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Another NHL Trade Deadline of Selling for the New Jersey Devils - So Now What?

The 2021 NHL Trade Deadline ended with the New Jersey Devils seeing Sami Vatanen claimed on waivers and sending Dmitry Kulikov to Edmonton for a conditional pick. This post goes over what the Devils did, what Tom Fitzgerald said in a post-deadline press conference, and what we could see next from the Devils this season.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils
“I was the only one dealt today from New Jersey?” “Yes, Dmitry.” “The only one.” “Yes, Dmitry.” “I AM THE ONE.” “Sigh.”
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the ways I have been rationalizing this year’s trade activity in the weeks running up to today’s NHL Trade Deadline has been repeating this thought: The price of a good is, in theory, what the market will pay for it and not what an outsider like myself thinks it should be. I like oranges. Just because I think they should be worth $5 per pound does not mean my local ShopRite is going to sell them for that. Their customers, their people who matter, would want to pay much less per pound of delicious and nutritious oranges. It does not matter how logical my argument for $5/lb. oranges is or how it is fair value based on other produce. The market wants it for less, so it is sold for less. This is a simplification of how things work, but it matches with how the trades went in the NHL for this season.

This would also explain why we are in a world where Nick Foligno and the combination of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac yielded a better return than former MVP Taylor Hall. You probably already know what the Palmieri & Zajac deal was about. If not, then know that it was one of the few made that yielded a first round pick in return. One of the others was the Foligno deal. Foligno ended up in Toronto from a three-team trade and Columbus ended up with Toronto’s first in the process. The initial reports came right after midnight today that Buffalo traded Hall and Curtis Lazar to Boston for Anders Bjork and a second rounder. Yes, if we see Lazar and Bjork as similar players, Hall was effectively moved for what will be a late second round pick. It seems silly. I mean, it’s former MVP Taylor Hall. Yes, he has had a bad season in Buffalo. Have you seen the Sabres? Everyone has had a bad season there. But between his big deal, his no-movement clause, and the perception he carries, Boston made that offer and Buffalo (bizarrely) took it. That was apparently the market for Hall.

What will be fun is seeing Hall suit up for the B’s on Tuesday to make his Bruins debut against Buffalo of all teams. And the fact that the Bruins will play Buffalo five more times after tomorrow. Enjoy Purgatory, Our Hated Rivals.

Anyway, the Hall trade makes me feel better in retrospect about the return for Palmieri and Zajac. However, the Devils effectively cleared room for nothing in the days since then. Here is the summary of what happened to the Devils in terms of the roster:

In summary, the following Devils assets left the Devils within the last week: Palmieri with 50% retained salary, Zajac with 50% retained salary, Gusev, Vatanen, Kulikov, and Arizona’s third round pick this year. They brought in the Islanders’ first round pick this year, Siegenthaler, minor leaguer A.J. Greer, minor leaguer Mason Jobst, a conditional Islanders third round pick in 2022, and a conditional Edmonton fourth round pick in 2022. Other than the Siegenthaler acquisition, general manager Tom Fitzgerald cleared off more of the roster.

What is left? A very, very, very young team. The oldest forward on the team is Andreas Johnsson as eight forwards with ELCs are on the active roster. Siegenthaler is 23 and it is expected that the 26-year old Will Butcher will be in the regular lineup on defense for the moment, so the blueline’s average age dropped a bit too. P.K. Subban and Aaron Dell are the only ones in New Jersey over the age of 30. I do not think any Devils fan can complain about “the kids” not getting a chance.

It is also a team with very few unrestricted free agents of note. The only New Jersey Devils who are set to be UFAs after this season are Ryan Murray, Scott Wedgewood, and Dell. Fitzgerald will be very busy with restricted free agents in this offseason. But in terms of players who could walk, there are not that many and neither are difficult to replace.

It is also an organization that really did not add a lot of draft capital. Sure, they got an extra first for this year’s draft. That is significant. The rest? Less so. If Edmonton wins a playoff round - which is not at all guaranteed - then their 2022 pick becomes a third. Having extra third and fourths are nice to have but they are often just extra darts to throw at a distant board. Getting hits are rare and so those picks are not nearly as valuable as extra seconds. Especially when one has to wait another year before getting to use them.

