Monday ended up being a quiet trade deadline for GM Tom Fitzgerald and the Devils. Your mileage may vary on whether this was a good, bad, or neutral thing for the club, but either way, it’s over and done with now. For the record, I view it as a slight negative that Fitzgerald wasn’t able to at least offload Vesey for a late round pick. That was a slam dunk move that would’ve both collected a future asset for the team and opened up a spot for either one of the Devils injured forwards returning to the line-up (Wood, Kuokkanen, Thompson) or a call-up such as Holtz. Additionally, if the Devils really wanted to add a young, undervalued forward who could be part of the group going forward, as Fitzgerald indicated to Pierre Lebrun for a piece on the Athletic, there were players to be had. For example, I thought Artturi Lehkonen could’ve been a nice addition (ok, he’s not that young, but still). He is known for putting up strong defensive results and can carry his weight in the offensive zone as well. Given the depth of the Devils prospect system, I think they could’ve beat Colorado’s return (Barron and a 2nd) without too much effort in order to add a strong two-way forward, something this team needs more of in my opinion.
Artturi Lehkonen, acquired by COL, is a hard-working forechecking middle-six winger who has elevated everybody he's played with this year to a ridiculous extent. Basically a Finnish Valeri Nichushkin. #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/kuKdfLCZ5o— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) March 21, 2022
But, ultimately, this is a minor complaint. There was no rush to make a move, and even though it would’ve made the trade deadline a little more fun, a quiet deadline is obviously preferable to one where the front office makes a major blunder.
Now the focus for the Devils front office shifts to the offseason with the draft, free agency, and the return of the trade market. With that in mind, I decided to put together an early checklist (wishlist?) of moves for Fitzgerald to make in order to ensure next season goes better than the current iteration.
This is an easy one for me. Even if you want to say it really is #justthegoalie, which, by the way, is an argument I have time for, it’s not like the Devils are this superb team that is just an average goalie away from being a lock for a playoff spot. They are more like a playoff bubble team being hamstrung by poor goaltending. And team defense might still hold them back even then. Some of the issue here is also roster construction, but I think the coaching deserves a big chunk of the blame. If I were to make a pie chart depicting the reasons why the Devils have been out of the playoffs since December, it’d be about 55% goaltending, 30% coaching, and 15% that the rest of the roster still needs some tinkering. Personally, I’d probably replace the entire coaching staff and start fresh. At a minimum, though, Dave Rogalski (the goalie coach) and Mark Recchi need to be replaced. The power play and goaltending have been awful the last couple seasons. At least Ruff can point to significant improvements in 5 on 5 play during his tenure via team CF% and xGF% numbers (30th to 12th and 29th to 13th, respectively).
Figure Out the Goaltending
This is the most pressing need for the Devils. Not that this list is necessarily in order, but if it were, the only reason goaltending isn’t listed first is because firing the coach is a lot easier and simpler than fixing the goaltending.
There will almost certainly be some changes in that department this offseason. Blackwood was on the trade block at the deadline and on the 32 Thoughts Podcast Friedman speculates that Blackwood may have changed agents because he would like a change of scenery. And Fitzgerald’s comment about needing to go back to the drawing board with goaltending indicates the feeling is probably mutual. I don’t know if a trade is necessarily likely at this point, but it appears that there is decent chance Blackwood could be moved this summer. I do not know what hip surgery Bernier had that ended his season, but given Ruff’s comments about the injury at the time: “We’re all concerned about long term (health) and where this is going to go, where we’ll end up going forward, so I’m worried and very concerned.” I question whether or not Bernier will even play next season.
So, let’s say that both Bernier and Blackwood are not in New Jersey next year. What then? The Devils can’t afford to waste another season due to poor goaltending. Ideally they can find a long-term solution this summer, but they need to at least find a short-term fix via trade or free agency so they aren’t relying solely on Daws and/or Schmid again. Any move will likely have to be through the trade market then, and that means taking a gamble since teams aren’t trading their starting goaltender, or even back-up in today’s NHL with most teams splitting the workload more evenly, without a good reason.
Contracts for RFAs and Severson
The Devils best player is up for a contract this summer and it’s not going to come cheap. Jesper Bratt will be coming off of a career high in every statistical category and should be locked up long term. Getting that deal done and not letting it extend into training camp will be a major priority this summer. Boqvist, Zacha, and Wood will also need new contracts, but those will be smaller, if not necessarily simpler (for reasons such as missing most of the season and/or being wildly inconsistent).
Then there’s Severson. There was some speculation, including by myself, that Severson could be moved at the deadline or this summer. If Friedman is to be believed, however, the player, at least, would like to stay in New Jersey.
Heard Severson wants to stay and is willing to re-sign https://t.co/1U4QaFREHa— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) March 20, 2022
Assuming the ask isn’t too high and the Devils are planning on being better next year, getting Severson locked up this summer would provide some clarity and peace of mind to the player, organization, and fans.
Upgrade the Skater Group
The last thing left for Fitzgerald to do is to figure out where the Devils need to upgrade (not including goaltending), and to subsequently make those moves. Given rumors linking the Devils to Boeser and Garland, it is safe to say the Devils are looking for an upgrade at wing. Emily Kaplan wrote an article last week for ESPN that had this nugget in there:
There was a potential trade that sent Boeser to the New Jersey Devils, and it involved Pavel Zacha. However I was told those talks broke down because neither side could make it work. Boeser is still in play, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Vancouver decides to punt a decision until this summer.
I have mentioned previously that I prefer Garland to Boeser, but that I’d still consider Boeser for Zacha a win. My only issue is that this focuses solely on finding a goalscorer when the Devils already have that player in the system in Alex Holtz. And while Holtz is still far from a sure thing, his current success at the AHL level is very promising. Personally, I see a forward group that will soon be getting help in the sniping department once Holtz arrives on the scene. Where they will still be lacking however, is in strong defensive forwards. My ideal solution is to swing for the fences for another top-end forward. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but if you can find a team who values Zacha or is high on Smith or another prospect in the system I think it’s not impossible based on where the Devils farm system is currently at. Otherwise, this year’s free agency crop has some interesting names at forward who could upgrade the middle six defensively (Nichushkin comes to mind, for example).
The third pairing is also an area of weakness for the Devils. Here I could see them standing pat or adding a player late in free agency to add another penalty killer with NHL/pro experience. Ty Smith will likely be back, with either a player from Utica or said free agent on the right side of that 3rd pair. This wouldn’t be my preference, but I also don’t think spending a lot of cap space or assets for a 3rd pairing guy is a great idea.
Ultimately, this offseason is shaping up to be a very interesting one. There are fewer needs that need to be filled externally than in the last few seasons, but the biggest need (goaltending) will be very tough to address. I could see Fitzgerald being relatively quiet, extremely active, or anything in-between this summer and it wouldn’t surprise me. For now, let’s enjoy watching the final quarter of what has been a disappointing, yet still entertaining Devils season. Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading.