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Biggest Winners of the Tampa Bay Lightning Trading for Ryan McDonagh

The Tampa Bay Lightning offseason is officially underway and will be interesting to watch. Over the last decade, the Bolts have been the gold standard for winning in the National Hockey League. With back-to-back first-round exits to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, respectively, the Lightning have already made changes this summer. We recently explored a few options via the free agency route. Yet, General Manager Julien BriseBois acquired a defenceman from the glory days to bolster the back end. Ryan McDonagh is making a return to the Lightning in a trade with the Nashville Predators. The veteran blueliner is the ideal shutdown defender and leader in the locker room. McDonagh is vital to the success of a struggling player on the team heading into the next season.

Ryan McDonagh’s Return Boosts Old Partner and Lightning Defence

In the summer of 2022, the Lightning had to sacrifice multiple pieces from their insane three-year run, where they won two Stanley Cups and reached three finals. McDonagh was a casualty of the salary cap crunch. The veteran defender joined the Predators for next to nothing in a cap dump. Since McDonagh left in 2022, the Tampa Bay defence has not looked the same. McDonagh was critical to the success of one player on the blueline. A player who has not lived up to his massive contract extension since the trade. That player as we shall see is Eric Cernak. Let’s explore the true winners from the McDonagh trade.

Ryan McDonagh 2023-24 Season Analysis

McDonagh had a fantastic season under Head Coach Andrew Brunette. In 74 games last season, he notched three goals and 29 assists for 32 points (0.43 points per game played). Moreover, the defender stood out in on-ice possession numbers. In roughly 1,256 minutes of ice time at 5v5, McDonagh controlled 56.59% of the on-ice expected goal share (xGF%) and 60.42% of the high-danger shot attempt share (HDCF%). While McDonagh was in an elite system, he was one of the best players on a successful Predators’ roster last season. With his return to Tampa Bay next season, expect McDonagh to reunite with his old partner to form an elite shutdown pairing.

The Ryan McDonagh Effect in Tampa Bay

During the dominant run of Lightning hockey, a defence pairing of McDonagh and Erik Cernak took the league by storm. The two together were a nightmare for opposing top lines to play against. Their elite shutdown ability was vital to capturing two championships for the franchise. Cernak had a rough past two seasons following the loss of his partner. The Lightning extended Cernak to an 8-year, $41.6 million contract to be a legitimate top-four defender in the future. However, Cernak has not lived up to his new deal since the trade, and the 28-year-old may be the biggest winner of the McDonagh trade. Let’s compare on-ice defensive metrics for Cernak with and without McDonagh as his defence partner.

Erik Cernak Statistics with McDonagh

When paired with one another, McDonagh and Cernak elevate the team defensively and form one of the best shutdown pairings in the league. With roughly 812 minutes of ice time at 5v5 during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons together, McDonagh and Cernak posted superstar following defensive results. They allowed just 2.07 goals, 1.99 expected goals, 25.19 shots, and 7.91 high-danger shot attempts at a per-hour rate. On the other hand, the results with the two separated tell a different story.

Erik Cernak Statistics without McDonagh

Without McDonagh by his side, Cernak is not the same defender. His past two seasons defensively at 5v5 have been below average and nowhere close to $5.2 million per season. Cernak allowed 2.58 goals, 2.62 expected goals, 28.31 shots, and 11.41 high-danger shot attempts at a per-hour rate. All four on-ice defensive metrics saw a massive dip over the past two seasons without McDonagh’s presence. Below is a quick graphic to display the difference in defensive results.

What This Means for Tampa Bay Defence

The Lightning defence just experienced a massive upgrade for next season. McDonagh left an impact on Cernak and the rest of the defensive core. Below are more statistics to show how the Lightning performed defensively with and without McDonagh on the ice. Despite his high cap hit, fans must be excited for the return of a great warrior and leader on and off the ice.

Raw stats via NaturalStatTrick & EvolvingHockey

Main photo credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports


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