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An Early 2021 NHL Trade Deadline Primer for the New Jersey Devils Fan

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The 2021 NHL Trade Deadline is three weeks away from today. What should New Jersey Devils fans expect for this year’s trade deadline? Who among the Devils pending free agents has the most value? This post has the answers and more.

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals
Kyle Palmieri, a likely trade target from the Devils.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Do not panic, but the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline is in three weeks from today. The last chance for teams to make trades will be by 3 PM ET on April 12. As such, more and more trade rumors are coming the fold. The New Jersey Devils are definitely a team that has been brought up in more than a couple. The team is basically all but out of the playoff race in the East Division so they are expected to be sellers. However, as with everything else this year, the trade deadline has more complications than usual. Therefore, it makes sense to look at the landscape now before things heat up over the next 21 days.

What is the NHL Trade Deadline Again?

The NHL Trade Deadline is the last day within the season for teams to trade players. All trades must be registered with the league’s offices by 3 PM ET. Under normal circumstances, the 23-man active roster limit is lifted after the deadline and teams are limited to four non-emergency call-ups through the rest of the season. This may be relaxed given that all teams are required to have a taxi squad. What will not be relaxed is that all teams must still be compliant to the salary cap (and salary floor) and the limit of fifty NHL contracts. Essentially, the stretch run to close out the 2021 regular season will begin at 3:01 PM ET on April 12. Which will be shorter than usual as everyone is playing on some kind of compressed schedule.

What Did the Devils Do Last Season?

As Ray Shero was fired in January, Tom Fitzgerald oversaw the Devils and made moves by last season’s deadline. His work helped ownership decide to take off the interim tag and be the team’s general manager. Here are the main deals that Fitzgerald made last year:

The Devils were sellers last season as they were way out of the playoff race in 2019 during the 2019-20 season. As sad as it was to see Coleman go, the Devils obtained a first and one of Tampa Bay’s better prospects. The Vatanen trade turned out to be a net positive as the conditional pick was upgraded, Kuokkanen is a regular on the current team, and the Devils were able to re-sign Vatanen as a free agent. Your mileage may vary on whether the latter is a good signing, but the Devils came out ahead in that deal. The value of the Greene trade is To Be Determined as the second round pick will be used this year.

Will the Devils be Buyers or Sellers at This Season’s Deadline?

They be sellers again. However, unlike most selling teams, Fitzgerald is in a position of a little strength.

As the NHL kept the salary cap flat for 2020-21 (and it may be for some time after), a lot of NHL teams are right up against the ceiling. According to CapFriendly prior to Sunday’s win against Pittburgh, there are 10 teams who are technically over the salary cap and are only compliant due to players on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR). There are another 10 teams who have a projected salary cap space fewer than $1 million, with five of those ten achieving that with LTIR space. While LTIR does mean some teams have some cap space to work with, it is by no means guaranteed. When players are eligible to return, then they must return and teams must have the cap space to do so. The relief provided by LTIR is meant to be temporary. If you would like to know more about the ins and outs of LTIR, then check out CapFriendly’s LTIR FAQ. The main point to know is that the majority of the NHL is not so free to make moves as it may seem.

The New Jersey Devils are not among the majority of the NHL. They have a projected cap space of roughly $8.6 million. Due to the fact that the season is beyond the halfway point, the Devils can take on as much as $20 million. The Devils can do a lot of teams a favor and eat an expensive contract for a moment. Of course, favors in this league come at a cost and Fitzgerald surely knows that.

Additionally, one of the popular Devils in trade rumors is Kyle Palmieri. Per The Fourth Period, he’s already linked to the Islanders, Boston, Edmonton, and Pittsburgh in trade rumors. Per this one Craig Custance article The Athletic, an unnamed executive states the price for Palmieri should be a second and a prospect that is not one of the team’s top three. However, if more teams inquire about him, then Fitzgerald can drive up the price for a deal. That same unnamed executive already guessed on a late first rounder possibly being in play for Palmieri. This is also in Fitzgerald’s favor.

It is not much, but it is better than being in a spot where all the team can do is move as many assets as possible and just accept whatever is offered.

What Are This Season’s Deadline Challenges?

One unique challenge is the Coronavirus. Due to increased restrictions in Canada, a player has to quarantine two weeks before joining the team. Seven teams are in the all-Canadian North Division. This may make the 24 teams in America balk on making a deal with a team up North. Or it may require those teams to make a deal well before the deadline so the player has more time to acclimate to their new team.