What does Tom Fitzgerald think of all of this? After the Devils announced they were done, he held a press conference that was available online. He did praise how the team does not quit. He did note, several times, that the team is young and has much to grow and will continue to compete. He did state that he is excited to grow with the young team and regrets that Nico Hischier has been injured such that he missed most of this season. Fitzgerald did make some more interesting and specific points in response to some of the questions he received:

  • No one was really calling for trades for Vatanen. “Maybe” if he was moved to the taxi squad, which required waivers; but nothing certain. While he played while on waivers (Fitzgerald had to explain to a reporter that such a thing was allowed and does happen) and maybe there would have been something if he cleared, he did not regret putting him on after he was claimed.
  • No one made any offers to Fitzgerald for Ryan Murray that he felt were worth removing another veteran off of the roster.
  • He did specifically explain that the team had their eyes on Siegenthaler for sometime and figured he just needs an opportunity to play. They think he has some upside. That was the genesis for making that deal happen. He did state that he will get a chance to play and that Will Butcher will get a chance too.
  • In response to a question about Alexander Holtz signing a contract, Fitzgerald stated that they are working on it and dealing with his immigration status. There is no timeline; just that they are working on it.
  • In response to a question about lessons learned from Las Vegas ahead of the Seattle Expansion Draft, Fitzgerald specifically and curiously noted that he kept a third retention slot open on purpose. Maybe he will use it in this offseason. Teams can retain salary for up to three players in contracts. The Devils still have one open. Fitzgerald did not have to mention it, but he did.
  • In response to a question about who the team will be built around other than Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, Fitzgerald specifically mentioned and praised defenseman Ty Smith among Hughes, Hischier, and Mackenzie Blackwood.
  • Fitzgerald does not have an update on Pavel Zacha’s condition. He left yesterday’s game early with an apparent injury.
  • In response to a question about how the team has performed this season, Fitzgerald would agree that special teams and their failure to execute and perform hurt the team this season. He thinks the team has improved in 5-on-5 play compared with past seasons and the goaltenders have given them chances to win on most nights. But the special teams have hurt. He did note that the Coronavirus impacting the team was something out of their control, but it did hinder some players - Zajac, in particular.
  • Fitzgerald also thinks the team is trending in the right direction in terms of skill. He thinks he may need to supplement the roster with more grit and toughness (he did not define any of this).
  • Fitzgerald made it clear that he was not seeking a first round pick specifically for Palmieri and Zajac. He wanted the best deal and insisted that it was, so he took it.

Given that Fitzgerald could have given more boilerplate answers to some of these questions, I do appreciate some of his candor. I think he and I would have different definitions of “competitive hockey.” As much as I can understand that he is excited to grow along with this group, I think that if team does not show progress in 2021-22, then he will not get to grow along with this group. But I did appreciate the presser.

As far as today’s deadline, my final take is that what Fitzgerald could get was what it was. As much as I would have wanted more for Kulikov, there were not a lot of major moves made today and I got the sense that a lot of it was settling to get something rather than holding out for nothing. A lot of the deals today were minor deals where it seemed that more picks for future drafts were used to make them happen. Taylor Hall was the biggest name to be dealt and he garnered a second round pick from Boston and Buffalo needed to add Lazar to take back Bjork to make it work. If that was what he got, then my expectations for the Devils’ pending UFAs should have been lowered. It could have been worse than nothing. The larger NHL marketplace was not going to pay a lot for this year’s oranges and so most of them did not. (Exception: Washington going YOLO to get Anthony Mantha.)

What happens now? Well, it is The Week of Hate. A lot of disappointment, frustration, and re-build fatigue can go away with some wins over the next four games. In terms of the roster, Butcher is already active and Siegenthaler should be able to join the team soon. We saw Butcher fill in for Kulikov yesterday. Siegenthaler can fill in for Vatanen. The pairings may be changed as needed but Smith-Severson, Murray-Subban, and Siegenthaler-Butcher is a real possibility for tomorrow. Depending on availability, we could see a few from Binghamton get some spot duty here and there. At forward, Zacha’s injury makes him at least doubtful for tomorrow. He may be immediately replaced by another center, though. Per Amanda Stein, Lindy Ruff thinks Hischier could return to play tomorrow.

As for the rest of this season, it is about performing to stick around and preparing for next season. While the Devils only have three pending UFAs on the roster, there are five who are pending RFAs (seven if you include Nick Merkley on the taxi squad and Nathan Bastian on LTIR), and another six who will need a new deal after 2021-22 and can sign a new one after this season ends. There is a lot of opportunity for players to prove to management that they deserve to be in a role and in a role for quite some time. There is also opportunity for the coaches to sort out the special teams and other errors that the team makes so they can be more competitive regardless of whether they want to use Fitzgerald’s or my definition of it. There is a chance for the team to try to reward the fans at least a little for their patience going on several years now. While the actual results may not matter much beyond this week, how they perform and play will. That is ultimately what 2021 is about.

And we shall see whether Fitzgerald can and does use his massive amount of cap space and uses his other options to strengthen the team for what should be (better be?) a better 2021-22 campaign in this offseason. Today was another deadline of selling assets. If it means a better tomorrow, so be it. I hope that it does for a change.

What do you think of what the Devils did by this year’s deadline? Does it look better in light of what other teams did or did not do this year? What do you expect from the Devils in the next 16 games? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along and commented in the NHL Trade Deadline Open Post today. Thank you for reading.