February is the shortest month on the calendar but it is always an important month in the National Hockey League regular season. So it goes in Eastside Hockey Manager. The NHL Trade Deadline is on February 24 in the game and the New Jersey Devils are in a position to be buyers rather than sellers. This is a result of a fairly successful month so far - a rebound from January’s results - amid a successful season so far. With six days in the game before the trade deadline, GM Sherman Abrams took a break to get a read on the situation from the People Who Matter before making any potentially season-altering deals.
Before going over what happened in the month so far and presenting the lay of the league before the deadline, Abrams and I want to highlight those who commented in the previous post. Thank you to OfManNotMachine, smelph, luozhen, alslammerz, EliasStillRocks, Chris Calabrese, Veron, and acasser. It was not a consensus but the decision was made to not move Hall - or anyone else until this very point of the season. Let’s go over what happened in February up until February 18. (I accidentally advanced the game to the morning of February 19 in taking screenshots so if you see that, that is why.)
The First Nine Games of February 2020 in EHM
The month began against Dallas on the first. It was an auspicious start at home. After an early goal by Roope Hintz, the Devils scored three in succession. Pavel Zacha provided the equalizer; P.K. Subban slap shot a turnover back past Khudobin on a power play; and Miles Wood scored. 3-1 after the first seemed safe but it was not to be. Seguin and Benn tied it up in the second as Mackenzie Blackwood struggled a bit. Seguin converted a late power play to put Dallas up a goal and Guryanov sealed the 3-5 loss with an empty netter. It was not the best way to start an important month. Especially after a not-so-good January.
Better times were ahead, though. They began against Montreal on the fourth of February. While Nick Suzuki scored the game’s first two goals, that would be it for the visitors. Subban scored another PPG off a turnover to get New Jersey on the board. In the third period, Blake Coleman burst ahead and finished his drill to make it 2-2. Taylor Hall made Gallagher dizzy in his own end of the rink, took a feed from Subban, and scored to make it 3-2. Kyle Palmieri sealed the win with an ENG to make it 4-2 in a game where Montreal conceded 30 shots and blocked 31 (!) shots. The first win was out of the way and the next was to come in dramatic fashion in Philly on February 6.
Ahead of this game, Abrams decreed that Michael McLeod center Jesper Boqvist and Nathan Bastian on the third line with Travis Zajac going to the fourth line with Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood. Zajac’s less than stellar performances combined with McLeod not meshing super-well with Wood and Simmonds gave him the thought. It did yield some success in Philly as Boqvist scored an equalizer in the first period to make it 1-1. Then it became all about the first line. Hall put the Devils up 2-1 in the second period, only to be answered minutes later by Hayes. Hayes struck again in the third period, but Hall provided a 6-on-4 PPG with the net empty within the final two minutes of the game to tie it up. If that did not frustrate the Philadelphia faithful, then what Jack Hughes did certainly made them gnash their teeth. With seven seconds on the clock, Hughes piled in his own rebound past Carter Hart at the left post. That is the headline photo and it secured a stunning 4-3 win.
On February 8, the Devils hosted Los Angeles in what would be a far less dramatic game. The third line with McLeod struck again with Boqvist opening the game’s scoring. Palmieri doubled that lead late in the first period. Los Angeles did pull with one when a bad turnover by Blackwood yielded a shorthanded chance and goal for Brown. In the third period, Hall finished a play from Palmieri and Hughes to make it 3-1. Kovalchuk - he’s a King in this EHM game - danced from behind the net and stashed in a goal to make it close. But there would be no late surprises - just an ENG by Hall to make it a 4-2 win. The three-game winning streak was good. What was even better was the news on the following morning:
Sami Vatanen was back at 100%. Abrams removed his IR status and sent Connor Timmins back to Binghamton for roster space. In an effort to space out his minutes, Vatanen was placed on the second pairing next to Ty Smith. He still had primary minutes on the power play and penalty kill units, as to keep his usefulness going.
