For the fourth time in eleven years, the New Jersey Devils have won a drawing at the NHL Draft Lottery. In 2011, they won it and the rules at the time moved them up to fourth overall. They took defenseman Adam Larsson with that pick. In 2017 and 2019, they won the drawing for the first overall pick - and thankfully over rival teams! - in each of those years. They took Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, respectively. Tonight, they had an 8.8% chance of winning the drawing for the second overall pick. They did it as the Montreal Canadiens won the drawing for first overall.
As an aside, here are two fun facts about that Canadiens first overall pick. It is the first time since 1985 that the host city will have first overall. It is also the first time since 1980 that the Canadiens had the first overall pick. I am going to stretch and say their pick in 2022 will turn out better than Doug Wickenheiser.
Now back to the team that matters to the People Who Matter: the New Jersey Devils. Ahead of this draft lottery, speculation has already been fueled by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald when he stated that he would consider moving their first round pick in his press conference last Thursday. Fire was added when Jeff Marek reported on Sportsnet on Saturday night that the Devils had interest in Fiala. That was before the lottery though and now the Devils have the second overall pick. With the playoffs ongoing, the World Championships beginning, and a NHL Draft in July to prepare for, there will be plenty of time for Fitzgerald to consider all options.
The Options at Second Overall - The Draft
Shane Wright is the consensus first overall pick. Montreal could use, well, anyone with talent and Wright has a boatload of it. He may not jump off the page like other first overall picks like Hughes, but he does a lot of things well and gets projected to Patrice Bergeron. Let me be clear: If you have the opportunity to draft the next Patrice Bergeron, then you run to the podium and even scream their name out before anyone can stop you. So if Wright somehow falls to second overall, I do not care if he is a center - get him.
Presuming Wright does get picked by Montreal, the Devils will have plenty of ways they can go. Based on Brian’s post about the Devils’ prospect needs, they can fill just about any of them except goaltender at second overall. There are four main names that come to my mind and a few other long-shot picks.
- Juraj Slafkovsky, LW, TPS, Liiga - Some of the more vocal members of the People Who Matter have demanded that the Devils get bigger, tougher, and stronger at wing. Others prefer players with skills that yield points on the scoreboard over that. Rather than manifesting a Tkachuk brother to Newark, Slafkovsky would be the best option in this year’s draft for a winger with both size and skill. While his production at TPS will rank him low on some projection models; his outstanding play internationally have rightfully turned heads. Such as his 7-goal performance at the Olympics.
- Simon Nemec, RHD, HK Nitra, Extraliga (SVK) - Nemec was very productive defenseman for his club team both in regular season play (26 points in 39 season games) and in the postseason (17 in 19 playoff games). While his production did not appear internationally, like Slafkovsky, Nemec has been a part of Slovakia’s men’s team for the Olympics. If you think the Devils need to add a right-sided defender, then Nemec is one of the best options available.
- David Jiricek, RHD, HC Plzen, Extraliga (CZH) - Jiricek was on his way to having a good 2021-22 season. Then he suffered a ligament injury in his knee at the WJCs that caused him to miss months of action. He did return to play and ultimately appeared in 29 games for Plzen this season. Jiricek is big (6’3”), aggressive, and was touted for his skating prior to the knee injury. If that knee is fine and his skating is still smooth, then he could jump Nemec as the first defenseman taken this year.
- Logan Cooley, C, USNTDP - The United States National Team Development Program churns out prospects year after year. Cooley is the consensus best of the bunch. Some may not like him because he is not large at 5’10” and 174 pounds. Others will love him for how he can be an offensive force, especially when he has the puck on his stick. Offensive production is always at a premium and Cooley has brought it at both the USNTDP level and World U-18s this year. If you feel the Devils could always add the most offensively skilled player to beef up a core featuring Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, and Mercer (not to mention Holtz if he turns out), then Cooley is your man.
Do not worry about these short takes. We will have prospect profiles on them. And maybe even a long shot for #2 overall such as Matthew Savoie (C, Winnipeg, WHL), Joakim Kemell (RW, JYP, Liiga), or Danila Yurov (RW, Magnitogorsk, KHL). We shall see. The prospect profiles will begin later this month.
By the way, three of those four (Slafkovsky, Nemec, Jiricek) will be playing in the 2022 IIHF World Championships, which begin on Friday. If you want to see them in action, then go check out Slovakia and Czechia in the tourney. We will have an open post for the WCs up on Friday morning.
I think it is likely that the Devils will end up using second overall, but do not discount the other set of options that will drive discussion in a long offseason: Trades.
The Options at Second Overall - Trades
The Devils have multiple ways they can move second overall.
For the NFL-minded members of the People Who Matter, it is tempting to do what plenty of football teams do: trade down in the draft. Often, this means picking up an extra pick (or maybe a player?) in the process. I am a little lukewarm on this idea. If it is to move back just a few spots in the first round and still keep the Devils in the top ten, then fine. But the issue is that I do not think the 2022 class is particularly deep. My sense is that there is a huge difference in the quality of prospects at second overall than, say, at 19th overall. I also do not think the Devils need a plethora of draft picks in 2022. They have a young NHL and AHL team as it is and loads of players in the system under the age of 25. They do not need more picks in this year. If this is a result of acquiring a player who can help the Devils now, then so be it.
