The National Hockey League’s trade deadline is in two weeks from today. There has been no shortage of rumors, speculations, hopes, and fears about what each of the 32 NHL franchises will do by the deadline. Some have already acted such as the New York Islanders acquiring Bo Horvat from Vancouver and subsequently re-signing him to an eight-season contract; and Our Hated Rivals renting out Vladimir Tarasenko from St. Louis. More are expected to make moves - including Our Favorite Team: The New Jersey Devils.
For the first time since 2018, the New Jersey Devils are expected be buyers by this deadline. The team has an excellent record, they have an excellent chance of making the postseason for the first time since 2018, and they may want to open their proverbial window more than just a little crack to let some air in. The Devils are a team that would logically want to add to their roster with the intent of being a better team for the playoffs and possibly beyond. Given that they are likely to face off with Our Hated Rivals in the first round and they added Tarasenko, the desire to answer that is quite real.
However, making a trade in the NHL is not easy. Rather than lament it is not as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline (which was not that exciting outside of Brooklyn this year), it is more constructive to look into what has to be considered when making a trade in the NHL. A general manager has more to think about than just getting the player they want. Let us walk through each of the issues while highlighting the Devils’ situation with respect to each one. If nothing else, this post should help you be more knowledgeable when a trade discussion comes up or if you want to think up of a proposal. And possibly avoid being called out by Insane Fan Trades on Twitter.
The Salary Cap
The clearest issue with any trade in the NHL is the salary cap. It has a hard salary cap ceiling of $82.5 million. It has a hard salary cap floor of $61 million. Teams can “go over” the cap with long term injured reserve (LTIR), but that is only a temporary relief unless the player is not going to return. Any team making a transaction has to remain cap compliant. CapFriendly is a priceless resource for knowing what a player’s cap hit is, how much space a team has, and whether they are using LTIR. The latter is especially important as 17 of the 32 teams are using LTIR as of February 16.
What is not so clear is that players are paid for every day that they are in the NHL. When a player is traded, the team that acquires the player has to pay out the remainder of that contract. As a result, plenty of deals will happen right up until the deadline as to minimize a cap hit for a player acquired.
Additionally, teams have the option to retain salary on a player to help make a move happen. Of course, there are rules about this. One, a team cannot retain salary for more than 3 players at a time. Two, the retained salary cannot be more than 50% of the player’s salary. Three, both teams still have to remain cap compliant from the transaction. Also: a player’s salary is not the same as their cap hit. The cap hit is based on the average accrued value of the whole contract; their salary for 2022-23 may be very different.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: The Devils are one of the 17 teams in the NHL that are cap compliant with the use of LTIR. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier has been on LTIR since the start of this season. That gave the Devils an additional $4.125 million to work with. Burying Andreas Johnsson in the AHL reduced his cap hit for this season from $3.4 million to $2.275 million for some additional space. As of February 16, CapFriendly has the Devils with $2,042,500 in cap space. They are not retaining salary for anyone right now.
This does not seem like a lot of cap space. It is not. However, there are eight other teams with even less space. They are not alone in this issue. What it means is that any significant trade the Devils want to do will require some additional work to keep the Devils compliant to the cap ceiling. This could mean throwing another asset in to get the other side to retain salary. This could mean adding a third team to a trade to offset some salaries. When pundits and fans complain about the salary cap hindering deals, they have a point. It does make potential deals more complicated to work out.
CapFriendly projects the Devils to have over $36 million in cap space for next season. However, that is also with 13 players on their current active roster becoming free agents. That is a discussion more for the offseason, but it means the Devils are in a position to add a player with multiple years left on their deal and/or discuss extensions with anyone they acquire if they want to go in that direction. Should a certain player with a significantly large qualifying offer come in or a pending UFA that wants to stay, then the Devils can afford it - provided they can close the deal.
The Roster Limits
NHL teams have a maximum of 23 players on their active roster. This limit will be removed after the deadline. What will not be removed is the 50 contract limit. All NHL teams have a maximum of 50 contracts on their books. This includes players on the NHL roster, players in the minor leagues with NHL contracts, and prospects in other leagues with contracts depending on their age. Like the salary cap, this 50 contract limit is a hard limit.
Also like the salary cap, there is one way to get allowance to go beyond 50 contracts. Players who are 18 or 19 years old, playing in a junior or European league, and have played 10 or fewer NHL games in the current season. Anyone on such a contract is exempted from this limit of 50. As you could probably guess from those requirements, that really only applies to prospects signed to entry level contracts - and only for a short period of time.
There is one additional limit for the roster: the reserve list. A franchise is limited to 90 players in their organization. Whether they are signed or they are unsigned but the team owns their rights from the draft, they count towards that limit of 90. This means teams are effectively limited to 40 unsigned players - which are going to be prospects or former prospects who are still playing pro hockey but still have their rights owned by the team.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: This is not an issue for the Devils right now. Per CapFriendly, the Devils have 44 contracts. Chase Stillman’s and Topias Vilén’s entry level contracts are exempt from the 50-contract limit. The Devils have 70 players on their reserve list ranging from college prospects (e.g. Luke Hughes) to European prospects yet to be signed (e.g. Arseni Gritsyuk) to former prospects (e.g. the 37 year old Ivan Khomutov from the 2003 draft). The Devils can add quite a few players by the deadline. With
The issue could be more of a factor depending on who they make a deal with. Over a third of the league has 47 or more contracts on the books. Most interestingly is San Jose, who is at 49 contracts after dealing Jaycob Megna to Seattle for a conditional fourth round pick. They really were at the 50 contract limit up until February 5 when that Megna trade happened. What that means is that the Sharks cannot add any more than two contracts in return from a deal. It can hamper potential deals. It also means that you should expect to see some minor deals like the Megna-for-conditional pick for teams to help clear some roster space for something more significant.
The AHL Roster Limits
I did not know of this until recently, but there are restrictions at the AHL level for a roster. The AHL’s website has a Frequently Asked Questions section and they explain the development rule, which is as follows:
Of the eighteen (18) skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least thirteen (13) must be qualified as “development players.” Of those 13, twelve (12) must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season.
What this means is that a minor league player or a prospect in the AHL being thrown into a deal cannot just be carelessly thrown into it. The other side has to check whether they can actually play the player for their AHL team. Why would a team pay a player, even on a two-way deal, only to be ineligible to actually play for their minor league affiliate? Especially if the NHL team is not doing so well but the AHL team has something to play for? It does not seem like much, but when I read that a deal was held up due to a “non key factor,” I now immediately think of this.
By the way, this rule also helps explain why so many AHL vets are journeymen players. They may need to move on just because their prior team may not have the room to accommodate them further.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: Unless I am misunderstanding something, here are the current professional games played for each of the Utica Comets under a NHL non-ELC contract:
Andreas Johnsson (567 GP), Joseph Gambardella (286 GP), Mason Geertsen (390 GP), Brian Pinho (212 GP), Robbie Russo (495 GP), Tyler Wotherspoon (504 GP), and Jack Dugan (116 GP).
The Comets also have the following non-NHL signed players on their roster as of February 16 with these current games played counts.
Ryan Schmelzer (249 GP), Zach Senyshyn (312 GP), Nick Hutchinson (141 GP), Samuel Laberge (248 GP), Dylan Blujus (381 GP)
Even without taking out their current games played for this season, Pinho, Dugan, Laberge, and Schmelzer fit the sub-260 game requirement. Gambardella fits just under it if you take out his 38 games played so far. Johnsson, Russo, Geertsen, Wotherspoon, Blujus, and Senyshyn all exceed it; only Senyshyn fits under the sub-320 game requirement. As I understand it, the Comets can play all of these players should they want to as the remainder can fit under the development rule. What this also means is that they cannot add any more veteran minor leaguers - NHL contracted or otherwise - without making some space in Utica. That may be doable. And it may already be planned to be done in the future anyway when Luke Hughes comes out of college and Shakir Mukhamadullin and possibly Topias Vilen are brought in from their loans. For the purposes of a trade to be made within the next two weeks, the Devils may opt to throw in one of their veteran AHLers - but may need to take one back or one to fit under the games requirement.
I know this is not that meaningful for the NHL team but it is an issue that can come into play when constructing a deal.
The Picks & Prospects
Typically, teams that are buyers at the deadline try to move picks and prospects that are not yet signed with the team. The selling team usually looks for the future for moving a current player, so adding additional opportunities to pick people at the draft and prospects to develop is in their interest. It is also much easier to move. An unsigned prospect does not count against the roster limit. The acquiring team may have a time limit as to when to sign them, but they have the leverage in doing so. Draft picks are even easier to move as they are not even a player. It is an asset for the future.
It is also an asset that often comes with conditions and, increasingly, protections. With the draft lottery now being a staple of NHL drafts, teams can send over a pick with a protection condition. This is usually with first round picks; should a team win a draft lottery but already traded the pick, then the protection would kick in to force that pick into the following year. Conditions are usually applied to picks later in the draft with the option of being improved if certain things happen. Such as a team making the playoffs, reaching a certain round, and/or the player playing in playoff games. They can make a deal more complicated, but they can also allow both sides to feel like they get something out of it - especially if conditions are met.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: In terms of picks, the Devils have all of their picks for the 2023 NHL Draft except for their third rounder. They traded that with Ty Smith in the trade that brought John Marino to New Jersey. The 2023 NHL Draft could be a very strong one in the first round. However, with the Devils having designs on the playoffs and having a strong prospect pool at the moment, they can afford to move their first round pick. If they were on the bubble, I personally would caution against it because of the potential talent in this year’s class. For a pick in the 20s and hopefully early 30s, I can see it if it is needed to bring back a significant player. With the Devils having 99.4% playoff odds per Moneypuck, I do not think they need to add lottery protection.
In terms of prospects, the Devils’ most valuable unsigned prospect is Luke Hughes. Who will be signed by the Devils once Michigan’s season is done. I highly doubt the Devils trade him. Other somewhat valuable unsigned Devils prospects include Michigan defenseman Seamus Casey, Avangard Omsk winger Arseni Gritsyuk, and Swift Current winger Josh Filmon. They may be included in a deal. I do think that other teams would prefer for someone signed and can play in the NHL immediately or shortly after being acquired, such as Alexander Holtz, Nikita Okhotiuk, Nolan Foote, or Graeme Clarke. They will definitely ask for Simon Nemec and I would think the Devils are not going to move their #2 overall pick in 2022 short of a life-changing offer.
The Trade Clauses
No trade clauses and no movement clauses are littered throughout the league. Some are straight up for no deals at all. Others are modified trade clauses where the player has to submit a list of teams they do not want to be traded to. Of course, all clauses can be waived by the player of their choosing. Which they may do in order to play in the playoffs, go to a different organization knowing their future in their current one will be limited, or something else. Players with clauses do get traded but requiring the player to waive their clause is another issue for teams to contend with in making deals.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: The Devils are thankfully not limited by a lot of clauses. Only two Devils have them: Ondrej Palat and Dougie Hamilton. Both have no movement clauses. Dougie Hamilton is having a career-season in terms of point production and plays a lot on a very successful hockey team. Ondrej Palat got paid real well by the Devils in the Summer of 2022 and I highly doubt the Devils will want to move someone they just signed within their first season. Both Palat and Hamilton can submit 10-team trade lists starting in July 1, 2025, so they are not full clauses for their remainder of their current contracts. If clauses are going to be an issue, then it will be with who the Devils are trying to get instead of who they want to move.
Finally, we get to the one thing that fans and hockey pundits love to focus on: what a team needs. There are some general rules of thumb. A buying team would want to add someone to make their team better right now. A selling team would want to clear space for the future and/or add prospects and picks for their own future.
It can go a bit deeper than that. A team, such as San Jose, has three goalies with the NHL Sharks and three goalies signed and playing in the minors. They may not want to add a seventh signed goaltender to their system at this time. Offering one may not move any needles. However, San Jose only has four signed defensemen not in San Jose and three are with their affiliate. Offering a defenseman, even a NHL/AHL tweener, as part of a package may be more to their liking.
Of course, a team must be somewhat coy about their needs. There may be a connection or network of favoritism among hockey executives, but they are not in the business of doing favors for them. If a team, such as Las Vegas, suddenly needs a goaltender due to a major injury to one of their starting two goalies (Logan Thompson), then expect the rest of the NHL to command more if they want to trade for a goalie to help fill in the gap left behind by Logan Thompson. Desperation is something that can be exploited easily by the deadline.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: The Devils’ needs are in this order: 1) a top-six scoring winger to bolster the offense and 2) improved depth at all positions. You know what #1 is all about. While Brendan Smith’s on-ice metrics look great, the team’s defense has been exposed when Kevin Bahl or Nikita Okhotiuk have been called upon to play. As successful as the team’s record has been, the Devils’ bottom six has been a carousal of forwards not contributing much consistently or being played consistently by Lindy Ruff outside of a lemon line called a BMW. The Devils should absolutely look to add to address these needs. It is highly unlikely to expect they will have another 13-game heater next season or the best road record in the NHL again. Strike now for this squad, Tom Fitzgerald.
Acquiring depth is not a massive challenge as veterans do get moved around quite a bit at the deadline. As for #1, there are some real options but I suspect you may be tired of reading more hopeful words for a Swiss forward who plays in the Bay so I will leave it there.
I will point out that this is what I think the Devils need. The people in charge may see it differently. As does the rest of the NHL, which is a good segue into this last issue:
The Personalities / Intangibles
The wildcard of all of this. Trading is an art, not a science. Deals are not made by computers. They are made by general managers and their staffs. Humans tend to do things for their own reasons but they may not be rational or well-thought out. This is true in hockey as in anything else. So many questions can be thought up related to just the relationships involved with a trade. If the player to trade for wants an extension or the team wants to give the player a contract, does the GM have a good relationship with the agent they will have to work with? Can the owner of that team sign off on the money involved? If the player is added, how does this impact the locker room? Or potential negotiations with other free agents? Or how they fit into how the coaches play? When it comes to publicly commenting on deals or leaking out information to certain people in the media, does the rest of the league respect it or do they get turned off from such actions - hurting future deals? There is a lot of variables in just the human factor of all of this. Everything up until this - and, kind of, The Needs - has been fairly objective. This is not and it is just as important. Who is actually in charge and what they want to do can and does allow for the unexpected to happen.
Here is a great example from the recent past. What led to the One-For-One deal that led to Adam Larsson going to Edmonton for Taylor Hall was then-Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli looking to add a left-sided defenseman in the worst way. He called up Ray Shero and inquired about Larsson. Shero, not thinking it was a serious inquiry, just said he could be had for Taylor Hall. And Chiarelli said “OK.” And so it was done. One for one and something that stunned the hockey world - until the P.K. Subban trade was announced a little later that day.
Shero was not necessarily looking to move Larsson or add Hall. But it happened. Chiarelli wanted a defenseman in the worst way and Shero managed to get a far superior player out of the blue. This may be scuttlebutt, but Chiarelli did confirm that this was the one offer he got to add a defenseman. (Aside #1: And as noted in the Oilers Nation post by Cam Lewis, any cap savings was wiped away by Chiarelli’s bonkers contract to Milan Lucic.) Imagine if Chiarelli was more judicious about adding a defender, or at least not being so desperate to ask about a player, then maybe this does not even happen. Again, the wildcard in all of this was the human making the decisions - and the Devils benefitted in this case. Much to the chagrin of the Oilers faithful.