Vatanen made his return to the season against Florida on February 11. He had a good game and the team as a whole just crushed the visiting Panthers. Zajac scored a PPG to get it started in the first period. In the final two minutes of the first period, Miles Wood scored another goal (!) and Hughes put one in himself 65 seconds later. Florida had little answer and whatever they generated against Blackwood was denied. Coleman added to the misery in the second period to make it 4-0. The third period went exceedingly well with only one blemish. With less than a minute left, Pysyk broke Blackwood’s shutout bid. This bothered the fourth line enough for Zajac to body Yandle after a dump-in, win the puck, and send it across to Simmonds to make it a 5-1 victory. The team was flying high and feeling good.
Perhaps a little too good. They hosted a hapless Detroit team on February 13 and put in a rather lackluster performance. Abdelkader and Nielsen both scored within the first 10 minutes and the Devils just seemed out of sorts. They needed a spark. Cue the Texan. Coleman torched Green off the wing and then torched Howard with a shot to make it 1-2. Nico Hischier, who had been a bit off his game in the last week, awoke and provided a game-tying goal in the second period. But the crisis returned when Mantha beat Jake Oettinger with less than nine minutes left. Time was running out and the Devils seemed short on answers. Then Larkin cleared a puck over the glass. With Oettinger pulled, Vatanen denied a clearing attempt and then fired it through traffic in the final minute. 3-3 and overtime loomed. But it fell apart there. Butcher won a puck on offense and promptly lost it to Jacob de la Rose. He went off on a breakaway and Detroit, of all teams, snapped the winning streak in a 3-4 OT loss.
The Devils could not recover for their Valentine’s Day game in Carolina. Blackwood got the start - and the hook. After giving up four goals on his first twelve shots - and getting a ‘4’ rating - AI John Hynes replaced him with Oettinger. The team in front of him clawed their way back from a 0-3 deficit in the first period to tie it up in the second period. A comeback that included Andy Greene’s first goal of the season. But just after Hall tied it up on a power play, Svechnikov made it 3-4 which sent Blackwood to the bench. Teravainen extended the lead in the third period and Pesce scored an ENG to make it a 3-6 loss in Raleigh. Yuck. Will there be a rebound?
Yes. And it would include another returning player:
Jesper Bratt’s sprain was fully healed up and could return to the lineup. His return required another Devil to go to Binghamton. Rather than risking Noel Acciari or Kevin Rooney to waivers, he returned Michael McLeod. While McLeod being in between Boqvist and Bastian provided results in their first two games, they faded in the past few games. Bastian may have not been so productive but his average rating above 7 was proof he was holding his own. McLeod was still in the mid-sixes. So McLeod was sent to the B-Devils for the return of Bratt. While he was a natural right wing, Bratt could play left win. Abrams decided to have Bratt be to the left of Hischier on the second line and move Zacha to center for the third line. With Nikita Gusev on the mend, this would be a temporary move in Abrams’ mind.
The Devils returned to the Rock on February 16 with Bratt dressed for the game. Any bad taste from the Detroit loss at the Rock was washed away early on. Hall scored just over three minutes in to get the Devils on the board. Hughes extended the least about seven minutes after that. The second period put the game in reach for the visitors as Nyquist scored right after the period began. However, Hall scored his second of the game later to restore the two-goal lead. That was removed in the final minute by Kole Sherwood and the Devils were back to holding onto a one-goal lead. But Blackwood was a star in the third period. He did much better after his bad Valentine’s Day performance and earned a ‘9.’ And Bratt got a great ovation scoring the empty net goal to secure a 4-2 win.