The idea of trading the pick for a player who can help now is very tempting. The Devils are in a spot where Bratt and Hischier are in their peak years and Hughes is close to it. The time to get this team to take a step forward is now. Technically, it was this past season. But I’ll take now. Given that everyone is under “evaluation,” per Fitzgerald’s press conference, I think there is a real pressure in the organization for the Devils to show some kind of real progress. There is a lot less patience among the People Who Matter who have suffered through rebuilding since 2015, except for one season in the middle of it. Another bottom-five finish in 2022-23 might as well come with a pink slip for the GM. I think the pick may be kept but I can believe that moving it may be the priority to bring in more immediate help.
Fitzgerald could swing a trade to address needs that the Devils have now. The goaltending prospects in this draft (and in most drafts) will not help the critical issue they have in the crease right now. Moving second overall can bring in a goalie - either an experienced one now or possibly a high potential one ready to get into games. The Devils could use a scoring winger to play on a first or second line with experience given that both Andreas Johnsson and Tomas Tatar did not fit in that role. Moving second overall can bring in this player. The Devils could even use some defensive depth. Knowing that the pick is second overall means the trade could be for a package that could address that too.
There will definitely players to target. Fiala is an obvious one. Minnesota is close to the cap thanks to the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (projected cap space for 2022-23: $3.5 million), Fiala is entering the final season of his contract, and Fiala just put up a season that would even outshine Bratt’s monstrous 2021-22. Now that the pick is second overall, that could garner a little more than Fiala. Fiala and a swap of firsts? Fiala and Minnesota’s 2023 first? Fiala and maybe Jesper Wallstedt? The last one may be too much without the Devils adding something else (and it’s also a deal I try to make work in a heartbeat), but the point is that a second overall pick to move instead of fifth or sixth overall makes such a transaction more possible.
Of course, Minnesota is just one of many teams who are up against it cap-wise for next season. Others will have to make some tough decisions about players they may want to keep but cannot afford to retain. As teams will be getting eliminated for the playoffs, some squads will also be more tempted to make a significant change in their roster to make space and, well make changes. Let’s say Toronto gets eliminated (heh). It gets more enticing to move a William Nylander (which has been rumored before) or even a Mitch Marner (doubtful, but hey) to both “do something” and make some much needed room under the cap. Management should absolutely keep an eye on the playoffs. A player on an eliminated team may have had a bad series, but this is where the Devils can step in, offer a deal, and get the player(s) needed to make New Jersey better in the short term. Before you lament about how getting guys who “Can’t Get It Done in the Playoffs” is bad, I will remind you that the Devils are not in the playoffs. Let the Devils get to the postseason before offering complaints like that one. (Hat tip to the Associate for this possible reality).
And the Devils do not need to look to playoff teams crashing out for ideas. They can look at the several cap-strapped teams that also did not make the playoffs. San Jose has a projected cap space of $5.6 million and has a 25-year old Timo Meier making $6 million per season on a contract that ends after 2023. Surely, they are re-building. Meier would fit that winger need if Fiala cannot be had. Again, this not a demand but it is an option that can and should be explored by Devils management.
There is one wilder, far less likely idea. They could move up. Why would they move up to first overall? If they can make an agreement with Montreal that they will not take their guy, then fine. It has happened a long time ago; back in 2003 when Pittsburgh traded up from #3 to #1 to take Marc-Andre Fleury after assurances that Florida will not miss out on their man (who was Nathan Horton) due to them and Carolina (who took Eric Staal). It may have not been necessary in hindsight, but if you want your man, then ensure it. And if Montreal does not want Wright for whatever reason, then hey, no sense letting them have a chance to change their mind on the draft floor on July 7.
The larger point is that the Devils’ options for trades are wide open, especially with the second overall pick. Some of these could have been done with the fifth or sixth or seventh overall pick. But a second overall pick allows the Devils to command a little more, offer a little less in a package, and - if the pick is demand - leverage other deals to become a little sweeter.
I am confident there will be continued debates for the next two months about whether the Devils should use this pick or not. And if not, what they should trade it for instead. I hope those debates do not dominate the prospect profile posts we will do later this month and through June. I hope those debates are civil. But thanks to the lottery win, these debates will happen. And neither side is particularly right or wrong. Keeping it is justifiable. Moving it in the right deal is justifiable. The larger point is that Tom Fitzgerald is more able to go in either direction with this lottery win. Whether you trust Fitzgerald to make the right option is another matter, but that is a good reason to be pleased with tonight’s lottery results. Even if you are also getting tired of the Devils being veterans of the lottery process.
What’s your take about the second overall pick? What would you do if you were in Fitzgerald’s shoes? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.