Another unique challenge is the salary cap. Again, the majority of the league has very limited projected cap space. The teams currently compliant by way of LTIR either know those players are going to stay there or they need to keep space open if and when those players are able to recover. This does not mean calls and discussions for possible moves will not happen. However, when it comes to make deals happen, the financials are going to be tricky for some teams and perhaps enough to not pursue too many by April 12.

A third somewhat unique challenge are the standings. It is clear that the Devils are not a playoff team. They are 12 points behind Boston, who has played the same number of games as the Devils. They would be unlikely to jump Our Hated Rivals and Philadelphia to get close to Boston, much less surpass them. Their recent play does not suggest they will. They will likely be sellers. The problem is that several teams may see themselves as closer to the playoffs than the Devils. Take the Central Division, for example. Columbus is currently in fourth with Chicago right behind them along with Dallas behind them by five points with five games in hand on them. Those are three teams that may not be thinking about being sellers at the deadline, even though two will definitely miss out on the postseason. If a team does not think they are all that good but do not want to give up on the season, then they may stay in place at the deadline. I could see all three of them doing so, in fact.

A fourth challenge, or complication, is the impending expansion draft for Seattle. The format will be the same when Las Vegas entered the league. Teams can protect one goaltender, three defensemen, and seven forwards; or they can protect eight skaters and one defensemen. They have to expose at least two forwards, a defenseman, and a goaltender who are signed through next season and met a games played requirement. This will definitely in the back of the minds of GMs throughout the league and it could be another consideration in making a deal happen. (Aside: Let’s discuss how the Devils should address the Seattle expansion draft next week, OK?)

All four factors combined may mean there are fewer buyers and sellers at the deadline than usual. This could end up leading to a quieter trade deadline. Of course, this has not stopped the speculation and rumors in the hockey world.

Who Should the Devils Trade Away?

The Devils are re-building, for better or for worse. This means they should seek to get what they can for players on expiring contracts and moving on from players who may not have a long future for the Devils. The Devils should being aiming for picks, prospects, and perhaps players who could potentially be NHL players soon. They can take on an expensive contract to make the money work for the short-term, but they should not be committing a lot of money for the long-term as the Devils may need to spend a lot of money in 2022 on new deals for Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Will Butcher, and, most importantly, Jack Hughes.

The Devils have 12 players who are set to be unrestricted free agents (UFAs) after this season. This means they are free agents in the truest sense of the term. They can speak to any team and sign with them for whatever reason. The Devils would get nothing if they do so. Trading them away by April 12 will allow the Devils to get something. However, other NHL teams may not share a lot of interest in most of them. Here is how I would tier the 12 pending UFAs.

Little to No Trade Value:

  • Ben Street - 34 year old minor league center with Binghamton
  • Connor Carrick - 26 year old right-sided defenseman currently with Binghamton and cleared waivers once already
  • Josh Jacobs - 25 year old left-sided defenseman who has never broke through at the NHL level
  • Matt Tennyson - 30 year old right-sided defenseman who is marginal at best at the NHL level and, like Carrick, already cleared waivers
  • Aaron Dell - 31 year old goaltender, who is currently the #3 goalie in NJ and will not likely be moved.

At Least a Little Trade Value:

  • Scott Wedgewood - 28 year old goaltender on a two-way deal who has played impressively in his time in New Jersey this season. He took the #2 job from Dell and he was New Jersey’s #1 goaltender when Blackwood was out. It is possible he is just having a hotter campaign than usual. It is also really unlikely New Jersey would give him up either. But I could see a team or two asking about his availability.
  • Sami Vatanen - 29 year old defenseman who can play both sides but has not played all that well in New Jersey. What was telling was that he was still a free agent as late as December 2020. While he has been a regular in New Jersey, his 5-on-5 numbers have paled in comparison to the other regulars on the blueline this season. I do not think the Devils will be able to turn him into a pick, a prospect, and a marginal player for a second straight season. Although, if he gets some more production going and some better appearances, a team may take a flyer on him for a low cost (e.g. a third rounder or less).

