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Modest Trade Proposals for the New Jersey Devils: Targeting Slater Koekkoek

Trade proposals are often one-sided and derided for being unrealistic. This week, All About the Jersey will present some more modest and reasonable ones. This one discusses why the New Jersey Devils may want to target Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Slater Koekkoek and what it could take to make it happen.

Chicago Blackhawks v Tampa Bay Lightning
Yes, a trade proposal for Slater Koekkoek. When I write modest, I do mean modest.
Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

Trade proposals and suggestions are one of those things that a lot of sports fans discuss and think about and also sigh when they come up. A lot of them are fanciful and/or one-sided. Either in favor of the team they support or against the player(s) they want to dump. Some even become temporary memes in amid communities of fans, such as “Jon Merrill and a third” for, well, anything at r/devils. The derision some proposals generate are enough to turn fans off from discussing them - or at least in public spheres like the Internet.

However, as fans of the New Jersey Devils who one of the seven teams not returning to play, we cannot help but look to the future anyway. Whether general manager Tom Fitzgerald is going to tear this roster down or look to strengthen it later in the offseason, I like to think the goal for 2020-21 is to have a better Devils team than it was in 2019-20. With oodles of cap and contract space for next season, Fitzgerald can leverage either to swing some deals to do that. Rather than just stating that, this week at All About the Jersey, we will be writing up some modest trade proposals that we came up with for the 24 teams that are playing. They may not be all mind-blowing blockbusters. They may still lead to derision. With more modesty and consideration, we hope they are at least a little better received.

The Target: Defenseman Slater Koekkoek of the Chicago Blackhawks

The Suggested Modest Trade Proposal: Koekkoek for a 2020 fourth round pick (either New Jersey’s, Boston’s, or possibly Carolina’s)

Why the Blackhawks Should Entertain Such a Deal: Look at their cap situation at CapFriendly. I noted this in my guide for the Edmonton-Chicago series but Stan Bowman has some cap issues on his hands. CapFriendly projects their cap space for 2020-21 to be roughly $7.35 million. Dominik Kubalik, who just scored five points in their first play-in game against Edmonton, is up for a new contract for next season and he will definitely get a big raise. Dylan Strome and Drake Caggiula will also need new deals and will likely command substantial raises in their own right. Defenseman Slater Koekkoek is also a pending restricted free agent and could get a raise too. Backup goaltender Malcolm Subban also needs a new deal. While that may be more modest, the $7.35 million may be largely used up from Kubalik and Strome alone. The Blackhawks need cap space.

The Blackhawks also need more room for contracts. It occurred to me recently that Chicago has 41 standard player contracts on the books for next season. A standard player contract is required to play in the NHL. Teams are limited to having 50 of them. E They have five RFAs listed with Chicago: Kubalik, Strome, Caggiula, Koekkoek, and Subban. Putting the salary cap aside, retaining all five would take them to 46. Then there is the matter of the non-roster players. Alexandre Fortin, Jacob Nilsson, Joni Tuulola, and Ian McCoshen are all pending RFAs. This would take them right up to fifty. However, Chicago is at risk of being over that. Entry level contracts for players under the age of 20 can slide and therefore not count against that limit. They had two players exempt from last season: Alec Regula and Nicolas Beaudin. Regula turns 20 in a few days and therefore his contract cannot be exempt for next season. Ditto for Nicolas Beaudin, who was with Chicago prior to the pause, as he is also 20. Unless I misunderstand something, the Blackhawks will need to get rid of two contracts just to meet the contract limit.

While Bowman can simply not qualify some of their non-roster RFAs and let them walk, he also needs cap space if he wants to go out and sign some new players. Dealing a couple of those pending RFAs could provide the relief of one fewer contract on the books and having one less deal to sign. It would also cut back on needing to trade anyone established. That may need to happen to have the space needed to pay the RFAs he keeps, but it does not have to be a huge one.

Why Chicago May Consider Moving Koekkoek: Of all of the pending RFAs Chicago has, Slater Koekkoek is probably the most likely to be moved. It is not that Chicago thinks he is not needed now. The 26-year old left-shooting defenseman was lined up on the right side - his off-hand - on a pairing with Olli Maatta in Game 1 against Edmonton. Additionally, Chicago kept him on the NHL roster throughout last season and dressed him for 42 games. Through most of the season, though, Koekkoek was limited to third-pairing minutes. Per, he averaged the fifth most total minutes among Chicago defensemen and eighth in even strength ice time per game at 15:24. He was not utilized on special teams to any significant degree. Chicago’s blueline was hit with several injuries, such as to Brent Seabrook and, Calvin de Haan. Were they healthy, it is possible Koekkoek would have been a scratch more often than he was. The point is that he was basically a third-pairing defender.

