At the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, the 22-35-5 New Jersey Devils - currently placed 29th out of 32 teams in terms of points - did very little. They traded Utica Comets forward Nate Schnarr to Montreal for goaltender Andrew Hammond. I do not dislike the move; it is a stop-gap move in net so the Devils do not need to run Nico Daws into the ground or rely on Jon Gillies to play any games. Hammond may not be that much better than either, but it is an attempt to address a position that has kneecapped much of this season.
What I do dislike is that move was the only trade made by the Devils today. It is especially surprising from Tom Fitzgerald given the last two seasons. A brief recap:
I would like to think one of the big reasons why Tom Fitzgerald was named the full-time General Manager of the New Jersey Devils back in 2020 was due to his trades as interim GM. His big ones involved turning Blake Coleman and Andy Greene into a 2020 first round pick (which became Shakir Mukhamadullin), a 2021 second round pick (sent to Colorado for Ryan Graves along with Mikhail Maltsev), and Nolan Foote. He also sold off Sami Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds, and Louis Domingue. The team were sellers in 2020 as they had nothing to play for by the 2020 portion of the season and Fitzgerald sold assets away for the future. Job done.
As unusual, challenging, and cramped as the 2021 season was, it was more of the same for the Devils. Now as the full-time GM, Fitzgerald’s squad had little to play for by the time the trade deadline came about. Once again, the Devils were expected to be sellers. Fitzgerald did. Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were sent to the Islanders. The Devils received A.J. Greer, Mason Jobst, the Islanders’ 2021 first round pick (which became Chase Stillman), and a 2022 fourth round pick (a condition of making the Stanley Cup Final was not met, so it stayed as a fourth for 2022) in return. The Devils waived Vatanen, received a conditional fourth round pick from Edmonton for Dmitry Kulikov, and picked up Jonas Siegenthaler the day before the deadline. Not as impressive as 2020, but still a decent amount of work.
This year: Nathan Bastian, a fourth-line winger, was picked up on waivers; Jon Gillies was acquired for future considerations (read: practically nothing), and today’s Schnarr-for-Hammond swap. That was it. P.K. Subban is still a New Jersey Devil. Jimmy Vesey is also still a New Jersey Devil. Pavel Zacha, who did get hurt in the Vancouver game last Tuesday, remains as a Devil. Rumors regarding Damon Severson, Andreas Johnsson, and even Mackenzie Blackwood remained as just that: rumors. Any hopes of making significant improvements at positions of need - goaltender, goaltender, scoring winger or two, an answer to why Ty Smith has regressed in less than two seasons, and goaltender - were not realized.
In the prior two years, Fitzgerald was active even before the day of the deadline. This made sense as the bigger deals can and do happen ahead of the final day of trades. For this season, the biggest deals involved Claude Giroux and Hampus Lindholm, and both were made two days before today. What this means is that my frustration with Fitzgerald’s inaction today is not just with this day alone. It is with his inaction to address the roster up to this day. A roster that has clear issues to even the newest hockey fan.
I can already foresee some of the comments. “Well, you can’t make a deal that isn’t there.” “You shouldn’t just make a move for the sake of making a move.” “Hey, the Devils have a great prospect pool, they’re on the right path.” “Don’t you know this team is actually not that bad; if only they had a goaltender.” “Look, this season is lost anyway. Let us just tank it and try again this offseason. Who cares.” “The Devils are at least getting Miles Wood, Tyce Thompson, and Janne Kuokkanen back soon.” I understand these thought processes. I just do not agree with all of them.
The last one first. The Devils did practice today and Wood, Kuokkanen, and Thompson all practiced in regular uniforms. With Christian Jaros clearing waivers today, there is a spot open on the roster for one of them to return. Yes, it is nice that the Devils now have some meatier forward depth. Wood’s return is particularly pleasing as he is out of contract after this season and so the next 18-20 games could really help the team decide what his future is in this organization. Kuokkanen may be the first to return as per Amanda Stein. While it is good to see these three as active players; they do not address any of the team’s significant issues. Kuokkanen has been nightmarish at times this season. I doubt he will return to his 2021 form after his injury. Wood has a lot of fans but he is still just a go-fast, five-on-five-only, and mostly-one-way bottom-six winger. Thompson is still a question mark and is still developing. Neither of these three play goaltender, can play in a top six forward position (Kuokkanen played his way out of it), or can likely convince the coaches to ditch their limited, inefficient systems.
