When the Devils pulled the trigger on the Adam Henrique for Sami Vatanen trade on November, the swap was met with some definitely mixed reactions. Henrique was a fan favorite and a player who was a key piece of a Cup final run in his first season, so it was understandable on an emotional level. On a hockey level, though, a majority seemed to agree that the trade made sense for both the defense-starved Devils and the ailing Ducks. So with the benefit of a couple months now between us and this trade, how does it look?
At first, Henrique flourished in Anaheim, putting up 8 points in his first 8 games with the Ducks. That was capped with a 2-point night in his return to Newark with one of those goals being an absolute undressing of Vatanen on the rush for a goal. Meanwhile, Vatanen was still finding his feet in New Jersey those first couple weeks. He was immediately thrust into a major defensive role upon his arrival and had some less-than-stellar performances that caused some to perhaps question if Shero had made a bad deal. The aforementioned undressing by Henrique put a convenient bow on those first few weeks. Vatanen was uneven and had only managed 1 point in 9 games and Henrique was ascendant in his new home.
Since then, however, the script has very much been flipped. Vatanen started to settle into his new system in New Jersey and was driving a solid second-paring that included John Moore (no easy feat) and is now back on the top pairing with Andy Greene. He has also re-discovered his offensive game and, including last night’s 3-assist performance, has 9 points in his last 9 appearances. Henrique, meanwhile, has just 2 goals for 2 points in the 12 games after his return to Newark.
The reality is that neither of these stretches are indicative of the actual players both teams received, but I think people still have to be feeling much better about this trade in New Jersey than they were a month ago. Vatanen is hot right now but obviously isn’t a point-per-game player. Yet, we can take away that he has settled in and is becoming an important part of the Devils’ defensive unit. His presence provides the team with more options, depth, and flexibility on a defensive unit that was badly in need of those things. No one is going to confuse the Devils’ blueline with an elite NHL unit, but it is much closer to being the “serviceable” that they need it to be with Vatanen than it was without him back in October and November.
Further to that last point above, we can now take a look at some before and after numbers for New Jersey given that we have a decent sample size for the team with Vatanen. Now, this is always going to be an incomplete way of looking at a trade and myriad factors obviously go into team’s performance, but I still think its an interesting exercise to look at the team prior to this mini-blockbuster and how they look in the aftermath (all values below via Natural Stat Trick).
Through November 30th
For the above numbers, the labels mean the following: CF% = percentage of all shot attempts; FF% = percentage of unblocked attempts; SF% = percentage of shots on goal; SCF% = percentage of scoring chances; HDCF% = percentage of high-danger chances; GF% = percentage of goals scored; and PDO = combined shooting and save pct.
The Devils were winning more than their share of hockey games heading into this trade (14-6-4), but there were some definite red flags for New Jersey in the underlying shot metrics. The Devils were near last in the league in percentage of attempts, shots, and scoring chances prior to the trade. Their high danger numbers were solid though and they were able to stay ahead of the poor shot ratios by creating quality chances and capitalizing on opportunities. They were still having major difficulties in the run of play, though.
After November 30th
The picture painted by the Devils underlying numbers since the Vatanen trade is a very different one. They have been in the top half of the league in just about everything over the past 20 games, save for a dip in PDO that is dragging down the goal numbers. Even their share of high-danger chances, which was already pretty high, has gone up since Vatanen’s arrival to 3rd in the entire league over that stretch. The Devils were a team getting hemmed in but creating chances and capitalizing on them prior to Vatanen’s arrival. But now they seem to be a team for which the numbers just kind of point to playing good solid hockey.
How much of this has to do with Vatanen’s arrival is difficult to quantify. The Devils got some players back from injury in early December and teams can adjust tactics to improve their numbers from time to time. The Vatanen trade does stand out as the most major event in that time period, though the initial spike in expected goal differential does come slightly before that, per this viz from Sean Tierney:
[Whispering extremely quietly while in a soundproof booth inside of a nuclear fallout shelter] The initial spike happens around when Travis Zajac returns to the lineup.
The team has yet to have their 5-game rolling xGF fall below 50% since the trade. It does make sense that the team has been much more steady since the arrival of Vatanen. Depending on your mileage, he’s either the first, second, or third best defenseman on the team, but most would agree that he is likely a top-4 caliber player. Adding that to a team that arguably only had two of those prior is bound to make a huge difference, and for the Devils, it seemingly has.
So, What’s the Verdict?
Twenty games is still probably a bit too soon to be declaring anyone the winner of a close trade, but right now it’s hard not to like the results for New Jersey. Though on the flip side, the Ducks have also improved many of their numbers (most of which were dead last prior to the trade) so it can be looked at as a mutually beneficial exchange. Both teams had a glaring weakness they needed to address so they traded from a position of strength to do so. Speaking from the New Jersey perspective, though, the trade, while a tough one in terms of sentimentality, so far looks like another strong move for Ray Shero.