Trades are great fodder for conversation, especially when they involve the New York Rangers. Good trade? Bad trade? Who won? Who lost? Of course, sometimes it takes years to really assess success or failure. There are a lot of examples.
When the Buffalo Sabres traded Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis and he was a catalyst for the Blues’ 2019 Cup win, the Sabres were lambasted for a bad deal. Not so fast. This season, the Blues traded O’Reilly to Toronto at the deadline while the Sabres have Tage Thompson who has developed into one of the top players in the NHL. They also got defenseman Ryan Johnson who just turned pro after a stellar career at the University of Minnesota.
That Tampa trade
The Rangers’ trade of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning in 2018 is shaping up to be one of the worst of the Jeff Gorton era. Steve Yzerman’s fleecing of Gorton helped build a two-time Cup winner in Tampa. What did the Rangers end up with?
Vlad Namestnikov? Gone. Nils Lundkvist? Gone. Libor Hajek? A marginal NHL player. Karl Henriksson? One so-so season in the AHL. And that brings us to Bret Howden, last seen skating around T-Mobile Arena with the Stanley Cup.
Brett Howden was one of the crown jewels of that trade. Picked 27th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by Tampa, Howden, and Hajek were two crucial pieces acquired in that deal. He wasn’t bad, playing three full seasons in New York before Chris Drury sent him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick in one of Drury’s first transactions.
He was not great his last season, scoring only one goal in 42 games. He was best known for his 37-game scoreless streak. To add insult to injury, his only goal in 2020-21 was into an empty net. By the end of the season, Howden’s lack of scoring was a running joke.
That’s why no one really cared when the Rangers traded Howden and many considered a fourth-rounder a decent return for the center. What no one anticipated was that he would find a home as a bottom-six forward for the Golden Knights. This season he averaged about 13 minutes per game, won 51% of his faceoffs, and was a useful piece for a Stanley Cup contender.
He was more than useful in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring five goals and 10 points in 22 games. He scored the overtime game-winner in the first game of the Western Conference Finals over Dallas.
Brett Howden is not going to win any scoring titles, but it looks like he will have a productive NHL career as a depth center. Could it have been as a New York Ranger? Absolutely. The fourth-line centers the Rangers have used since he left include Tyler Motte, Kevin Rooney, Jonny Brodzinski, Ryan Carpenter, and Greg McKegg. Of course, Howden’s $1.5 million cap hit this season might have been too rich for the cap-strapped Blueshirts.
So, was Brett Howden “the one that got away?” Not really. He had his chances but didn’t live up to his potential. And you cannot blame Drury for wanting to erase the memory of that Tampa trade.
Not over yet
Like the O’Reilly deal, the story is not over yet. The Rangers drafted center Noah Laba with the fourth-round pick they got from Vegas. Laba just finished his first year at Colorado College and was the last cut from the USA team at the World Junior Championships.
Dobber Prospects described him as “a physical forward who plays with an edge and is not afraid to drop the gloves and mix it up. A team-oriented, heart and soul type of player with enough skill to someday make an impact at the NHL level.” Let’s hope so.
The Rangers are high on Kalle Vaisanen, a 20-year-old Finn who has shown some promise and was the pick they got for Namestnikov. The Blueshirts gave the first rounder they got from Dallas for Lundkvist to the Blues for Vladimir Tarasenko, but they still have a 5th round pick in 2025. Fingers crossed.
In the meantime, Brett Howden joins Ryan McDonagh as the second player from that big Tampa trade to hoist the Stanley Cup. Good for him.