As far as the thoughts regarding deals that are not supposedly there, I do not quite believe it. Look at the Trade Tracker for this year at TSN. A lot of marginal players were moved today. Buying teams were moving picks from two or three years out. Players of the level of Jeremy Lauzon, Ryan Carpenter, Zach Sanford, Andrew Cogliano, Riley Nash, Michael McNiven, Alex Biega, and Mason Appleton were moved by this deadline. I did not make up some of those names; they are all pro players of some kind. Even Scott Wedgewood was traded to a fourth round pick in 2023. There are three teams with worse records (Seattle, Arizona, Montreal) than the Devils who were far more active by the deadline than the Devils, so it is not as if a terrible record stopped teams from making moves. I can understand teams balking at P.K. Subban’s contract. But even getting something for Vesey or flipping a player with little long-term future in the organization (e.g. Johnsson, Tomas Tatar) was absolutely possible given what other teams have done. Part of a GM’s job is not just getting calls, but it is also making the calls and trying to sell other teams on a player or a deal. Given what actions happened today, I suspect Fitzgerald did not take enough initiative as he should.
(Post-script Addendum: Per Mike Morreale, Fitzgerald actually stated this: “I thought Friday, Saturday were real slow (w/ trade talks). I thought my phone was broken. Outgoing calls worked, incoming calls didn’t, so I ask people to call back to make sure it was working.” This furthers my thought that Fitzgerald really didn’t do enough as he could have.)
Further, last year’s acquisition of Siegenthaler turned out to be one of Fitzgerald’s best moves. Siegenthaler is legitimately one of the team’s better defensemen this season. All he cost was a conditional third round pick. I know it is not easy to find players with talent but not getting a chance, but that is part of a GM’s job to identify such players. A move like that would have made this deadline much more productive and legitimately help Fitzgerald claim that he is trying to improve the team for the future. Instead of just saying it in a post-deadline press conference wearing a suit jacket befitting a used car salesman from 1978 in response to a question about what he would say to restless fans.
I understand that perhaps the returns today were not as favorable as Fitzgerald would have liked. However, that is another part of being a GM of a team. It is not just not weighing whether a return is worth the deal, but also managing the risk of waiting to make said deal. Fitzgerald’s biggest moves to date where made ahead of the deadline days back in 2020 and 2021. Yet, he made none. He took the risk on waiting for time to garner a better return. Last week’s trip possibly ruined any plans he may have had. Zacha got hurt, team got sick (non-COVID, of course), and three poor performances in a row cooled off moves that Fitzgerald could have made a week or two earlier. Even if delaying a deal for a better return is understandable, that’s on him too.
The lack of action up through today’s deadline is also not so good for getting any late looks at Utica Comet players. The Comets are set to make the Calder Cup Playoffs. They can afford to reward some players by giving them some looks at the NHL level again. Had the Devils made some space, it would have been a good time to give someone like Alexander Holtz a few games to see what a season of AHL work has done for him. Or someone like Fabian Zetterlund, who will need a new contract and so it would be useful to see if he has a NHL future by playing him in some games. Or even a veteran like Chase De Leo in the hopes of convincing him to stay on as a Comet for another season or two. There is a whole blueline that would benefit from some NHL action more than Colton White, too. Yet, between no skaters being moved and the impending returns of Wood, Kuokkanen, and Thompson, that is not possible unless others get hurt.
I am admittedly frustrated. Let us take a bigger picture of this team.
This is not 2016-17 all over again, where the second season after a full-on teardown began and the team was utterly bad. This is March 2022, nearly ten years since the Devils won more than one playoff game in a year. This is a team that has Jesper Bratt playing out of his mind and up there with some of the best in the league. Nico Hischier is demonstrating why he is good. Jack Hughes is having the breakout season most predicted and would be more obvious if it was not for Lauzon - who was traded today! - way back in October. Fitzgerald got ownership to splash the cash for Dougie Hamilton and Hamilton has been that top-pairing caliber defenseman. Siegenthaler has been good. Damon Severson is having a career year. Some of the team’s on-ice rates are legitimately good. There are actual positives for this hockey team sitting 29th out of 32 teams in the NHL. This is not a team that should be blowing anything up and stock piling picks like Seattle and they are not.
