On Sunday, February 16, 2020, the New Jersey Devils made a big splash ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline when they traded Andy Greene and Blake Coleman away to the Islanders and Lightning, respectively. This opened the door for further speculation and expectation of what else the Devils would do by the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on February 24. There were no grandiose returns or massive deals. The Devils were sellers as they moved three pending unrestricted free agents for whatever they could get from other teams. As it turned out, it was not much.
The Moves Made Today
Just before noon, the first Devil traded was right winger Wayne Simmonds. He waived his no trade clause, which was a list of teams he would not want to be traded to, for a deal that would send him to Buffalo. The Devils received a conditional fifth round pick in 2021 for Simmonds. The condition is that Buffalo makes the playoffs this season and that Simmonds plays in at least 10 games. The Devils also retained half of Simmonds’ remaining salary in 2019-20, too. This is a minimal return for a player who has not had a good season by a team that has a long shot at even making the postseason.
This deal was not hated but it also was not well liked. Or perhaps not even liked very much at all. The leading result in the flash poll for the trade was that “I don’t like the deal.” I called it a deal made for the sake of making one. I cannot help but think interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald could have waited another hour or so in the hopes of obtaining something more tangible.
The second deal was initially announced before 3 PM but details did not get fully revealed until closer to 4 PM and further details came out even later. This was the deal that sent Sami Vatanen to Carolina for a package. I was mistaken that it was for forward Janne Kuokkanen. The actual return was Kuokkanen, minor league defenseman Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional fourth round pick in 2020. This was confirmed by the Devils, who also revealed that they retained half of Vatanen’s salary for 2019-20 in this deal. The condition is based on how many games Vatanen plays in. According to CapFriendly, if he plays in at least 12 regular season games or 70% or more of Carolina’s playoff games, then it becomes a third round pick. If he plays in less than 5 regular season games, then there is no pick. This is notable as Vatanen is currently on injured reserve. Carolina has 21 game remaining in their season. Let us hope Vatanen gets healthy soon and their coaching staff uses him regularly.
As the details for this one were clarified and further explained, the less I liked the return. As per the flash poll, initial reactions were positive - “I like the deal” led the way - but also faded a bit as well. At the end of the day, Vatanen is both injured and a pending UFA. He is very much a rental with more risk than most other rentals. That limited the return the Devils did receive and likely other offers the Devils have received for him. However, the Devils did receive their biggest asset of the day in Kuokkanen. He was a victim of the numbers game in the Carolina system, he is quite young at age 21, and he can both help out Binghamton right away as well as get a possible shot in New Jersey in the next five weeks. If he turns out to be a player, then that will be what people may remember most about the deal short of the Devils hitting big on this pick.
The third and final deal of the day for the Devils was revealed after 3 PM but obviously was submitted before then. It was also the most minor deal of the day for New Jersey. The Devils sent goaltender Louis Domingue, who is with Binghamton, to Vancouver for goaltender Zane McIntyre, who is with Utica. It is literally a swap of minor league goalies. McIntyre has performed poorly this season and comes much cheaper than Domingue, who will get a shot in Vancouver due to an injury to Jacob Markstrom. The flash poll’s leading answer was “I’m in the middle / I don’t know” about the trade and that is where I am at with it. The Devils did not really help themselves but Domingue had such little value so expecting much more seems like expecting too much.
The Devils also made some roster moves ahead of the road trip that starts tomorrow as well as making players eligible for the AHL playoffs if Binghamton qualifies. The Devils sent down Nick Merkley while also making Colton White, Dakota Mermis, and Josh Anderson AHL-playoff eligible as per Corey Masisak of The Athletic on Twitter, which also confirms that Jack Hughes will not go to the AHL should Binghamton make the playoffs. In this follow-up tweet by Masisak, Merkley was assigned to Binghamton and Michael McLeod was recalled. (Note: White was sent down too, Claesson was recalled) It was not a paper move for Merkley. Lastly and more or less relevant for the next five games, Amanda Stein reported that Will Butcher will not join the Devils on this road trip due to his injury.
Thoughts about the Devils’ Trades as a Whole
The Devils’ big hauls came from the Greene and Coleman trades. Today’s deals were more or less about cleaning house than obtaining multiple tangible assets. Janne Kuokkanen is really it in terms of someone who may have a future in New Jersey. Draft picks in rounds four or five are not worth much at all, regardless of their year or conditions. Even if Vatanen is played enough to make that fourth become a third rounder from Carolina, it is going to be a fairly late third rounder - which is rather deep into a draft to really get excited about. Zane McIntyre is a pending UFA who is just cheaper than Domingue. Sure, it is possible for the Devils to unearth a diamond in the rougher rounds of a draft. It is also unlikely.
However, I cannot really muster up much outrage or disgust or even a lot of disagreement with what the Devils did today. The Devils are barely out of the bottom five teams in the league standings. The pending UFAs that were dealt were a right-winger who is having a poor season, a goalie who cleared waivers to go to the minors a few days ago, and an injured defenseman. That is hardly a gold mine of assets to move in exchange for similar precious metals. That the Devils retained salary on Simmonds and Vatanen to help make the deals happen further suggests that other teams were not exactly rushing to get a Devil today. I cannot say that I love what the Devils got because I do not. I cannot say that I hate what the Devils did because I do not. More that today’s moves were whatever they were and I am fine with it. I lean a little more disappointed, but that can be allayed if Kuokkanen becomes somebody someday in New Jersey.