As agreed upon in last week’s post, February 18 would be the final game for this post. It was in St. Louis. St. Louis is one of the best teams in this EHM simulation season. And just like in real life, the Devils were not expected to get anything on the road. However, the Devils got off to a great start and it seemed like that would. Zajac scored the first of the game. A few minutes later, Tarasenko extended his goal streak and tied it up. Then the Devils’ third line went off. Bastian scored to break the tie; the highlight of what would be the best game in his young career so far. Zacha finished a great play late in the period and the Devils were up 3-1 at the end of the first. However, St. Louis is not one of the best for no reason and they chipped away at the lead. O’Reilly put them within a goal early in the second period. Blackwood did well but he could not be perfect. A costly hooking penalty by Boqvist late in the third period gave St. Louis a late opportunity. Pietrangelo, who also had an awesome game, converted that opportunity. The game was to go to overtime. Thomas took a roughing call and the OT period ended on the power play for New Jersey. But they could not convert the situation. In the shootout, Abrams’ set lineup of Hall, Vatanen, and Hischier went up. Neither scored. St. Louis sent out Faulk (really?), Perron, and Schenn. Schenn did score. Getting a point on the road against a top team in the West is usually a good thing. Even if you disagree, that is what the Devils received in a 3-4 shootout loss to the Blues.
The Devils & NHL at a Glance After February 18
The Devils went 5-2-2 in this portion of February. They are no longer leading the Metropolitan Division or the Eastern Conference, but they are not that far off from those spots either.
The two New York teams have been hot and so they are ahead of New Jersey at the moment. Only just ahead. Our Hated Rivals have a one-point lead and the Isles are only in third because of games played. Montreal looks more comfortable in first place but that is a bit deceiving. They are four points ahead of the Devils and New Jersey has three games in hand on them. New Jersey is still in mathematical range of first; winning that game on February 4 looks real good now. While Washington and Pittsburgh are within five points of New Jersey, it is more important that the Devils are currently twelve points clear of ninth place. The goal of this game is to see if we can manage the Devils to better than they did in real life and in an EHM simulated season where we did nothing. This team is on pace to do just that barring a massive collapse in March.
There are also plenty of teams in the East who are just on the outside looking in. Toronto, Philadelphia, and Carolina need an amazing run to get back into the wild card conversation. I doubt that will happen. In the game, Toronto fired Mike Babcock in February. There are constant rumors and proposals by AI teams trying to get Giroux or Van Reimsdyk out of Philly. I think they will stay on the outside. As will Florida, Boston, Detroit (who is now in 14th!), Columbus, and Ottawa. Wow, poor Ottawa.
A quick look at the West shows that Winnipeg is running away with the Central Division and the Western Conference. Colorado and St. Louis are very good but the Jets are just on another level. The Pacific is not as successful but it is the tighter division as five teams are in the post-season picture. That picture as a whole in the West is larger as even Chicago is fewer than ten points away from Arizona, who holds the final wild card spot at the moment. Only Los Angeles is really out of it at this moment, which explains teams constantly trying and failing to make deals for Kopitar. What I cannot explain is the speculation in the game for Kane and Toews being available from Chicago as they are not fully out of it yet. Although they will be soon at this rate (also poor them in the shootout, 0-7 is rough. I know that feeling.)
The Devils’ top line was featured throughout the month so far on the scoresheet. Appropriately, Hall and Hughes are in the league’s top ten in scoring. Only three players have more points than Hall and Hughes at the moment. MacKinnon is a heavy favorite for the Art Ross at this rate and Colorado’s top line is well represented. Kyle Palmieri is high up on this list as well. He is tied with three others with 56 points, including the great Ovechkin, the very talented Eichel, and the surprising Reinhart. Despite not having such a good month so far, Hischier is still in the top 50 in scoring. His 49 points puts him in a tie with eight others where he is 35th.
Subban got three goals in the month and plenty of assists to move into a tie as a top-ten scorer among defensemen. Vatanen returned earlier in the month and went right back to the scoresheet. He is just behind Dahlin for the league’s lead in scoring by a defenseman. A both are averaging in the 7.6 range, they are doing well. At 22 points, Will Butcher is two points behind the Top 50 cut.
As Hughes is a top-ten scorer in the whole NHL, it is not a surprise he is far ahead of everyone other rookie in terms of points. He is 19 points ahead of Kakko, who is at least five points ahead of everyone else. The Big Deal is, well, a Big Deal in this EHM season. What is notable is that there are other Devils further down in the top 50. Boqvist is now at 15 points, which puts him in a tie with Mikheyev, True, Dach, and Kubalik. Due to tiebreakers, he is 24th. Ty Smith has been playing well and has remained goalless. But his nine assists puts him tied for 39th in rookie points. McLeod put up three goals and four assists before his demotion and Bastian has two goals and five assists now. Both are tied for 44th with seven points.
