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Modest Trade Proposals for the New Jersey Devils: Targeting Olli Määttä

Taking a cue from John’s Monday post, I look at the Devils potentially targeting a slightly higher-profile player from the Blackhawks — two-time Cup Champ, Olli Määttä

Chicago Blackhawks v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Yesterday, Brian took my idea and decided to target a Erik Cernak — a very good young defender that is going underused because his team, Tampa, (who can’t pay him) has blueliners even more talented. So I looked for another cash-strapped team interested in dumping cap hit, preferably with some defenders worth pilfering and landed on Chicago, only to recognize that John did that on Monday. However, luckily for me, John chose a different player than I did. And, I think the differences between the two players are very important and warrant a separate article.

John chose to target Slater Koekkoek — a logical choice given that he’s a pretty efficient player, and Chicago would barely miss him. My target is slightly less efficient, but has a much larger sample size despite being the same age. He also is similarly used, but more expensive, so Chicago’s willingness to part may be even greater. I’m speaking about Olli Määttä.

The Target: Defenseman Olli Määttä of the Chicago Blackhawks

The Suggested Modest Trade Proposal: Olli Määttä for Janne Kuokkanen + 2020 BOS 4th rounder.

Why the Blackhawks Should Entertain Such a Deal: As John said, succinctly in Monday’s post: “the Blackhawks need cap space.” The goal to become more cap-compliant for a team that is up against the wire is to be able to avail themselves of multi-million dollar contracts without giving up much of what gives the team their identity. As of right now, Määttä is a 3rd pairing defender soaking up over $4M of cap space that the Blackhawks will need to sign their RFAs, some of whom have earned substantial pay raises (Kubalik, Strome) and a goalie. As far as what they’re getting in return, Janne Kuokkanen was flirting with a point-per-game pace down the stretch in the AHL and is probably due for a call-up. Nothing is more attractive to a cap-strapped team than ELC NHLers. And the extra 4th now gives them 4 picks in 2 rounds for 2020 — ample opportunity for a trade up into the uber-talented upper end of the 2020 NHL Draft.

Why Chicago May Consider Moving Määttä: Quite frankly, they seem to not feel he’s very good. During this season, Määttä was a 3rd pairing defender that only very occasionally saw 2nd-pairing minutes at even-strength. He played on the 2nd PK unit and never on the PP. They acquired him for Dominik Kahun and a 5th round pick — this deal would represent a recapturing of that value. Which they want because, again, he is costing them over $4 million. Chicago is set on the left side with Duncan Keith and Calvin De Haan as the top 2 and whoever they want as the 3rd pairing — Koekkoek is one example. They don’t need Määttä, which is fortunate because they can’t afford him.

Why New Jersey May Want Määttä: Why would the Devils want an overpaid, underused, defender? Here’s the quick explanation: Määttä is a reliable left-handed defender with 2 cup rings that’s still only 25-years-old, showing no sign of slowing down, and kills penalties effectively.

He fit’s like a puzzle piece perfectly into the most pressing need of the Devils’ current roster. We don’t want old players because we’re looking to the future. Will Butcher is the only legitimate NHL lefty on the roster. We have extremely limited postseason experience on the team. And we just traded our entire top penalty killer. Also, while you may not expect it given his deployment, he was actually the most valuable defenceman on Chicago this past season according to Evolving-Hockey’s GAR. And he did it by being a positive or neutral contributor in all components. He wasn’t the best defender, he wasn’t the best offender(?), but his cumulative impact was one of a very important player.

And he’s been quitely doing this his whole career. This is Määttä’s SPAR (Standings Points Above Replacement) timeline — his value in units of standings points. Remember my point about consistency. When looking at this.

Määttä has NEVER been a sub-replacement player. On average, he tends to be worth about 2.5 standings points a year, which is about a half a standard deviation above average — that puts him in the 75th-80th percentile of skaters. He’s also never been over 1 SD above the mean either. He’s never been dominant, he’s always been above average.

Why New Jersey Would Be Willing to Part with a Kuokkanen and a pick: I don’t think we’re looking to get rid of good young forward talent more than any other team. But Kuokkanen is 22, has been held pointless in 12 NHL games so far, and, though his value appears to be high right now coming off a strong AHL finish, some perspective on this is that the probability that he lands in the NHL long-term is still fairly low.

via HockeyProspecting

Between this, and the fact that the Boston pick is a redundancy for that round, I think the Devils get something valuable without needing to give up much, here.

What Would Happen After this Deal: My guess is that, after this move (and the end of Crawford’s $8M, Chicago would move to re-sign either/both of their RFA forwards (EvolvingWild has Kubalik and Strome projected for $5.5M and $3.3M, respectively) in addition to at least one reasonably-priced NHL netminder. Given that the 2020 is loaded at the top, and the Blackhawks would have 4 mid-rounders, I’d expect them to bide their time and wait for a player they like to fall in the 1st or 2nd round and then pounce, trading up using one or both of their extra picks to nab another key piece for their future, perhaps adding one of the top 2020 defenders to the likes of Dach, Kubalik, DeBrincat, etc.

Meanwhile, the Devils would have plugged the ginormous gaping hole left by Andy Greene — specifically a penalty-killing lefty capable of 2nd-pairing minutes. Ray Shero probably wanted Mirco Mueller to fill that role (which is why he gave up a 2nd and a 4th for him) and Olli Määttä can be the solution Shero wanted Mueller to be. They could now call up someone like Ty Smith without worrying about needing to force him or Butcher into a role for which they’re not suited. And in doing so, all we’ve given up is a 22-year-old AHLer, and a redundant mid-round pick.

My Thoughts: I kept re-reading this deal from both teams vantage points and hating it, which is why I think it’s probably fair. The Blackhawks, who are currently vying for postseason position, give up something in Määttä and get nothing immediate, unless Kuokkanen plays in 2021. The Devils give up one of their top 5(?) prospects and a draft pick for a $4M defender and we still won’t have a top-pairing guy. But, the Devils get to fill their biggest hole without giving up a pillar, and the Blackhawks allow themselves space to sign theirs.

As far as pricing is concerned, I looked at some trades this past season involving similarly-talented defenders. Marco Scandella was one of the top comparables to Määttä when he was his age. He fetched a 2nd and a 2021 4th. The Sabres gave Vegas a 2021 2nd and a 2022 5th for Collin Miller. The Devils don’t have a 2020 2nd, and I thought the Blackhawks would want something ready sooner. So rather than delay the years, I chose Kuokkanen (a former 2nd rounder who’s retained his value, I’d argue) and the Boston pick for this draft.

Your Thoughts: What do you guys think? Which team wins this deal? Do you think it’s dumb for the better team to give up a player ready now to the team that’s clearly building for the future? Do you not want to give up Kuokkanen? Do you think the Blackhawks like Määttä more than his deployment indicates? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks as always for reading!