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Sami Vatanen Should Be The First Devil Traded

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We lost the Henrique-Vatanen trade, but what Sami lacks in actual impact, he may recompense in trade value. He’s at the top of the “trade bait” list.

Colorado Avalanche v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When Ray Shero and the Devils parted ways on Sunday, I went and looked back at his transactions as GM to see if time has granted perspective on any of them. This is some of what I said in that piece:

Marcus Johansson dropped in value after we acquired him as evidenced by the price he fetched subsequently. The infamous “one for one” Hall-Larsson deal was excellent, but now we just have a very large junior hockey player and some scraps to show for it. P.K. Subban was a shot absolutely worth taking, but one that hasn’t worked out.

Upon further perusal of his history, one that I left out here was the Sami Vatanen for Adam Henrique deal. There are some other pieces — the Ducks got Blandisi and a pick (McLaughlin) and the Devils cashed in on their conditional pick (Misyul) upon the Henrique extension — but they are the two major pieces. The deal was perceived as many to be a fairly straightforward “hockey trade” in which two teams with opposite strengths/weaknesses exchanged players to even out their personnel, and it was a deal that most of you liked. I liked the deal at the time too, I thought it basically reallocated our value to an area of need. However, two years removed from the deal, it no longer seems like an even trade. Their RAPMs are quite lopsided this seasons with Henrique being totally positive and Vatanen being totally negative. According to hockeyviz’s Bayesian heatmap isolate’s Henrique is a very positive player offensively and defensively whereas Vatanen is the reverse. If we’re talking net impact, Henrique outpaces Vatanen 0.396 to 0.136 in GAR rate and 0.237 to 0.091 in xGAR rate. Not to mention the Devils are starved for defensively responsible forwards (see: Kevin Rooney’s GP) and leadership in the room — both of which are hallmark of Rico contributions. The results are in, from a player-value standpoint: we lost the trade.

As the quote above hints, Shero made a habit of making individual good moves, and then seeing their value evaporate. In his absence, it’s time for Fitzgerald to do the opposite — squeeze value out of a bad deal. Sami has been getting big TOI, and has taken advantage of his PP role to get pretty big point totals. NHL GMs generally overvalue point totals and love defenders that are trusted by coaching staffs. We have both of these things working in our favor to artificially inflate the value of a roughly league-average defenceman in Vatanen. At the deadline, a mobile defender that has logged minutes across all situations and is on an expiring contract should be a desirable piece for a contending team.

That brings us to everyone’s favorite fantasy: “Can we trade _______ at the deadline and then bring him back in free agency?” First of all, I’d like to see a statistical analysis of how often that happens — I’m guessing it’s probably 1-5% of cases. But, putting that aside, do we want to bring him back? This season he’s been a below-average player when not on the PP.

Heatmap available to supporters of Hockeyviz.com (Patreon), RAPM chart available to supporters of Evolving-Hockey.com (Patreon)

So he’s not been valuable on the ice. That said, he probably would command value in trade and contract negotiations. Coming into the season, the Evolving-Wild contract projections pegged him with a projected 6-year, $5.7M AAV deal. It was somewhat likely that he would receive a 2-, 3-, 5-, or 6-year deal and they could span anywhere from $4M to $5.7M. I think, if anything, he’s probably increased his value since then, or at least made the upper end more likely. To me, he’s clearly not worth $5M and clearly not worth 5 years. I’d offer him the low end of that deal — around $4M for 2-3 years, and I’d be perfectly fine if he said “no.”

Do we think the Devils will do this? Some speculated that Shero wanted to extended the rebuild and ownership was ready to compete now (Rachel Doerrie confirmed that on her podcast yesterday), and so it would seem likely that they would want to hold onto assets. However, Doerrie also said (along with Dreger and Freidman) that ownership (HBS&E) and management (Shero) clearly disagreed about the direction of the team. It was intimated that one of the main sources for the disagreement is investment in analytics. This isn’t shocking. Ownership also owns the “Trust the Process” 76ers which highly valued analytical thinking, and Shero has recently taken a total left turn and begun to value very counter-analytical precepts like sacrificing talent for size on the blueline. If they are indeed invested in analytical thinking, avoiding the contract would be desirable on its face, and getting something for Vatanen at the deadline would be gravy.

He should be traded. But, I’m going even further calling him the “first Devils traded” — some may say that putting him over Greene? Simmonds? This gets us into the last note on him which is that he’s a redundancy on this team. He’s a puck-mover with PP chops just like Subban, Severson, and Butcher. Vatanen is a righty which was an area of need for the Devils when acquired, but now we have Subban as the RD1 and Severson who’s played both sides. Greene is a PKer and one of the few leaders on the team, Simmonds is a physical presence and net-mouth specialist. Whereas they offer something unique to the team, Vatanen is an overvalued redundancy on an expiring contract. That’s why any retool/rebuild we create should have his name alone at the top.

What are your thoughts? Do you want to trade Vatanen? Do you want to re-sign him? Who’s atop your trade list? Do you think we won/lost the Henrique trade? How does the new GM and vision for the rebuild impact this decision? Thanks, as always, for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments section below!