Enough Trade Value to Take Calls On, But A Deal Isn’t Guaranteed:

  • Ryan Murray - 27 year old left sided defenseman whom the Devils took a chance on in a minor trade with Columbus prior to this season. Murray’s effectiveness has been hard to gauge. On the one hand, his 5-on-5 on-ice rates have not been good. Worse than Vatanen in some stats, in fact. On the other hand, his defensive-minded play style is something the Devils did need on the left side of the defense and he has fit in, for better or worse. The bigger concern is the one thing that has not come up (yet?) for the Devils: injuries. Murray was very capable when healthy for Columbus but there were past issues with his back. While I can see teams wanting to add a more experienced defender at the deadline, his injury history may give them pause. So is the fact that his cap hit is $4.6 million.
  • Nikita Gusev - 29 year old winger who has been a shell of his former self. Rather, a shell of his former self from the second half of last season. The first few months of Gusev in New Jersey were rough as he was constantly out of sync with the rest of the team and failing to make much of anything happen in either end of the rink. Gusev played much better after November 2019 and I would have thought it was due to him acclimating to the NHL game. This season, Goose has been more of a ghost. He was a healthy scratch for several games and few fans really missed him. While he has a solid enough CF% of 52.79%, his SF% of 46.11% and xGF% of 40.41 (!!) is jarring as it is disappointing. He has two goals from 45 shots this season in 20 games and both were consolation goals in 6-on-5 situations that changed nothing about the game. It has been a dissapointing 2021 for Gusev in New Jersey and it may be best to move on from him now. His offensive skillset could get some suitors. I would like to think his recent usage on power plays may mean he is being showcased because he has been too invisible to use in those situations otherwise. It will be tricky as Gusev’s contract has a cap hit of $4.5 million and he has an eight-team no trade clause too. But it may be time for this Goose to migrate.
  • Travis Zajac - 35 year old center who has been a lifer with the Devils through good times and bad. Selfishly, I would like the Devils to not trade him. I would like him to at least play out this season in New Jersey before he leaves. His role will be tough to fill in as he does a little bit of everything. He can be used for tough match-ups in 5-on-5, he can be used in both penalty kill and power play situations, he can be used in extra man situations, and he has a wealth of experience that is nothing but helpful for a young team. You may not be all that impressed with Zajac, especially if you have only seen the Devils in recent seasons. But it is a tough role to fill up. Zajac has had some rough games in the run of play, but he was solid as solid could be in January and he has been useful in recent games. The real challenge in moving Zajac is his contract. His cap hit of $5.75 million will be tough for a lot of teams to fit in and the contract has a no trade clause. Zajac can control where he may end up and who knows if he wants to go to the teams that may want him. He may want to go somewhere more competitive, but he could stay as a Devil on April 13.

Plenty of Value, Enough that I am Already Starting to Miss Them:

  • Dmitry Kulikov - 30 year old left sided defenseman who has played quite well over the course of the 2021 season. Sure, he has had some bad games and moments. Very few players in this league do not. Over the course of this season, the Devils have been very good in 5-on-5 when Kulikov has been on the ice with an astounding 55.7% xGF that leads the Devils defensemen by far. Despite his skillset and lack of production, he has fit in well to a Devils system that wants the defensemen to activate. Most of all, his cap hit is a much easier fit for most teams as it is only $1.15 million. It is a bit of a trope that playoff teams seek to add a veteran defenseman for depth. Kulikov could be that guy for a lot of teams and for a small cap hit. I think he will be a popular player that Fitzgerald will field questions about for the next three weeks.
  • Kyle Palmieri - 30 year old right winger who has scored a lot of goals as a Devil, except for this season. Ever since the Devils traded for him, he has scored 137 goals for the team. Corey Masisak at The Athletic ($) had an article where Palmieri’s agent noted that the players who have scored around that many goals at around his agent have contracts worth at least $6 million average accrued value. While Palmieri wants to stay and the Devils may want him to stay, the next contract Palmieri could be asking for could be more expensive than it is worth. As much as he is the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey and as much as I can believe he will not be this ice cold at shooting the puck (his current Sh% of 7.6% is a career low), I do not think Palmieri will be worth $6-7 million on the Devils’ cap as he gets older. I do not even think he is worth that much now even with his low number of goals scored. And given that the Devils will have to spend a lot of money in 2022, I do not want the Devils to trade a younger player because of Palmieri’s potentially monster deal. One of the big issues that Fitzgerald will need to sort out is identifying top-six wingers to build around with Hughes and Hischier. Is a 31 year old Palmieri one of those players? Would he be one of those players at 34 or 35 years old, should he want a four or five season deal? It may be better to move on from him now rather than sign a big deal that is likely to become a big anchor on the books. Especially since there are multiple teams interested him.

Overall, I think Palmieri and Kulikov would extract the most value in trades. They could get something good from Murray, Zajac, and Gusev too. But those players would be trickier to move, as well as trickier to fill in should the Devils trade them. This is another consideration for Fitzgerald. Ideally, he would have someone in mind to step into the lineup if/when a player is traded. I would not want the Devils to trade, say, both Kulikov and Murray to force less skilled (Tennyson, Carrick) players into the lineup or hope prospective defensemen can not get overwhelmed now (Bahl, Okhotiuk).

