Over the course of this past week, we have seen a little bit of a debate form up on All About the Jersey. On Monday, John wrote up the trade deadline primer for the New Jersey Devils, and he provided the traditional approach that a bad team is a selling team, not a buying one. The Devils should be looking to offload assets in favor of draft capital. It is a logical and sound approach, one that the majority of GMs take the majority of the time. The team as constituted is not working, so might as well break it down, gain future assets, and over a period of time, turn those future assets into a competitive team.
On Wednesday, however, Stephen argued that despite the Devils having a horrible record, they should actually consider being buyers, not sellers. His argument centered around the fact that the Devils have a strong young core already, and despite the bad record, actually a lot of pieces are in place for a perennial playoff contender. The team just needs another piece or two to bring it all together and to get this team out of the basement, someone like Timo Meier, and it would be worth giving up draft capital to make that happen. It is a contrarian view for sure, but not an entirely unreasonable one.
The real question here, what underlies this question of what to do at the trade deadline, revolves around how good this team actually is, what the state of the Devils really is right now. Everyone agrees that they are a bad team as constituted this season, I don’t really think anyone is going to deny that. But how close are they to actually being good? Are they just a piece or two away like Stephen thinks is possible? Or are they still in mostly sell mode outside of the core? Let’s look at both sides here.
The Devils Are a Piece or Two Away
To me, this opinion largely comes down to one thing: goaltending. Anyone who wants to make this argument is going to say that this team has many of the right pieces in place, a strong core of players that will make this team competitive for a long time. You have Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, Jesper Bratt, and the up and coming Alexander Holtz. You have Damon Severson on defense as well, perhaps Ty Smith if he can break out, and the up and coming Luke Hughes. There is a strong core of players there, and with the right pieces around them, you have to think that they can be successful for years to come.
What has absolutely held this team back this season, without question, is goaltending. This has been so true that one has to wonder what this team could have actually done with just league average goaltending. Here is an extremely telling table from JFresh:
This is slightly out of date at this point, but not too badly since there were not a ton of games taking place during the Olympics. Of 110 goalies in all situations, the Devils had two of them ranked in the bottom 10 in goals saved above expected. Both Akira Schmid and Mackenzie Blackwood are hovering close to -10 in that category, which is simply atrocious. Between those two, you have close to 30 games started and more time played when coming off the bench. A team simply cannot win with that many starts going towards goaltending that has been that bad, almost regardless of who is playing in front of them.
In this regard, those who think the Devils are a piece or two away would use this as their main argument. Bring in someone like Timo Meier or another piece to solidify the skaters, which are a good group already, and then simply find some competent goaltending, or even just league-average goalie play and you’re in the playoffs. I mean, you are looking at a Devils team with a CF% north of 51%, a strong possession number, and a xGF% also north of 51%. A team that has quality possession and is expected to score 51+% of all goals at 5 on 5 play should at least be in contention for a playoff position, if not in one. What is holding that back? Goalies. Get that figured out, and this turns around quickly. So go out and spend.
The Devils Should Sell
The other side of the coin is to sell. The main argument here is that the team, as constituted, does not work, so you might as well move pieces and add draft capital, which will help to build a better team after this season. I mean, the counterpoint to the goaltending argument I just posited is that on that same list from JFresh, you have Jordan Binnington who has had a very poor season, and has started the bulk of St. Louis’ games, but that team is still in second in the Pacific and has a positive goal differential over 40 goals. Sometimes, we blame goaltending for too much in hockey, and those who want to argue this can only look to what St. Louis is doing this season in spite of Binnington.
Plus, there is little reason not to sell if you can get some value for it. You want to trade a first to grab a top player for years to come? Go for it. But this season is sunk anyway, so if you can manage to move someone like P.K. Subban for capital, you might as well do it. He won’t be back next season as it is, and instead, you could get a piece that is worth something after this season ends. There are not too many pieces like this on the team this year, and you don’t want to sell a core piece, but it does not hurt at all to field offers, and if you can move a piece like him, why not?
The other argument here is that you can still sell at this trade deadline and not look for a long rebuild. The Devils should NOT be looking to sell off core pieces. The same group of young potential stars will be here for years to come, so going all-in right now on a trade, selling first-rounders, does not make too much sense with that knowledge. This is not a situation where the core is on the wrong side of 30 and needs pieces to win in the next couple of years before father time sets in. In fact, all of the main pieces of the core are on the good side of 25, never mind 30. Yes, you don’t want to waste any years at all from these guys, but if you sell this year, retool with a strong goaltender and extra pieces in the offseason, and you start competing next year or even the year after, it is not like these players will be past their prime. In fact, guys like Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer,, and Alexander Holtz should only improve heading into next year, so that is not a bad call at all.
And finally, this will not please John, but selling off peripheral pieces like Subban only helps the tank this year for a chance at a lottery win in the draft, so for anyone looking for a top 3 pick, this only helps the cause.
Those are really both sides of the argument here, and it is an interesting one. There are good reasons to look to add a piece at the trade deadline for as soon as next year, and there are good reasons to sell as well. And in reality, both can have the same goal of competing next season. Buying forces you into that mode, while selling can also achieve that end depending on what the team does with the capital it gains from selling pieces. And there is also the weird scenario where you can do both as well, make a blockbuster deal where you trade a first-round pick for top talent but also sell tradeable talent for later-round picks. I don’t see that happening, but it isn’t impossible to see happening.
That is it though. What do you want the team to do over the next few weeks heading into the deadline? If you were the GM, would you want to buy and retool for next season or sell off for capital? What is the best option for this team’s core moving forward, and why? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.