Lastly, Hall continues to be among the elite players in the NHL by average rating. Only Rantanen has been better. Unsurprisingly, his fellow first liners in Landeskog and MacKinnon are close behind. The average rating of eight club remains exclusive with only eleven players in the NHL maintaining that high value. Three of them are goalies, including backup Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh. Gusev remains at 34th on the list with a 7.79 average. Palmieri fell below Gusev with an average of 7.78; he is 36th. It sure would be great when Gusev returns to action.
As for the Devils themselves, here is their team sorted by points scored:
Despite having performance issues that bumped him down to the fourth line, Zajac has remained rather productive. He still holds a spot as the center for PP2 and his work with Wood and Simmonds has been good. He broke the 40-point plateau in February. Vatanen would have done it by now but he was hurt. Coleman is tied with Hall and Hischier for goals and he is set to do the same in coming weeks. Simmonds has also done well with his 16-goal, 34-point season. Not bad for a bottom six winger with only power play time on the second unit. (PP1 is Hughes, Vatanen, Hall, Hischier, Palmieri.) Gusev may have enough time to rack up 12 points to also get to 40 points but it remains to be seen. An argument can be made that the Devils could use another scoring winger.
The save percentages for Blackwood and Oettinger have stabilized in the 89% range. That is not very good. Their average rating being in the low sevens means they have not been abysmal or all that bad. But there could be an upgrade here - and that upgrade may take the starting job from the young tandem. At least Blackwood-Oettinger is performing better than Blackwood-Schneider did in the previous simulation.
Hall remains at the top, Palmieri is ahead of most of the team, and, again, Gusev will be a welcomed return. It is worth noting that Subban and Vatanen rose their games in February to be in the 7.6 range, which is very helpful. Ditto for Butcher, who went from 7.28 to 7.37. Bastian also rose up from a 7.12 to a 7.32, which is also a positive - and big reason why he is still in New Jersey. As for fallers, both Hughes and Hischier slipped in terms of rating. Hughes has remained remarkably productive so I am not so concerned. Hischier may welcome Gusev back sooner rather than later. Damon Severson has been in more games than Nick Holden but his rating also slipped to be just above an average of seven, whereas Holden is holding steady in the high sixes. I can see how some would want to see an upgrade at defense. Greene is definitely lagging behind but between his no-trade clause and the fact he is the captain of a Devils team perfoming well makes it that much harder to move him. (The same also applies to Zajac, except he has an ‘A.’)
As a final point for this section, the trade talk, speculation, and proposed deals have increased from the computer. However, not much actual activity has happened. Here are all of the trades in February (I accidentally advanced the game to February 19 while taking some of those screen shots. My bad.):
Despite receiving in-game emails about HFBoards-level proposals made by the computer to get Kopitar, Giroux or Mike Hoffman, only three moves have actually been made. They are hardly Earth-shattering moves. Christian Fischer (no relation) has yet to play a NHL game this season. Colin Blackwell and Jaret Anderson-Dolan are both in the AHL. Caggiula is the only NHL player moved in this hot month of speculation. It has been a lot of talking without activity. I expect that to change by the 24th.
The EHM Trade Deadline & Your Take
GM Abrams wants you to help improve the Devils for the stretch run to make the playoffs. The Devils can make it. They are in a position to make it even if they hold steady. Assume that there will not be a Let’s Pretend the 2020-21 season for now, if that helps. In an effort to help you, the People Who Matter, here is some information about the Devils organization and what is out there.
EHM does have a trade block option. Abrams used it earlier for Wood and Schneider, which yielded no deals for either. The computer definitely uses it but mostly as a dumping ground. It is filled with players with big contracts who are not (or can not) justify their salaries and depth players who were performing poorly. The players on the trade block are the same kind of players who were on the trade block earlier this season. I do not recommend seeking them out.
The Devils have a lot of cap space to play with in this simulated season. Specifically, $12.06 million. Ownership has been pleased with GM Abrams so far so money should not be an issue.
