This afternoon, the New Jersey Devils announced that they are bringing back defenseman Sami Vatanen. Scott Burnside was among the first to report it on Twitter. The team formally announced the signing a little after that. The team’s release also stated that the Devils signed Vatanen to a one-season contract worth $2 million.
Vatanen is very familiar with the New Jersey Devils. He was acquired from Anaheim back in 2017 in a trade involving Adam Henrique. Vatanen was a mainstay on the Devils’ blueline until February 2020. While injured at the time, Carolina agreed to a deal where the Devils retained half of Vatanen’s salary and sent forward Janne Kuokkanen, defenseman Frederik Claesson, and a conditional pick in 2020. Ahead of the Return to Play tourney, the conditions on that pick were modified. If Vatanen played in at least 70% of Carolina’s playoff games and Carolina won their play-in series, it would be a third round pick. Vatanen did play for Carolina, Carolina did beat Our Hated Rivals, and the Devils were awarded with Carolina’s third round pick. It was used on goaltender Nico Daws, a fine third round pick. Kuokkanen is in training camp competing for a roster spot, Claesson is gone, and now Vatanen is back. Clearly, all ended well for that trade.
I feel bad for Vatanen in that there was not enough interest for him on the open market. I would have thought playing for Carolina would have helped his cause. So was the fact that he played quite a bit for the Devils last season. He finished third to Damon Severson and P.K. Subban in terms of ice time per game; Vatanen averaged 21:45 per game per NHL.com. Vatanen also played in all situations for the Devils with a remarkable average of just over three minutes per game on the power play and just under two minutes on the penalty kill. Vatanen was effectively given the keys to the Devils’ first power play unit as its lone defenseman following Subban and Will Butcher falling out of favor with the coaching staff. I will have more details about Vatanen and the special teams in the coming days as part of this site’s season preview.
How did the Devils play when Vatanen was on the ice? According to Natural Stat Trick, on the surface, not well but nobody on the Devils had good on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play last season. When Vatanen was on the ice, the Devils had a Corsi For% of 47.78%, a Shots For% of 48.61%, a Scoring Chance For% of 44.29%, and a High-Danger Scoring Chance For% of 49.55%. Aside from the last one, those are pretty bad - and yet that CF% and SF% value was the second best among Devils defensemen last season. The real issue was that when Vatanen was on the ice, the Devils were not productive. When he was on the ice, the Devils had a per-60 minute Expected Goals For rate of 2.02 and they actually scored 2.06. They also had a per-60 minute Expected Goals Against Rate of 2.26 (better than every Devils defenseman except for Severson, four games of Claesson, and somehow Matt Tennyson) and the Devils allowed a rate of 2.72 goals per 60 minutes. That negative goal difference can yield to some more unfavorable opinion’s of Vatanen’s game. A quick peek at the Devils’ defensemen on-ice relative rate stats show that when Vatanen stepped on the ice, the offensive rates suffered a lot more than the defensive ones. That also suggests that Vatanen’s poor 5-on-5 numbers may have been a victim of others. While Vatanen played quite a bit with Nico Hischier, Nikita Gusev, and Kyle Palmieri, he also played a lot with Wayne Simmonds, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha. The three were definitely bad in 5-on-5 play last season. My point is that he may not have been as his 5-on-5 rate stats suggest at first glance.
So is bringing him back a good idea? I think so. I think it is fine given the state of the Devils blueline. While the Devils brought in Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov, the team’s depth still left something to be desired on the right side of the blueline. The options, as far as I could tell from camp so far, have been Connor Carrick, Matt Tennyson, and Ty Smith. Ty Smith has a bright future but he is just 20 and throwing him right into a NHL season with no preseason games may be too much at this point. Matt Tennyson can be described as a AAAA player - someone who is quality in the AHL but not really up to it in the NHL. He is fine to be a spare player to fill in here and there, but not someone you would necessarily want playing every night. Connor Carrick was bodied in the run of play last season. Given that situation, I can understand bringing in another veteran for just this season - an unusual season at that - and Vatanen fits that well.
Not to mention that Vatanen gives the Devils more flexibility among their defensemen. In a 56-game season with a lot of consecutive games against opponents and games packed together, this is quite useful. If Murray or Kulikov gets hurt, Vatanen can slide over to the left side and fill in the gap. Vatanen can also perform on a power play or a penalty kill as needed; something else that I would not want to entrust to Tennyson or Carrick and I am not sure Smith is ready for yet. It will be very curious as to how the Devils coaching staff utilizes Vatanen. Vatanen is familiar with Alain Nasreddine, who can speak to what Vatanen can do. Less so with Lindy Ruff and Mark Recchi, but that will come with time. But based on his time in New Jersey last season and in seasons prior, he provides options for the mostly-new coaching staff. Having options is generally better than not having options.
Getting those options also does not strain the Devils’ cap in any way. Before today, the Devils had the third-most cap space in the league. Now with a projected amount of roughly $8.47 million per CapFriendly, the Devils have the fourth-most cap space in the league. They still have at least eight contract spots open. Their flexibility with respect to the cap and roster is still quite good after this signing. The signing also has the small reminder that General Manager Tom Fitzgerald is still active. Hopefully the next signing will be for Jesper Bratt - who is still in Sweden.
Ultimately, I like the signing. I think it strengthens the Devils defensive depth. Vatanen provides more options among the defense for special teams. His signing does not mean they need to rush Smith into NHL action right away or hope Carrick or Tennyson are not a weak link on an already-suspect Devils defense in 5-on-5 play. If Smith is ready for NHL hockey, then Vatanen would not necessarily block him (depending on when Smith is ready, it may be different defenseman making way for the young man). If Vatanen does well and the Devils are out of it by April, then he can be traded again for further assets - even to Carolina again. I do not really see much of a downside with this signing.
Now that you know what I think about Vatanen being brought back, I want to know what you think. Do you like that the Devils are bringing back Vatanen for this coming season? How do you think he will be used? Is Vatanen definitely the best Finnish player to have played for the Devils (Esa Tikkanen doesn’t count, he only played a few games with NJ)? Please leave your answers to these questions and further thoughts about Vatanen in the comments. Please vote in the poll below just to get your quick feelings on it. Thank you for reading.
The New Jersey Devils brought back Sami Vatanen for a one-season, $2 million contract. What do you think of the signing?
This poll is closed
I love it!
I like the signing.
I don’t know / I’m in the middle on it.
I don’t like the signing.
I hate it!