I will point out that it was telling that Kyle Palmieri did not get dealt. It is unknown if teams inquired about any other Devils, but Palmieri was the only non-pending free agent that whose name was out there. The scuttlebutt in the run up to today’s activities was that the Devils wanted a huge offer for Palmieri. It was not unreasonable to wonder about his future. After seeing Chris Kreider sign a huge contract extension with Our Hated Rivals and J-G Pageau go to the Isles on Monday morning, I was wondering if that would drive some teams to be desperate enough to make that huge offer for the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey. It was not to be. I think this is a good thing. With Coleman gone, the Devils really do not have any shooters on the team. Palmieri can be that trigger man. At a minimum, he will remain a Devil through to the end of this season.
While the Devils were clearly sellers, I think they were also held back by the state of their management to a degree. Fitzgerald is just an interim GM. Is he really in the mix for being the next GM of the Devils? Did he make these moves in advance of the next GM to come in and have more flexibility with what he can do? Is that why more was not acquired today? Or, perhaps, why more players were not moved? While he stated that the team would build around Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and MacKenzie Blackwood, were there others that the team kept as “off limits?” We will not find out until well after the fact.
The State of the New Jersey Devils After the Deadline
With Simmonds and Vatanen dealt, two more holes opened up on the roster. They are already covered on defense as Vatanen has been on IR and Butcher was also held out of recent games with an injured. Simmonds’ trade led to McLeod being called up, although I would not blame you if you would have preferred Merkley to come back. Here is who is on the active roster right now, building off the lines the Devils had against Washington
Centers: Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, Pavel Zacha, Kevin Rooney
Left wings: Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Joey Anderson
Right wings: Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Michael McLeod, John Hayden
Defensemen: P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, Mirco Mueller, Connor Carrick, Fredrik Claesson, Dakota Mermis
Goaltenders: MacKenzie Blackwood, Cory Schneider
You can see that the absences loom large. The defense, on paper, really misses Butcher. The departure of Greene and Vatanen really hurts one of the already-worst defenses in the NHL. At forward, Coleman and Simmonds weaken the wings although they can move centers out wide to try to fill in the holes. Seeing the roster like this makes me glad that Palmieri is still a Devil. And I think I would have preferred Merkley to stick around than have McLeod, but perhaps McLeod will prove me wrong. In net, Schneider has been a massive negative earlier this season. However, every goalie not named Blackwood has been a massive negative for the Devils this season. It does not matter much at this point of the season.
The Devils have an extremely large amount of cap space. After all of their deals, the Devils have 45 contracts on the books and a projected cap hit of just $72.4 million per Cap Friendly. The Devils currently have nearly $9.1 million in cap space now and are projected to have over $27 million in cap space for next season. Their only pending unrestricted free agent for July that is on the New Jersey roster is Kevin Rooney. As with many recent offseasons, the Devils will have a lot of space to play with for trades and free agency signings. Given that ownership was willing to retain salary on two more players in addition to Taylor Hall (who also was not dealt today), I do not think spending money will be a concern. Of course, that will also be up to the new GM and what direction they want the Devils to go in for 2020-21.
In terms of the 2020 NHL Draft, the Devils now potentially have four picks in the first three rounds. They have at minimum just one: their own first round pick. The other three require conditions to be met. They will have Arizona’s first rounder provided that they do not win a draft lottery. They will have Vancouver’s first rounder provided they make the playoffs; they are currently third in a very tight Pacific Division. If Vatanen can play 12 games with Carolina this season and/or nearly all of their playoff games, then they will have Carolina’s third rounder. It would have been great if the Devils were able to get a non-conditional pick in the first three rounds to join their three potential first rounders in 2020. But I think the conditions are possible to be met. If they are not met, then the Devils will have heaps of picks for 2021. While that covers the worst case scenario, the best case scenario for the Devils in 2020 is tantalizing. That would mean Arizona missing the playoffs and missing out on the lottery draw, Vancouver barely making the playoffs and getting eliminated early, and Vatanen becoming a regular from early March onward. In a draft where the prospects beyond 20-25 are not distinct (yet), the Devils could still end up with three picks in the top twenty. That would be huge - but also a best case scenario.
The goal for the remainder of this season is to play out the season and see what players can show going forward. While Rooney is the only pending UFA out of New Jersey (Binghamton just has four: Ben Street, Claesson, McIntyre, Julian Melchiori), plenty of pending restricted free agents will need contracts this summer. This group includes Blackwood, a consistent Bratt, Anderson, Mueller, Mermis, White, and Hayden. The latter five are effectively playing for a job. Blackwood and Bratt are playing for a potentially fatter contract. With the knowledge that new management may be coming in with their own idea on how business should be handled, the other Devils should do their best to leave a good lasting impression as the season goes down. I do not expect the Devils to win a lot of games. Their schedule for March is nasty with just two opponents currently more than four points out of a playoff spot. I do want to see them be competitive and start establishing what they can do in preparation for next season.
The Devils went into today’s NHL Trade Deadline as sellers. They sold. They did not get much back. But it is hard to expect a whole lot more given the situations of who was moved today. In the bigger picture, the 2019-20 Devils traded away Taylor Hall, Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, Sami Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds, and Louis Domingue. These moves at least represent holes and roles in the lineup that the Devils would need to fill in going forward. Maybe whoever is filling in now can be part of the answer for the future. If not, then it will be up to whoever the GM will be to find a different answer. We shall see whether any answers can be established in the next 21 games for the Devils.
Now that you’ve read my take on all of this, I want to know yours. How do you think the Devils did today? What was your favorite trade of the season? Who or what else do you think the Devils should have done? Would the Devils have done better at the Trade Deadline if they had a non-interim GM? What are you looking forward to, if anything, for the remainder of this 2019-20 season for the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline.
Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog throughout the day. Thanks to everyone who followed along on Twitter, in the open post for the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, and/or any of the posts about the three trades made today. You are indeed the People Who Matter. Thank you for reading.