The Devils only have their first round pick, Boston’s fourth, their fourth, their fifth, their sixth, and their seventh round picks in 2020. They do not have a second or a third rounder. Maybe the Devils can acquire one? They also do not have a second rounder in 2021, but they do have their other picks. They have all of their picks in 2022 plus Columbus’ fifth rounder as well as their 2023 and 2024 picks. The game will not let Abrams go beyond 2024 for picks to move.
Here is the depth chart for the Devils in each position. First, goaltenders:
I am still mystified that no Devils goaltender in the system has a save percentage above 90%. Not in New Jersey. Not in Binghamton. Not in the NAHL or USHL. That is...stunning. Again, goaltender is a position of some need.
Our assistant GM thinks Ty Smith is behind Severson, Holden, and Greene despite outperforming them this season. Odd. Also, no way is Connor Timmins actually behind Colby Sissons. Anyway, the Devils could shore up the back end of their defense. Greene is a captain and has a NTC; moving him would be a massive challenge. Flipping Holden or even trying to move Severson in a bigger deal is more possible. (Aside: Apparently, Abrams still has the rights to Vojtech Mozik.)
Hall is a stud and he is one of the best players in the entire NHL. He is untouchable. Especially with the team’s aim to be successful. Given that Abrams has had Zacha play left wing for much of this season and currently has Bratt there now, this is a position that could have used shoring up even before Gusev’s injury. Wood has not had much value back at the beginning of the season. I doubt he has much of it now. But if he is to be moved for even a mid-round draft pick, then the Devils really, really need a left winger. Gusev’s return will definitely help, though.
Palmieri is definitely a first liner. Coleman is doing a good job on a second line. Simmonds has been very fine on the fourth line with power play time. Bratt is kind of a tweener between a second a third liner. Acciari is depth and Bastian is proving he belongs on the NHL team. You could argue an upgrade here would be useful but it would force Bratt to stay at left wing as well as moving Coleman or Bastian down. Simmonds is providing very good value for his ice time but if he needs to be part of a big deal, then it is possible to move him.
Center is not really a position of need. While the fourth line center spot was a hot potato between Acciari and Rooney, McLeod did a decent enough job to keep those two to the scratch suite. Zajac was recently demoted there but still receives significant special teams time to keep him happy. The top two centers are definitely Hughes and Hischier and are pretty much untouchable. Zacha was used mostly as a winger but he is currently at center for the third line. If Hanzal magically gets better then this position gets even deeper but that is not likely. One thing of note, the Devils have plenty of prospective centers that could be moved.
So that is who the Devils have in their system. Rooney and Acciari are easily moved and Abrams would have no problem calling up McLeod again and using the roster space to keep Bastian in the NHL. But for the Devils to get a top-six or top-nine caliber winger or a defenseman of substance, then they need to be willing to part with comparable talent (e.g. Simmonds, Severson) and/or a high draft pick like their first rounder in 2020 or 2021. A goaltender who can maintain a league average save percentage would quite helpful too, even if it means moving Oettinger down to Binghamton and moving Blackwood to a #2/#1B role.
Given that the Devils have been performing so well in this simulation and have done well in this month so far, I am hesitant on rocking the boat too much. Especially with Gusev now day-to-day with his injury; I am figuring he will be 100% before March begins. He will really help that second line and second power play unit. But I can agree that the team is a piece or two away from being a real contender. That is only my view. GM Abrams and I want your take on what the Devils should do by the trade deadline.
So in the comments, please detail what you want the Devils to do by then. Who should they target? What should they be willing to offer? If you want information on a a potential player to pick up, then leave a comment and I’ll look him up in this EHM game for you. I plan on playing the season again on Thursday night to make the proposed deals and play through to the end of February. I cannot guarantee that your proposals will work, or that all proposals will be tried out depending on success. For example: If there are five proposals to bring in a winger and I get him from the second one, then I may decide to not do the other three. I do not plan on gutting the team with this save file. But I will read and react to all of them. Do not hesitate to make your voice heard. Thank you for reading.