What About Players Signed Through 2021? Can Any of Them Be Moved?

It is unlikely that the Devils will be able to trade any players who are signed beyond this season. The cap situations of other teams will make it tougher as it will require them to have room for this season and next season for them. Plus, I cannot imagine teams will want to give up a lot for players who are committed to the seventh-place New Jersey Devils. That said, there are a few names that Fitzgerald should consider if a team inquires about them.

  • Miles Wood - The left winger is tied for the team lead in goals, largely built from a hot streak from earlier this season. He is very much a middle-six or bottom-six winger. Good for chasing pucks and bringing speed on the ice. Not so good when the game slows down, he is asked to play defense, or he is required to be more technical on the puck. As a result, his 5-on-5 on-ice rates are not going to impress many people. I know he has his fans, but I am unsure if he is one of those wingers that the Devils should retain to build around the two young centers. If a team like, say, Edmonton, comes calling with a decent package, then it may be worth moving on from him now than sweating over a potential new contract in 2022. It could be a case of selling high, depending on how you perceive him.
  • Will Butcher - The left sided defenseman hit the ground running as a free agent from college. Since the 2017-18 season, his effectiveness has fallen off. Butcher is not fast, he is not big, and his offensive game carries the most value. Butcher is now at a point where he has been relegated to being scratched with only 8 games played this season. Even behind players like Tennyson and Vatanen, when they have struggled. I get the sense that the current coaching staff does not think much of Butcher. If a team calls up about his availability, then Fitzgerald may be wise to make a move now rather than hope Butcher earns a spot on defense. I do not think many teams will want him with a cap hit of $3.7 million, but if he is asked about, then Fitzgerald should at least listen to the offer.
  • Andreas Johnsson - Johnsson struggled at the start of this season, looked better when next to Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes, and has been relegated to fourth line duty. There have been some games where he was benched. I was excited when Fitzgerald traded for him. However, he has not been the top-six left winger I was hoping he would be. He has some great looking 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats but it has not translated to production or consistent ice time. The coaches certainly do not think so with how he has been used. His contract lasts for another two seasons with a cap hit of $3.4 million and the final season adds a modified no-trade clause. I just do not think he is a good fit and unless something changes, it may be worth exploring options to move on now rather than later.

Who or What Should the Devils Not Trade?

In a sport where Wayne Gretzky was traded, it is hard to believe that there are untouchable players on the team. That stated, the Devils should absolutely not entertain any deals involving Mackenzie Blackwood, Nico Hischier, or Jack Hughes. For better or worse, these are the players the team is building around. Given that Bratt has been a legit winger to play well alongside Hughes, I would not seek to move him either.

The Devils should not be in the business of trading any picks unless they are going to get someone to play an important role for them right now. The Devils acquired Kyle Palmieri for a second round pick back in 2015 (and a third round pick in 2016, thanks TheUnseenHand for catching the initial error). If the Devils can get a player of that caliber for a pick, then by all means, make that deal. However, the first rounders for this and next year should be off the table. The Devils’ first round pick in 2021 is set to be a top-ten selection and the 2022 first round could be incredibly loaded with talent. With only one second rounder for 2021, a potentially late one from the Islanders, it would take a lot to move that too unless the Devils can pick up another second round pick from another trade.

Other than those assets, I think everyone and everything else is worth discussing.

What Happens Now?

We wait. The Devils have eleven games to play between now and the trade deadline. They are idle on the 12th. The home game against Pittsburgh on the night of April 11 is the last chance for the Devils to show off any players they intend to deal. I would pay particular attention to whether anyone unexpected is a healthy scratch that night. Nothing will ruin a deal faster than an in-game injury. Of course, the bigger deals may end up happening before the deadline itself similar to how Greene and Coleman were dealt away last year.

For the day itself, we will have an open post for all of you, the People Who Matter, to discuss the deadline day activities as it happens. If and when trades happen, we will try to get a post up in a timely manner to discuss it. As ever, we will continue to roll on with the season.

Will these three weeks be the last time we see Palmieri, Kulikov, Zajac, Gusev, or Murray in New Jersey? What would you expect in a return? Please leave your answers in the comments and discuss what you think the Devils should do by this year’s trade deadline and what you think the Devils will do by this year’s deadline. Thank you for reading.