The Chicago roster for the play-in series includes Nick Seeler, Beaudin, Lucas Carlsson, and Regula. All four are younger than Koekkoek and Regula is a right-sided defenseman. It would not be out of the question for Chicago management to want to see whether any of those four could take on Koekkoek’s limited minutes in the future. If they see Koekkoek as someone to play on his offhand, then they have someone in their system who naturally plays that side. If they see him as a left-sided player, then Seeler, Beaudin, and Carlsson could all compete for his spot. Just as importantly, all four are already signed for next season so Bowman does not need to add a contract or add to his cap to have them. They just need to be in Chicago with the Blackhawks. And three of those four got a taste of that in this past season: one appearance for Beaudin, six each for Carlsson and Seeler. This suggests to me that it is possible that Koekkoek is expendable for the near future.

Moving Koekkoek would address both the cap and contract issues. It would be one fewer player Bowman has to sign. It would also open up a roster spot for the defensemen in the system that they have been cultivating.

Why New Jersey May Want Koekkoek: Why would the Devils or any other team want a third-pairing defenseman from a bad Chicago team? Simply, Koekkoek was actually pretty good in the role for Chicago.

Since he did not play on special teams for Chicago, his work at 5-on-5 is even more crucial. According to Natural Stat Trick, Koekkoek did very well compared to his peers. When Koekkoek was on the ice, Chicago had 51.86% of the shooting attempts (best among Chicago defenders), 49.55% of the shots (third best among Chicago defenders, second among regulars), 51.45% of the scoring chances (second best among defenders, first was Beaudin’s one game), and 51% of the high-danger scoring chances (best among Chicago defenders). The team’s expected goals for percentage with Koekkoek was 53.75%, which was not just the best among Chicago defensemen but at least 5% better than every one of them. The against rates for Koekkoek in 5-on-5 were also very good among his teammates. The CA/60 of 53.79 was the best on the team by at least three attempts per sixty. The SA/60 of 31.54 was also the best on the team. The SCA/60 of 26.9 and HDCA/60 of 11.65 were bested only by those who had brief times with the squad. The xGA/60 of 2.2 was the best and the GA/60 rate was not much higher at 2.27. These are all great numbers in the context of the team he played on in 2019-20.

It is possible that Koekkoek benefited from very good teammates and the limited minutes meant relatively easier competition. However, the larger point remains: when Koekkoek was on the ice, Chicago did quite well in 5-on-5. This suggests he does well on a third pairing.

The Devils certainly had issues among their blueliners last season. There are plenty of questions at hand. How do you get more out of P.K. Subban? Do we just hope that Will Butcher just had a rough season and will bounce back in 2020-21? How should the team fill in the minutes Andy Greene played? Can Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl make the leap to the NHL for next season? There is one more which I think is important even though it is a lower profile issue: How do you improve the depth on defense such that they do not get wrecked?

This may shock some of you, but Mirco Mueller was really bad last season. Frederik Claesson was only a little better than Mueller in his short time with the Devils. Connor Carrick was arguably worse than Mueller in 5-on-5, which is also somewhat shocking. As much attention as the top end of the blueline does and should get, the Devils could use improvements to their bottom pairing and depth defenders. Smith and Bahl may help out, but asking players to jump from junior to the NHL and expect them to contribute is a lot. The team could use a third pairing caliber defender who can be good at the job, or at least be much better than Claesson, Mueller, or Carrick. Someone who may not also mind if/when Smith and Bahl get some games or shifts ahead of him to see what they can do. Someone who is not going to cost a lot to fill in this role. That someone could very well be Slater Koekkoek.

Why New Jersey Would Be Willing to Part with a Fourth Rounder for Koekkoek: Most of the focus for the 2020 NHL Draft for the Devils is the potential of having up to three first round picks. They do not have their second or third round pick for this year’s draft. However, they do have two fourth rounders right now. They have their own and Boston’s fourth rounder from the Marcus Johansson trade in 2019. If Sami Vatanen plays today for Carolina, then they could have a third fourth rounder they can use. While that Vatanen-provided pick could upgrade to a third rounder, the Devils can afford to move at least one of their fourth round picks. These picks are generally long shots for a prospect to even make it to the NHL, much less have a career there. For every Miles Wood found in the fourth, there are tens (hundreds?) more that do not get a look in the best hockey league in the world. Therefore, if they can be moved for a NHL player, then it is usually a good idea to move it. That is also why I do not mind if it is either New Jersey’s fourth, Boston’s fourth, or, depending on what happens in the Qualifying Round, Carolina’s fourth.

