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Assessing How The Predators Should Replace Ryan McDonagh

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McDonagh
Photo fo Ryan McDonagh by John Russell/Nashville Predators

Barry Trotz upended what was a quiet day in the NHL on Tuesday.

The first-year GM traded assistant captain Ryan McDonagh back to the Tampa Bay Lightning along with a 2024 fourth-round pick in exchange for a 2025 second-round pick and 2024 seventh-round pick.

In trading the 14-year veteran defenseman, the Predators gave up a quality top-four staple but gained some cap flexibility to fill the hole he left now and in the future.

The move came as a surprise to many. Trotz himself said he hadn’t planned on moving the defenseman this season but was determined to do so after McDonagh asked if it was possible for him to rejoin the Lightning.

“We talked at the end of the year and he’s got so many good memories of his time in Tampa,” Trotz said. “I think that’s probably where him and his wife are going to settle, and we just had a conversation about a little bit of life and what it holds in the future.”

With McDonagh gone, let’s break down what it means for the Predators.

If you are keeping track at home, the original trade that brought the defenseman to Nashville sent Philippe Myers, Grant Mismash and a fourth-round pick to the Lightning in July 2022.

Here’s a breakdown of both McDonagh trades:

Predators received: Two years of McDonagh, 2025 second-round pick, 2024 seventh-round pick

Lightning received: McDonagh, 2024 fourth-round pick, defenseman Philippe Myers, forward Grant Mismash

Myers suited up in just 16 games for the Lightning over the last two years, tallying only three points and averaging just over 11:30 of ice time per game. Mismash didn’t have much of an impact either and was sent to the ECHL in 2022 before going to Europe and playing in the HockeyAllsvenskan League and the EliteHockey Ligaen.

Counting McDonagh switching teams again as a wash, then the trade is essentially a second- and seventh-round pick for a fourth-round pick and two players who never made an impact in the NHL.

The Predators also got out from under McDonagh’s cap hit after two good seasons from the 34-year-old, while the Lightning take on more risk as McDonagh continues to age with no guarantees he can repeat his high level of play of the last two seasons.

That’s great asset management by the Predators’ front office, especially as the McDonagh move helps make Matt Duchene’s $12.11M dead cap penalty over the next two seasons a little easier to digest.

The Predators now enter the offseason with just over $26 million in cap space, making it possible for them to take a run at a top-six forward and still have room to make improvements to the D-corps.

Gaining cap space at expense of the blue line

While financial flexibility is always good in a league with a hard cap number, the Predators have to address the hole they’ve created on the blueline.

McDonagh appeared in 145 regular season games with the Predators over the last two seasons, and he notched one assist in his six playoff games this year. He was arguably the team’s best defensive player in its playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks.

The St. Paul, Minnesota native led all Predators defensemen in 2023 in takeaways (35), penalty-kill minutes (211:13) and PK minutes per game (2:51), and percentage of shifts started in the defensive zone (15.9). He also ranked second in points, average ice time (21:47) and blocked shots (139).

The veteran defenseman also logged a +31 rating over his two seasons, tops among all Predator skaters.

While impressive, McDonagh’s main strength was his defensive play. McDonagh finished his Predators tenure with 276 regular-season blocked shots and averaged 21:39 of ice time a night, behind only Josi in both categories, against some of the top forward lines in the NHL.

Who fills McDonagh’s void?

In terms of on ice production, the Predators want to give Spencer Stastney a bigger role next year. The 24-year-old appeared in 20 regular-season games, registering two goals and two assists as well as a +9 rating while averaging 15:59 of ice time per game.

The Woodridge, Illinois native also plays on the same side as McDonagh, making him a solid choice to fill in for some of the now-vacant penalty-kill duties.

Outside of Stastney, the Predators don’t really have anyone in Milwaukee that can immediately step into a top-four role.

Marc Del Gaizo is the logical choice if the Predators are promoting from within. The 24-year-old played in nine regular-season games in Nashville, totaling three assists, 20 hits and 10 blocked shots while playing 16:28 per game. He could be ready for a full-time promotion.

A dark-horse option could be 2023 first-rounder Tanner Molendyk if he impresses during training camp. It’s been reported that head coach Andrew Brunette wanted to give him a shot this season but the idea was nixed by Trotz.

The likeliest scenario is Trotz and Brunette will look to free agency or the trade block to fill McDonagh’s spot. Nashville’s first-round playoff exit exposed its inability to win board battles and neutralize opposing forwards in high danger areas. So adding some size and experience on the blueline seems to be the way the team is leaning.

The Predators only have four NHL defensemen under contract for next season (Josi, Dante Fabbro, Jeremy Lauzon, Luke Schenn) as both Stastney and Del Gaizo are restricted free agents.

Some unrestricted free-agent additions who immediately come to mind include Carolina Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce and Vancouver’s Tyler Myers and Nikita Zadorov. Those names are going to come with a hefty price tag, but they are around McDonagh’s age or younger, and they could be part of the team for a few years.

Replacing a team leader

Beyond the stats, the Predators lost one of the most respected voices in the locker room. While intangibles are sometimes overplayed, some players just seem to have “it” and many believe McDonagh is one of those guys.

“Ryan is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve had some great leaders,” Trotz said.

He won two Stanley Cup championships with the Lightning and helped the New York Rangers reach the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the red-hot Los Angeles Kings.

In 2014, McDonagh was named the 27th captain in Rangers history, where he remained until he was traded to Tampa Bay in 2018. He was also an assistant captain for the Lightning, symbolizing his leadership ability for every team he’s played for during his career.

The 2022-23 season with Nashville is the only time a team McDonagh was on missed the Stanley Cup playoffs. While many will point to the quality of teams McDonagh has played for during his celebrated career, there’s no denying he was a huge reason those teams were successful.

“He’ll be hard to replace,” Trotz admitted on Tuesday while also remaining optimistic about the current leadership group’s ability to fill McDonagh’s skates.

Reaping future rewards

Nashville now has nine picks in the 2024 NHL Draft, including three second-round selections plus two each in the third and fourth rounds. The Predators also have nine picks in the 2025 NHL Draft, which include two first-round selections.

These picks are not only important for continuing to build the prospect pool, but they can also be used as sweeteners in any potential trades for roster players or as ammunition to move up in the draft.

There’s also the prospect that Nashville uses its cap space to sign some scoring forwards or potentially trade for an elite forward.

What Trotz will do is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt that this move is a hint at larger things to come this summer. Trotz now has cash to spend and holes to fill, and the Predators are clearly a team to watch heading into the draft and free agency.

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