Likewise, this is not a team that should be tanking at all. They have their young core. Fitzgerald is wrong to suggest that we should see how they are when they are 25 or 26 years old. The Devils should be trying to make the most out of Hughes, Bratt, and Hischier right now while they are still young, still able to develop a bit, and make the most of their talents before it fades, gets coached away, or whatever. They are committing the same sin the Edmonton Oilers have done with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (and so many other high picks); to have some of their best work wasted in non-contending seasons. This is not to say I want the Devils to somehow go “all in” early, but they are in a position to be more pro-active.
Yet, tanking is what they are actually doing. The Devils sit in 29th out of 32 teams with 20 games to go. Even moving up to 23rd (Islanders) or 24th (Detroit) seems like a pipe dream at this rate short of a crazy hot run of wins in the next month and a half. To me, the record is enough to show that the status quo is not really acceptable. A good number of those 35 losses had performances that would confirm that. The core - which now does not include Blackwood, although it did a season ago - is doing great and the team is still taking big losses more often than not. By doing so little up until today, the Devils are effectively sending the message that the status quo is fine. Why? Fitzgerald’s post-game presser stressed on building the right way. What direction are they even going? To keep playing the way they do despite its systemic flaws? Or odd lineup decisions like keeping Severson on the primary power play unit instead of Hamilton? (I thought that was to show off Severson, but he wasn’t dealt so if it continues, why?) To address the goaltenders with stop-gaps (Gillies in December, Hammond now) and hoping on rookies during the season (Schmid and Daws) instead of something bolder or more significant? To do the work in the offseason? To bring everyone back and have it somehow To pretend that if it was not for injuries, Coronavirus, and, I guess, puck luck, then the Devils would somehow be fighting for a playoff spot as if no other NHL team like, say Pittsburgh, ever suffered from that? Fitzgerald says he likes this team. Cool. Does ownership also like the team currently on pace to have the worst 82-game record in the salary cap era of the franchise’s history?
This is a team that had a horrible penalty kill in October and changed its system for greater success since then. Yet, everything else about the organization seems remarkably averse of changing much else. And there are some of the People Who Matter who think this is fine. OK, that’s your opinion, but again, why is it fine? I am very big on looking at a process over the final result, but pro hockey is still a results-oriented business. The Devils clearly do not have good enough results. Here I am being told by a lack of action and a bunch of words that this is somehow fine. It will all work out. Somehow. Someway. I understand that not all change is good, but that does not mean that no changes are good either. That basically sums up my frustration with today’s lack of action, the lack of action of the previous weeks and months, and the season as a whole. The players are not forcing many changes, the coaches think their ways are mostly fine as-is, and the GM likes his 22-35-5 roster and banking on it getting better on its own through doing very little during this season. How can fans be so negative about this? I wonder, how can anyone be all that positive? Or defend a GM and a coach who is a combined 41-75-12 in their tenure even with this young, developing core that is now breaking out? Or just accept a bad team as part of a process that was never defined or a roadmap (e.g. it takes X years to re-build!) that was never laid out?
I would like to think that Fitzgerald got the GM job in New Jersey because he was willing to swing big and small deals when they were good for New Jersey. A lot of them have turned out well, few have really come back to haunt them - if any, really. His offseasons have been quite productive - even if they not turn out entirely as expected, they made good sense at the time. I understand that he is not responsible for one goalie retiring, one goalie getting hurt for the whole season, or Johnsson and Tatar not playing well among other issues. But understand that he is responsible for addressing issues as they come and that is where he and the organization has faltered. Other teams would have been far more active to at least do something with a direction to try to make things better and/or earlier than today. Fitzgerald just didn’t this year and it makes little sense to me. A lot of this season makes no sense to me.
At least I should not have to see Jon Gillies for a while. I hope, at least.
That is how I see the Devils’ lack of activity at this year’s trade deadline. The Devils were set to be sellers, sold nothing, got a stop-gap in net today as its only action, and Tom Fitzgerald tried to defend it. Your reaction to that is your own. Still, I want to know what your reaction is. Maybe you think the 2021-22 Devils are fine, maybe you do not, maybe it will get better somehow in the future.