Why Chicago Would At Least Consider This Return: Given their cap space and contract limit situations, the Blackhawks cannot afford an actual player in return. Even if they are signed for next season already, that would still be another contract on the books taking up even some cap space. Unless Bowman can flip that quickly, that does not solve their issues. It would be one thing if the player is on their entry level contract and that deal could slide. However, the Devils only have two players with that slide-rule designation for next season (pending any signings from the 2020 draft class): Nikita Okhotyuk and Nolan Foote. The Devils are not going to deal Foote for a third-pairing defender. He was a big piece in the return from the Blake Coleman trade, too. I doubt Fitzgerald will move him for just a depth defenseman. Okhotyuk would not be as big of a loss as moving Foote would since the Devils have other defenders in the system like him. However, since the Blackhawks already have plenty of defensemen in their system, I do not think they would be interested. What Chicago needs is room for their cap and fewer contracts. A draft pick would be ideal as a return.

Given their situation, Chicago cannot be too demanding over what draft pick it would be. As Koekkoek is a third-pairing defenseman, he is not going to command a very high one in general. With Bowman needing space, it may be in his best interest to take whatever is offered. It could be seen as an upgrade over what he dealt away to bring Koekkoek to Chicago. Back in January 11, 2019, Chicago traded defenseman Jan Rutta and a seventh round pick in 2019 to Tampa Bay for Koekkoek and a fifth round pick in 2019. A fourth rounder is higher than either pick involved in that deal. Again, Chicago can ill-afford to take a player back unless it is for a player on an ELC that can slide or someone Bowman can flip elsewhere. Rather than not qualifying him or another player, he can say he got something in return and be able to move on with business.

What Would Happen After this Deal: Chicago would have an fourth round pick at their disposal. they could use it, package it to move up in the draft. They could offer it to someone else to move down for an extra pick. Most importantly, Bowman would have one less player to need to re-sign to a contract. They would likely need to clear more space to cover all three of Kubalik, Strome, and Caggiula, but the situation would be a little easier to manage. The defensemen in Chicago’s defensemen would have a spot to fight for. I would like to think out of Beaudin, Seeler, Carlson, and Regular, one of them could fill a depth role.

With Koekkoek acquired, the Devils can sign him to a short-term deal in the low seven figure range. His current one-season deal of $925,000 following previous six-figure contracts suggests that he could be retained for another season or two at less than $1.5 million per season. This gives the Devils someone for their third pairing on the left side without totally blocking a pathway for Smith or Bahl to make the team. They can let Claesson walk and be in a better position to entertain offers to move Mueller, too. Will Koekkoek make the Devils defense significantly better or solve their biggest issues? No. Could he provide solid play for fifteen minutes per game? Possibly, yes. If he does end up being a disaster on defense, then a short-term deal would make it easy for Fitzgerald to move on from. The cost of a fourth round pick would not be burdensome should that happen.

One Last Point: Koekkoek is pronounced “Coo-Coo”

What Do You Think: I understand this is not a big deal. Not many will think Koekkoek for a fourth will capture the imagination of fans waiting for the offseason to happen. Nor will it be something that however, these are the kind of minor deals that can help improve a team. Fitzgerald needs to make those happen as well as the more substantial ones. I think this is a deal that is not out of the realm of possibility. It is certainly not ridiculously one-sided as both sides get some benefit out of the deal. And when you think about a trade proposal, I think it is important to make sure there are benefits for both sides.

That is how I see it. I want to know what you think. Would you be interested in a Koekkoek for a 2020 fourth round pick trade? Do you think it is a plausible offer? Who would say no in such a deal? Who else on Chicago should the Devils aim for in a deal, if not Koekkoek? What would you offer instead and why? Please leave your thoughts about this proposal as well as other proposals you have in mind. Again, we are going to present our more modest trade ideas throughout the week. If you would like to discuss what is happening in the Qualifying Rounds, then please check out this post instead. Thank you for reading.