General Manager Tom Fitzgerald was not done with his work today after the re-signing of Michael McLeod. This evening, per the team’s announcement on their official website, the New Jersey Devils traded forward Mikhail Maltsev and a 2021 second round pick (the one that they got from the Isles the Andy Greene trade in 2020) to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Ryan Graves.
Those who wanted Fitzgerald to get at least a little creative in this offseason and be proactive about addressing the teams need should be pleased. Graves was likely to be the odd man out in Colorado on their expansion protection list that is due on Saturday. This was the thinking from Hardev Lad over at Mile High Hockey in this post about the deal, which I agree with. New Jersey swept in to help Colorado with this issue. They acquired Graves for a bottom-six winger in Maltsev and the 61st overall pick. At the minimum, the Devils acquired a NHL defenseman for a blueline that could use some more NHL defensemen.
Those who wanted the Devils to get bigger on the back end should also be pleased. Graves is big. He is officially listed at 6’5” and 220 pounds. He shoots left so he could beef up, literally and figuratively, the left side of the defense. His penalty minute count suggests he could have snarl, grit, and other adjectives that would make Ken Daneyko beam. He is also not that old. At 26 years of age, Graves completed his second full season with Colorado, his third in the NHL, and the first of his current contract. In 2021, Graves made 54 season and 10 playoff appearances while putting up two goals and thirteen assists in the season and a goal and five assists in the postseason. With the Avs last season, he averaged 15:49 per game at even strength and 3:19 per game in shorthanded situations. While Graves ended up fifth on the team in even strength ice time per game, he was often fourth when Bowen Byram was not playing and he was ahead of the mass number of defenders that appeared for Colorado on defense this season (15!).
In terms of how well he performed in 5-on-5 play, it is not as astonishing but it is also not bad. His on-ice rates look great on the surface because a lot of Avalanche players looked great in 5-on-5 play last season. While his on-ice percentages were well over the break-even point, Graves was often near or below the median of Colorado defensemen in multiple categories at Natural Stat Trick. When you look at the relative rate stats, or how the on-ice rate stats changed when the player took a shift, they were often negative for Graves. This is not to say that Graves was particularly horrid or dragged the team down. It does not appear from his teammate stats at NST that he had much of a common partner in 2021 for Colorado and he was not playing behind Colorado’s top forwards. And as noted through Mile High Hockey’s Twitter account, his underlying stats did improve as the season went on. What I would take away from this is that I would not anoint Graves as the one to make the Devils’ defense at least decent again. I do hope he could help make the penalty kill at least decent again based on his heavy usage on what was the eighth most successful PK in the NHL last season.
However, the Devils’ defense was bad and at the least they are not sticking with the same guys to turn it around somehow. This is Fitzgerald being proactive. The cost to acquire Graves was cheap. As much as I can like Maltsev, I do not know how much of a future he had in the NHL. Especially with other wingers coming through in the next few years. The second round pick is 61st overall, which is really not that far ahead of the Devils’ own third round pick this year. As far as the addition to the cap, that is not too bad either. Graves’ contract carries a $3.1667 million cap hit with a $3 million salary this season and a $4 million salary next season. If Graves suffers in New Jersey, then it would not terribly difficult to move him in the future. Or let him walk as he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 when his current contract ends. The acquisition of Graves should not undercut any other signings or future contract extensions may want (or need) to do in this and next season.
This trade may lead to further changes among the Devils’ defensemen. Since this deal was made in part because Colorado probably could not protect him from going to Seattle for free, I would expect Fitzgerald to protect Graves. As we broke down in our roundtable about the expansion draft, we all largely agreed that the Devils had two defensemen that would be protected: Damon Severson and the recently re-signed Jonas Siegenthaler. Up until yesterday, one could wonder whether the Devils would protect P.K. Subban, or Will Butcher or Ryan Murray as the third defenseman to protected. Now, it is likely that all three could be left unprotected and available for the Kraken to take next week. Unless Fitzgerald makes a deal with Seattle to not take a defenseman, the Devils could lose one. That would mean someone will need to be acquired to fill that spot, another change to the blueline.
The trade may also mean that the younger defensemen in the system will need to keep developing and work even harder to prove they deserve minutes. While Kevin Bahl did get NHL time last season, it was during the point of the season when it did not matter much. Depending on what other moves are made, Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh, and Michael Vukojevic will need to prepare to do as well as they can in camp, continue to improve in Utica, and make the most of their chance if/when they get a call up. That would be how they would break in; the Graves acquisition will make it harder to pencil any younger defender in. Of course, if Seattle takes a defenseman and Fitzgerald does not acquire anymore, then that would change. But that is a September problem and not a July problem.
Ultimately, I think move was a good one to make. While I would not expect Graves to be a top defensemen on the Devils or even be a tough-minutes eater, I do recognize that change is needed among the defensemen. As much as I would prefer a different assistant coach to help with that, the personnel were not so talented that they could be replaced. I did want to see Fitzgerald take advantage of some situations other teams may struggle with. He just did that with Colorado with respect to the expansion draft. I hope Graves is an improvement over some of the defenders from last season (and on the PK) and makes the most of his time as a Devil. I wish Maltsev the best in Denver and I welcome Graves to Newark.
That is my take on this deal. Now I want to know your take. What was your initial reaction to the deal? Are you more happy that Fitzgerald did something or that he did this thing? Do you think acquiring Graves will help the Devils defense? What do you expect him to do for next season? Will we see further changes on the defense? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this deal in the comments. Thank you for reading.