I will point out that with every front office having a staff of one or more assistant GMs, analytics personnel, and reaching out to coaches, it is not so easy for one person’s whims to just make or break a deal as it may have been in the past. But it can happen. The pressure of the deadline is real. When faced with multiple options and a time limit, decisions may come down more to feeling than fact - and that is something one cannot fully plan for. Adjustments have to be made as the flowing trade market changes with each deal.
The Devils’ Situation with This Issue: Tom Fitzgerald is a former NHL player and has plenty of connections around the league between his time as Ray Shero’s assistant and his current job. I do not think he has a poor reputation. He definitely not Lou, who remains moving in silence like the ‘g’ in lasagna. (Aside #3: Woe to those who choose to turn the comments section of this post into a litigation on Lou Lamoriello.) But he is not someone who strikes me as impulsive. As much as I can point out that he did not close out a deal for a top-six winger this Summer - and it has worked out so far - he did ink Dougie Hamilton when he was the biggest free agent in 2021. The honest truth is that this is as much as an unknown as to what deals the Devils actually have cooking. Fitzgerald has not been in this position of being a buyer by the deadline before. He was Shero’s assistant in 2018 and that was the only other time the Devils were buyers in the post-Lou era. What will Fitzgerald seek out? What will he come away with? We will find out when it happens. I do have more confidence in him than, say, Peter Chiarelli.
Anything Else to Note
Sure, here are a couple of other things to look for ahead of the deadline on March 3.
- Look for who is scratched. Sometimes, a player is scratched because the coach does not want to play him for one reason or another. Think Alexander Holtz. But if a regular is sitting, then it could be a sign that deal is in the works. Arizona and Columbus even announced that Jacob Chychrun or Vladislav Gavrikov were scratched for trade-related reasons. This is not a new thing in hockey, but it is something to look for as teams play games.
- Look for who is injured. Why a player is scratched ahead of a deal is primarily to avoid an injury to ruin a deal. Injured players can be traded; but it can absolutely undercut a deal being made - especially if the expectation is for the player to help a team out. Likewise, a recent injury could force a team to change their needs for the deadline.
- Look at the schedule. A team can make a trade at anytime. Yet, it is ideal if a player is brought in with a chance to practice, meet the new teammates, and start to get acclimated with their new place. The Devils are in the middle of a seven-game-in-twelve-day run with games every other day except for this weekend, which is a back-to-back. The Devils will have a chance to breathe on February 26, 27, and 28 with no games to play. Then they will go to Colorado on March 1 and spend deadline day in Las Vegas on March 3. If the Devils are going to make a deal, then I think one of those last three days in February makes sense. Of course, trades can and do happen before, during, and right after games so take that guess with a grain of salt.
- Also: Take reports, sources, and such rumors about deals with a grain of salt. There is a lot of Internet ink being spilled about teams being linked to players. The thing is that the trade market is a constantly shifting one that is not always objectively or rationally defined. Teams call up other teams all the time around this time of year just to ask about a player. That is only asking. It is exciting to ponder (and dreadful to fear) a team acquiring someone in a trade, but an inquiry often just ends there. Reports about who is talking to who or not talking to who are just that reports. Information changes quickly and these reports often become out of date just as fast. Acknowledge it but do not let it mean something is or is not going to happen for sure.
- As ever, be careful who you get information from. There are still a lot of posers, fake insiders, and people looking to have a laugh by making up a rumor or reporting a fake deal. Sticking to the usual names who work for actual companies, such as Elliotte Friedman or Renaud Lavoie, may be boring but they are not going to lead you astray either.
- Take a break if you need it. If you are tired of the Timo Meier discourse or trades in general, then you can step away from it. Fortunately, there are games to focus on as well as other issues with the Devils. Or you can do other things not related to the Devils, I suppose.
The Devils are expected to be buyers. The salary cap is an issue for them right now, but it is not something unique to them or something that cannot be overcome. The Devils have picks and prospects they can offer, they have the roster space, they will have room for the future (as of now), and the team’s needs can be met by the deadline. Will Fitzgerald make the moves to improve the team for the stretch run to the postseason? What other deals do you expect to go down from now until then? Please leave your answers and other trade-related questions and thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.