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FanFirst Friday: Pivot Edition

The fanbase has longingly been asking for Timo Meier for months now. I’m here to say that maybe that isn’t the best move.

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NHL: San Jose Sharks at Tampa Bay Lightning
He’s the dream. But what if it just isn’t possible?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I might’ve been one of the first in Devils Twitter to propose the New Jersey hockey club chase after Timo Meier. I suggested it back when he was riding Nico Hischier’s wing during the World Championships. I reiterated it again after the second game of the season. And yet as the wait to see what Tom Fitzgerald decides to do with this roster drags on and on, I’m starting to wonder if maybe the ask for Timo Meier is so astronomical that Tom Fitzgerald is having second thoughts. That’s ok because there are options outside of the big Swiss winger.

As the Meier idea has gained so much steam that even a former New Jersey Devils that scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal has chimed in to advocate for it:

I’ve started to re-think things. See, the New Jersey Devils were not supposed to be this good this season. They were expected to be on the cusp on the playoffs, fighting for maybe a Wild Card spot if things broke their way. And yet, thanks to a stellar November and a stellar January, they find themselves as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and the league. It’s an unexpectedly lofty perch for our beloved red and black. And it’s got us all, me included, dreaming that the new championship window may be open and open NOW. That Stanley Cup dream, almost 20 years since this franchise last lifted one, is one we all want as soon as possible. Especially since the last decade or so has been one big torturefest of everything from bland mediocrity to downright tanking.

Yet when Scott Wheeler of the Athletic posted his list of the top two 2023 NHL prospect rankings and the Devils sat at number two, I began to think, maybe San Jose General Manager and former New Jersey Devils assistant coach Mike Grier is asking for Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec and a first round pick? I mean, if I was Grier with a cost-controlled stud like Meier, I would be asking for the sun, moon and stars right now in order to accelerate a rebuild in San Jose. I’d probably be asking for Kakko, Miller and a first rounder off the Rangers roster. Now that likely means that he won’t get it and maybe he doesn’t wind up moving Meier because none of the packages are appealing to him. Though the smart bet would be that Meier will be changing addresses this trade deadline, if not before. I just don’t think the Sharks can risk Meier getting a $10 million salary qualifier added to their roster as it’s currently constructed.

That being said, if Grier’s asking price doesn’t come down from orbit, then there will be other options that I will find acceptable. Though to be clear, no one will alter things with the Devils the way Timo Meier will. He’s the goal. And yet, there’s also the cliche that sometimes the best move you make is the one you don’t. If the dream doesn’t become reality, here is what I’m gunning for if I’m Tom Fitzgerald.

Adam Henrique

The Ducks should be looking to move everyone on their roster not named Zegras, Terry, McTavish and Drysdale. If I’m Ducks GM Pat Verbeek, I’m moving guys like Henrique out for picks and even salary retained if need be. Outside of just pure nostalgia, Henrique is having a fantastic season:

Rico would bring veteran leadership and he can play wing or center. He offers versatility to a team that might just need it if they’re suddenly hit with an injury or two. Hey, we just learned this week that it can happen unexpectedly. I don’t know about you, but I would feel a bit more comfortable weathering a Jack Hughes injury if Rico could just slot in at second line center, helping kids like Mercer and Holtz feel more comfortable in expanded roles. Yes, his cap hit is a bit much but maybe you can send Johnsson back the other way and some salary retention makes it a bit more palatable. Plus, the Devils have plenty of cap space next season. And again, did I mention the nostalgia of it all might hit hard, especially if this team happens to face the New York Rangers in the first round:

I could seriously just watch this clip over and over and over and no matter my mood, it’ll always pick me up. Maybe this plays a little part in me listing Rico first, but I don’t care. It would be incredible to have 14 back in red and black.

Tyler Bertuzzi

I know, I know. We already had one anti-vaxxer on the team that caused quite the disruption last season. I’m firmly convinced that a lot of the fanbase still hates MacBlack because of that decision. Going against the grain in hockey isn’t really something you do very often, especially if you put the spotlight squarely on yourself. Hockey players are taught from a VERY young age that this is the ultimate team sport. No matter how great Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr were, they don’t win a championship without GREAT parts around them. Bertuzzi was basically the only hockey player refusing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and he wasn’t allowed to travel with his team into Canada. He got chirped about it by a familiar player.

