Despite a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night, the New Jersey Devils are currently on a streak of epic, movie-like proportions. Not since the movie Major League have I seen a team come charging from the oblivion to having an actual shot (albeit a very small shot) of making the playoffs. 16-2-2 over their last 20 games leaves them 11 points away from the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. They have made up over 16 points on the 8th seed in less than two months.
This should be a time of joy for Devils fans then, right? Our team is making a strong push to eradicate the horrific first half they endured. Ilya Kovalchuk has shown a penchant for clutch goals and has improved his overall play. Hall of Famer Player and Coach Jacques Lemaire, regardless of where the team finishes, is reminding everyone in the NHL what a spectacular coach and teacher he is.
Me, I see this as a dangerous time in Devils-ville. While the recent streak is great, it is still unlikely -mathematically- that the Devils will make the post-season. They have two unrestricted free agents (Andy Greene and Jason Arnott) that if traded could help them restock their organization with assets lost through prior trades and the league's penalties when they ‘acted in good faith during a negotiation' with Ilya Kovalchuk last summer. Plus, they have salary cap concerns for 2011-2012, numerous RFAs to make tough decisions on, and the small matter of working out a long term contract with one of the best American-born players ever, Zach Parise.
The approach Lou Lamoriello takes in the next two days will be crucial for the remainder of this season and more importantly the future of the New Jersey Devils. There are four courses of action Mr. Lamoriello can take leading up to the trade deadline: He can be a buyer, a seller, stand pat and let things play out, or he can attempt to make a lateral deal to improve the team for this year and beyond, like the Erik Johnson deal this year or the Dion Phaneuf trade to Toronto last year. After the jump I look at the options Lou Lamoriello has available to him.The Devils as a Buyer:
While the prospects of the Devils being a buyer at the trade deadline has been floating out there in the daily rumors that I am subject to on Twitter, I don't "buy' it. In a market where there are so many potential buyers and some of the sellers have already gutted their team (Maple Leafs, Senators) who exactly would be available? Then you have the fact that the Devils are short on draft picks for next year because of the Arnott trade/Kovalchuk penalties, which would mean that it would probably take the movement of a prospect like Eric Gelinas or Brandon Burlon to facilitate any sort of deal.
The Devils also have limited cap space (max cap hit they can take back in a deal is $2.3MM per capgeek.com) and that would make any significant addition nearly impossible.
If the Devils do choose to try to make a run for it and fortfity their roster, they should focus on the waiver wire. Claim a player like Craig Rivet, Steve Bernier or Nikolay Zherdev who won't cost the franchise any assets to acquire them. (Well, besides money of course).
Considering the moves the top teams in the Eastern Conference have already made, it would be near criminal for the Devils to be buyers ar the trade deadline.To summarize my thoughts I will use a recent quote from Brian Burke:
"Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your (expletive) kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team here."
The Devils as a Seller:
My preferred option. In a market with about 23-25 teams still having a strong shot at a playoff birth, players like Jason Arnott, Andy Greene and Johan Hedberg would be highly sought after if they were available. If you recall my article in early January about potential trade returns that should be expected for our tradeable players, based upon the trade deadline activity the past two years, it stated that Arnott and Greene would likely return a 2nd round pick and Hedberg a 3rd or 4th.
Well the activity of this year's trade deadline so far has not even closely resembled that of year's past. Chris Kelly is worth a 2nd round pick but Alexei Kovalev is worth a conditional 7th round pick? Carrie Underwood's husband is worth a 1st round pick and a conditional pick with additional years (albeit at a reasonable cap hit of $4.2MM) on his contract? Highly regarded prospects (Jake Gardiner) have been dealt.
That said, I have a hard time prediicting what each of the Devils likely trade targets might return in a deal. Maybe Arnott gets a 1st rounder from a team desperate for a center? Could Greene net a prospect from a team with a strong pool of young players, like Boston? Who could use Hedberg? With the Anaheim Mighty Ducks fortifying their depth at goaltender with a trade (Dan Ellis) and a free agent signing (Ray Emery), I don't see many suitors for Moose, but his recent play would probably interest teams looking to add a veteran backup for a playoff run. (FYI: Moose is expendable. Jeff Frazee is back active again at Albany so the Devils have access to backup netminders if Martin Brodeur can't finish up the last 20 games on his own.
While the trade returns this year have baffeled me, it's hard to argue against the fact that the trade market currently benefist sellers. While the process of being a seller at the trade deadline is never fun from a fan's perspective it is crucial that an organization go down this road if the playoffs are out of reach.
Staying Status Quo:
If the Devils chose to do nothing and play out the season with the roster they have, it would probably be great for the fans as it would keep hope alive for another 16-2-2 stretch to close out the season. The main players that would likely be shipped out (Greene, Arnott) are ones that many fans have an affinity for. The 'fan' side of my brain says to keep the team intact and let's see what can happen. The practical side of me is troubled by any inaction as that could result in players leaving via UFA in the off-season for nothing.
While not my preferred choice, standing pat also keeps the Devils from being buyers and trading away organizational prospects and draft. It also allows the Devils to keep the exclusive negotiation rights with each of their UFA free agents from the end of the season until July 1st.
Making A Lateral Deal:
This approach would be the most interesting that the Devils could take. It would be interesting because it would probably make for a large roster shakeup. It's hard to even guess as to who would be a trade partner in this scenario and who the 'available' players would be on the Devils roster, but if something did happen I would expect Lou Lamoriello to go for a premier two-way defenseman. Sounds great, but do realize that the Devils would likely have to give up a top 6 forward to land a player of that caliber. If we assume Zach Parise, Kovalchuk and Elias are untouchable that only leaves one player (who I would be very disappointed to see go) in Travis Zajac.
But a lateral deal doesn't have to be a blockbuster. It can also be with players who aren't playing up to the levels of their salaries and who other GMs view favorably (David Clarkson?).
My thoughts are to sell, sell, sell. Gain some assets (picks/prospects) for the expiring deals of Hedberg, Arnott and Greene. Use those assets as future trade bait for next year or to beef up the depth of the organization. Either way, we all should expect the Devils to be buyers again next year and extra arrows in the quiver never hurt anyone.
I don't mean to be dramatic when I write how crucial the next 48 hours can be, but it is. The difference in being a buyer (trading a prospect like Eric Gelinas or a high pick) or a seller (adding a player that can become useful in a few years) is so different that the repercussions of the choice will be felt for years to come.
So, which approach would you choose? Have any thoughts on trade partners for Arnott, Greene or Hedberg? Thanks for reading and sound off below!