Let’s start of here with an acknowledgement. Trading Kyle Palmieri and/or Blake Coleman is locking in the Devils rebuild 1.0 as a failure, and it is establishing the 2020-21 Devils as a bottom-dweller, barring remarkable goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood and, probably, whoever the Devils get to be the 1B starter. This is not really up for debate, if you ask me. It’s not like my piece last week in which one could reasonably argue the Devils could improve by trading Sami Vatanen. No. This time, we’re talking about a Devils team that started this year struggling offensively with Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Blake Coleman. Intelligent people can disagree about Coleman’s true status in the NHL (fight me), but I consider that to be 3 clear top-6 forwards. Taking a full top-6 line off of the 30th best team in the NHL is not a recipe for success.
If there is some contingent of Devils fans that consider it very possible or even likely that the team improves without those players, I assume it is a small clan, and one I won’t bother addressing here. The question is, instead, does it make more sense to the rebuild to trade them now and recoup what value they already have.
The Case FOR Trading
I think some of the motivation for this mindset are the disgruntled fans that basically just think “**** it, tear it down” out of spite. While this is not what I would call a cogent, actionable stance; the spirit behind it is understandable. This season, the Devils have traded their franchise player, fired their Head Coach, and parted ways with the GM. It’s clear that there is going to be a new vision and a new philosophy. If we are on the verge of a new philosophy, why not let the new management mold the team how they want? It’s not as if these guys are investments that we hope to pay off — they’re both 28 years old, after all.
This raises a good second point. It’s probably not shocking to many people that Kyle Palmieri has probably peaked — he had a career before the Devils, he’s had a long one in NJ as well, and has over 500 GP to his name. Blake Coleman debuted pretty late so the last sentence of the previous paragraph may have been a bit jarring. It seems like he’s just getting going, but he’s the same age as Palmieri. Aging curves for forwards have varied depending on method, but a common guess is that peak age is around 25 and I actually have it closer to 22. Therefore, an argument could be made that the looming contracts that Palmieri and Coleman will likely receive are probably not going to be very indicative of what they are going to produce over the length of the term. For teams that are setting up to compete, this is a palatable penalty to pay to procure the privilege of a productive player past their prime (*extremely alliterative Bojack voice*). But for a rebuilding team like the Devils, that may be an unwise investment, especially if future assets can be acquired in exchange.
I’ll point out briefly that I’m sure someone is going to comment that we should trade them and then re-sign them as UFA. I’m going to assume this is not going to happen, and feel pretty good about that assumption.
Both players are currently extremely underpaid, are the Devils leading goal-scorers (the most easily marketable skill in negotiations), and are approaching what may be their last premier negotiating opportunity. Not wanting to indulge would be an understandable position for the next GM to have, and if the players are just going to walk in free agency, there’s no good reason to keep them unless we’re competing next season.
The Case AGAINST Trading
I’ve mentioned in the past that I think there is something to be said for establishing some sort of institutional memory for winning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything fuzzy/spooky like “they believe in themselves” either — it can be much more empirical. It’s impossible to know what strategies will work if you don’t have the talent to test them — do you think Detroit’s players are learning anything valuable about scheming right now? Hughes is a big playmaker — how do we know how to scheme around him if he has no one to pass to. Trading the team’s two leading goal-scorers seems a good way to ensure that. Another clear motivation to keep them is that it’s difficult to get good returns on trades if the team is always losing — think how overpaid Stanley Cup UFAs become. Now do the opposite. And lastly, yes, there’s probably some psychological impact to the confidence that winning provides — especially for young players. I think we’ve seen plenty of evidence this season for how team psychology can contribute to a spiral.
The case against trading hinges on believing that one of two things is true: 1) it is possible that we compete next season, 2) it is possible that they are re-signed to reasonable deals.
First of all, I DO think this team can be turned around quicker than it seems. With the current lineup, plus another goalie, and one surprising call-up (Smith) or growth (Hughes), the Devils could make the playoffs — weirder things have happened in hockey. That said, I wouldn’t think that’s likely.
The second item may very well be true. I’m not in meetings and I’m not in the heads of the players or their agents. But I do know that these are two players fall into what is still a fairly clear market inefficiency — forwards with strong defensive impacts. I wrote less than a year ago about Kyle Palmieri’s defensive game, and called him the lone Devils’ constant about a month ago. Blake Coleman, meanwhile, has elevated his game in all 200-ft, becoming an elite defensive forward as well as the team’s leading goal-scorer. As of last offseason, Coleman’s projected contract was 4 years at $3.2M AAV, and Palmieri’s was 7x7. Coleman’s value has likely gone up, and Palmieri is a year older so the 2nd most likely deal of 5 years $6.2M seems more likely now.
I think Coleman’s price has likely gone up this year, but even at 5 years and $4M AAV, he’d likely be worth it. Yes, he’s on the wrong side of the aging curve, but he’s gotten better every year and my aging research showed that players in the latest 20% of agers can see their peaks as late as their early 30s. And, importantly, forward’s defensive impact ages much more slowly than offensive impact, and that appears to be true regardless of metric. Good defense is hard to find (see: early season struggles with Hughes/Gusev/Boqvist/Bratt/everyone) and we have not only found one, but an elite one that is competent and contributing on offense as well. Even if his offense goes away, at the end of a 5-year deal, he’d still be younger than Travis Zajac, who’s still effective defensively. In short, that super special 28-year-old forward that scores 60 points will probably get a big contract, but a guy like Blake Coleman is more likely to retain his value.
This bodes well for Kyle’s prospects as well, given that his defensive game is strong too. Also, powerplay performance doesn’t peak until 26-27 so his next 5 years very well may be as productive as his last 5 during which time he’s scored the 8th most PP goals in the NHL, and been a top-15 PP_GAR producer. Were he to accept the 5-year deal I mentioned above, it’s unlikely he fully earns that deal, but he’s more well-suited than your average 28-year-old to survive due to his PPO and EVD expertise.
These are two guys that are currently invaluable members of the team. Palmieri is the only true RW1 we’ve had since Ilya Kovalchuk and, debatably, there’s not even been a strong RW2 in that span. Coleman, along with Zajac, has aided in keeping prized offseason acquisition, Nikita Gusev, afloat in the defensive zone so that he can wreak havoc in the offensive zone. Palmieri is the most valuable PPer with Hall gone, and Coleman is likely to be the most valuable PKer with Zajac and Green aging out. These guys are linchpins preventing the team from spiraling out of control again. Removing them completely resets the clock, and risks sacrificing Hischier and Hughes’s best years to rebuild 2.0
The case for trading them is: 1) We aren’t competing next season, 2) We’ve wiped the leadership clean and don’t want to saddle them with pieces from the old guard, 3) 28 is old for a forward, and they’ll likely both seek a payday, so we may not want to give them their next contract. The case for not trading them is: 1) With Hischier/Hughes, we’re not THAT far from competence, and we risk squandering it by stripping all pieces, 2) they allow us to get better assessments of players like Gusev, Hughes, etc. by playing them in real systems with legit NHLers, 3) their particular skillsets don’t age as poorly as other comparably valuable players.
What do you guys think? Do you want to trade them and give up on next season in the hopes that 3-4 years from now we’ll be ready to go with a prime-level Nico and Jack? Do you think we need to retain some talent? Do you like both of them as players? What contracts would you accept?
Leave your thoughts on these, and any other questions you may think of below, and thanks for reading!