All that being said, he fits a distinct need for the Devils which is why he made it to Shayna Goldman’s Devils trade board. Call it whatever you want, sandpaper, truculence, a willingness to go to the dirty areas to score, Bertuzzi brings it. And while a huge part of me wants nothing to do with someone like this, mostly because of the self-centered mentality that let his teammates down last year, there’s a part of me that wants to win and the glaring hole with the Devils is not having a player like this. Miles Wood is supposed to be this kind of guy, but he really isn’t. He’s got the wheels, but lacks the skill that Bertuzzi possesses. Now complicating things is that Bertuzzi will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and the Devils have openly discussed wanting someone who can be a part of the long-term solution. Bertuzzi’s stock might just be low enough right now that he extends for a year or two just to pump his value back up and, in that case, perhaps a motivated guy with wheels, hands and a willingness to crash nets would make a lot of sense for where the Devils are at.

Still, for as much as I’d love to bring back Rico, I’m nearly at the opposite end of the spectrum on this one. I realize how much Bertuzzi would likely help in pure hockey terms because of the speed, grit and, you know, actual talent, but if ever there was a player where you’d need to separate the art from the artist in order to cheer for him, he would be one. Remember Bertuzzi is just one year removed from having scored 30 goals on a bad Red Wings team.

Karel Vejmelka

Yeah this isn’t a winger, and this isn’t a true replacement if the Devils miss out on Timo Meier, but Arizona Coyotes goalie Vejmelka can be a game stealer all by himself. He’s nearly an NHL .500 goaltender this season playing on a Yotes team that was intending to Tank Hard for Bedard. Vejmelka is almost single-handedly causing this team to win. I happen to watch a lot of Coyotes games because I live on the West Coast and I have a morbid curiosity about the college arena the team is playing in this year. I seriously considered going there to see the Devils play this year, but given that I’m heading to Ball Arena on March 1, I had to choose one trip this year and since my son roots for the Avalanche, that one won.

Now I’m not saying that I don’t believe in Vitek. Vitek Vanecek has been all the Devils could’ve ever hoped for, but just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins last season if you want to see an example of a team that got bounced because of goaltending depth. Having seen tons of Vejmelka, this guy steals games in ways that just many goalies in the NHL can’t. He sits sixth in the entire NHL in goals saved above expected, behind Linus Ullmark (frontrunner for the Vezina), Ilya Sorokin, Juuse Saros, Connor Hellebuyck and Jake Oettinger. He’s ahead of Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy. What if the Devils offered the aforementioned MacBlack and a second rounder plus a Reilly Walsh or some other player the Yotes might like? The cap hit for both MacBlack and Vejmelka is essentially a wash right now (Vejmelka is actually $75,000 cheaper than MacBlack) but Vejmelka is locked in for two more seasons after this one and MacBlack is a RFA after this year.

This trade is actually near the top of my list because I’m still a firm believer that goaltending is the most important position in the NHL and having Vitek and Karel locked down for the next two seasons after this one gives Akira Schmid and Nico Daws proper seasoning time so they’re ready to go eventually. Remember that goalies often take more time to develop and this kind of move allows for that to happen. I could very well envision Vejmelka standing toe-to-toe against almost any other goalie in the NHL. Not sure I can say that about Vitek. Yet.

James Van Riemsdyk

The Devils were rumored to have tried to sign JVR back when he was a free agent. They lost out to the Flyers and now here we are again. This would be a true fall back for me and definitely not a priority. I also wouldn’t give much for JVR at all since he likely wouldn’t move the needle all that well with this team. So why do the deal at all? Alex Chauvancy outlines the case here. Basically, he’s another one of those players like Bertuzzi that goes to the dirty areas to score goals. But I also share Alex’s concerns that JVR isn’t the greatest skater in the world and might have problems keeping up with the Devils system. He would be a distant fourth for me out of the players I have listed here.

That’s it. That’s my list. I would’ve potentially thought about someone like Jakob Chychrun as well, but I don’t think the Devils would cough up the enormous package it would take for the Coyotes to part with him. Obviously Travis Konecny would be perfect, but I doubt the Flyers move him. The Rangers just acquired Tarasenko so that takes that name off the list. Which I’m kind of happy about if I’m being honest because I don’t think he would’ve been the right fit with this team and this age group. I’m also not interested in Brock Boeser. I just think he’s a more highly paid version of Alex Holtz.

The one thing I have to keep reminding myself is that the Devils window has just opened. Like literally—this season is the first one of hopefully many more. The team sits fourth in the NHL and has the second-best prospect pool in hockey. A prospect pool that could supplement this team with affordable, talented players for a decade if Tom Fitzgerald plays it right. Seamus Casey, Josh Filmon, Arseni Gritsyuk, Topias Vilen are all right there for this team. And that’s not even mentioning Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. So while I’m all for gunning for it all as soon as we can, I want the Devils to be the best team of the salary cap era. And I think they are on the cusp of being just that if Fitzgerald can deftly make the right moves with this team.

What are you in the market for? Is it Meier or bust for you like almost all of the Devils fandom? Or are there other moves you’d like to see that I might’ve missed here?