That will be important, especially with the playoffs being six weeks away.

Not only did the Lighting bolster their blue line, they also made a nice addition in Miller.

The 24-year-old forward, who was a first round pick of the Rangers in 2011, is a versatile player who can play all three forwards spots. However, he’ll likely slot into the third-line center role behind Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. Miller has chipped in 13 goals and 40 points, but his faceoff prowess will come in handy as well. Miller has won 54.3% of his draws this season, helping shore up what has been a weakness on the Lightning for much of this season.

Despite being on top of the NHL standings heading into Monday night’s game against Toronto, the Bolts have only won 47.6% of their faceoffs, tied for the third-worst mark in the league. While he may not be a dynamic scorer, Miller has notched 22 goals in each of the last two seasons, so he may be a factor as a depth scorer on one of the bottom two lines. Here’s how the forward lines and defensive pairings could shake out when McDonagh and Miller get into the lineup. McDonagh is expected to be a week away from being in the lineup due to an upper-body injury. Keep in mind, this is just a possibility and not set in stone:

Johnson-Stamkos-Callahan

Killorn-Point-Kucherov

Erne-Miller-Gourde

Kunitz-Paquette-Conacher

Feel free to switch out Callahan and Gourde, or flip-flop Erne and Conacher if you so choose. As for the blue-line pairings:

Hedman-Stralman

McDonagh-Girardi

Sergachev-Coburn

It will be intriguing to see what the Lighting do going forward since they now have nine defensemen. Don’t be surprised if Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, or Andrej Sustr get put on waivers at some point.

What’s most impressive about this deal for the Lightning is how they barely tweaked their current roster

Although Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman publicly stated that he didn’t want to deal anyone from the current roster, it became pretty clear that to acquire the defensive help he sought, someone on the team was probably going to depart. Although the 25-year-old Namestnikov was having a career-year with 20 goals and 44 points, he also benefited from playing alongside a pair of All-Stars for much of the season in Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Namestnikov had his moments playing with other linemates, but much of his damage came while paired up with two of the elite players in the league. He’s also due to be a restricted free agent this summer with arbitration rights, so odds are he would’ve sought a significant raise. With players like Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Vasilevskiy all expecting big bumps in pay over the next couple of years, Namestnikov was the odd-man out.

As for the prospects they dealt, the biggest loss will be Howden.

Howden, a 2016 first round pick, projects as a second line center with size capable of playing a very good two-way game. He’s been a stalwart as captain of Moose Jaw of the WHL and produced for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Despite this, Howden would have had a difficult time cracking the top two lines of this team’s roster, making it easier for them to include him in the deal, especially since they’re so deep at center.

Hajek is a 20-year-old left-handed defenseman the Lightning picked in the second round of the 2016 draft. While not an elite prospect, he’s been a very solid player for both the Czech Republic at the WJC and both Saskatoon and Regina of the WHL. A team with a more shallow pool of prospects might have been reluctant to deal Hajek, but when your cupboard is as full as the Lightning’s, you can afford to deal a player like Hajek.

With this trade, Yzerman showed why he’s considered one of the top two or three GM’s in hockey.

In the weeks and days leading up to the deadline, many people felt that Yzerman would have to give up a top roster player like Point or Sergachev or a top-notch prospect like defenseman Cal Foote in order to facilitate a trade for defensive help. Not only did he manage to keep all three of those players either on the roster or in the system, but he got the help he was seeking on the blue line, in addition to a third-line forward who can win faceoffs. This also isn’t a true rental situation with McDonagh, as his contract has a manageable cap hit of $4.7 million that lasts through the end of 2018-19.

Finally, give Yzerman some credit for realizing a chance to go for a title. He’s been tremendous in building and maintaining a top-notch farm system with lots of quality prospects. We’ve witnessed him sign his star players to manageable cap hits and he has made shrewd trades in the past. Not all of the team’s prospects were going to make it on the NHL roster, so if you have a pantry full of assets, it’s ok to occasionally tap into that reservoir to make a move that can help your team right now. And that’s exactly what Yzerman did.

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