Over the last couple weeks, I have written about whether or not the Devils should pursue Adam Henrique or Timo Meier as they look to add reinforcements at the trade deadline. Both of these players would make sense for a variety of reasons, but the Devils shouldn’t just look at the big-ticket items as they self-evaluate and assess where they could improve at the Trade Deadline.
Stanley Cups are won primarily because of star players leading their team to victory, but you need contributions from every last player on the roster during a lengthy playoff run as well. Just to use the defending Cup champions as an example, the Colorado Avalanche needed their stars to be stars when guys like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, and Cale Makar regularly filled the scoresheet. Stars are stars for a reason, but with that said, they arguably don’t win without timely contributions from unheralded trade deadline pickups like Andrew Cogliano and Nico Strum.
The Devils are a highly-skilled team, but could use a few more additions up front if they want to be serious about making a deep playoff run this year. We’ve seen other teams push their smaller forwards around at times this year so they could use a little more size upfront to counter that, not to mention a little more snarl.
This week, we’ll take a look at a few players on the Arizona Coyotes who might have what the Devils need in this regard, as well as what the player might cost and how they’d potentially fit in with the Devils.
Nick Bjugstad - An Upgrade at 3C?
Nick Bjugstad is a center and an 11 year NHL veteran with previous stops in Florida, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota. He had a rough 2021-22 season with the Wild and has dealt with injuries the last few years, but is healthy now and has enjoyed a resurgence this year with 11 goals and 10 assists in 49 games for the Coyotes.
The first thing that jumps off the page with Bjugstad is his size. Listed at 6’6” and 215 lbs, he would instantly become the biggest forward on the Devils. He also brings a right-handed shot to a lineup that is heavy on lefties. Arizona has leaned on him on the penalty kill, so Bjugstad would potentially give the Devils another option there if they needed it (and they might seeing as the penalty kill took a step back in January, as John pointed out).
One area where the Devils have struggled is getting consistent offensive production from their third line, particularly at center, so Bjugstad would be an interesting addition. He also has a team-friendly cap hit of $900,000 on a contract that expires after this season, so it shouldn’t take a lot of cap gymnastics for any team to fit him on their roster before the deadline.
Bjugstad isn’t just a big guy on skates though. He has a touch of playmaking ability as you can see in plays such as these.
Bjugstad would bring a little more physicality to the Devils lineup, as he would lead the team in hits. This would be much needed as postseason hockey tends to ramp up the physicality to another level and the Devils will need more guys who are not only tough to play against, but keep other teams from taking liberties and pushing them around. I wouldn’t necessarily consider Bjugstad to be an enforcer, but he’s also not one who will let a questionable hit slide and go unanswered. This is another thing the Devils could use a little more as we’ve seen these Devils not do anything when other teams take a run at their captain.
Bjugstad isn’t the greatest player in terms of possession but I don’t know that I would consider him a liability either. If anything, he’s one of the better defensive forwards on Arizona and has been dragged down by playing with a 19-year old rookie in Dylan Guenther and an average player in Lawson Crouse on his line.
If the Devils acquired Bjugstad, I think the best fit for him would be as the 3rd line center. They could roll a third line of Haula-Bjugstad-Mercer that probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun for other teams to play against after dealing with the Palat-Hischier-Bratt trio and whoever is on Jack Hughes’s line. Or perhaps they put Bjugstad at RW with Tatar and Haula on the line with the same goal in mind. It could also allow the Devils to slide Jesper Boqvist down to the 4th line and improve the ‘M’ or ‘W’ portion of the BMW line by playing one of the better forecheckers on the roster.....assuming Lindy Ruff finally realizes the BMW line is mostly sizzle with no substance.
Bjugstad seems to be undervalued in general around the league, which sounds to me like the perfect guy to target for a potential playoff run. Adam Proteau of the Hockey News speculated that Arizona’s asking price might simply be a 4th or 5th round pick. That seems a little low to me considering the position he plays and his low AAV, but if that price is accurate, the price is right as far as I’m concerned. That would be well worth it to me to add a player who could be a sneaky quality deadline acquisition that could prove to be a difference maker.
Nick Ritchie - Bringing the Physicality?
Nick Ritchie is another large man who would also be one of the bigger forwards on the Devils roster if they acquired him. Listed at 6’2” and 230 lbs, the left winger is an 8-year veteran who has played for the Ducks, Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Coyotes. He is making $2.5M on the final year of his contract before reaching unrestricted free agency this summer, and has 8 goals and 12 assists over 46 games for Arizona.
Ritchie is more of your prototypical enforcer and physical presence who not only toes the line between clean and dirty, he crosses it.
Ritchie has played third line minutes for Arizona this season, but he’s probably best suited for a 4th line role. The problem is that I don’t know that he’s an upgrade over what the Devils presently have. He’d likely be ticketed for Miles Wood’s spot on the roster if the Devils added him. The two players have some similarities but I don’t know that that’s necessarily a good thing. Ritchie is a far worse defensive player and slower skater. They both have a penchant for ill-timed penalties. Like Wood, Ritchie has also been ice-cold offensively with 1 goal and 3 assists since New Year’s Day. He’ll also be tougher to fit in under the cap ceiling if Arizona doesn’t retain salary, and the Coyotes might prefer to save their retention slots for a bigger trade. Keep in mind that Arizona is tying up one salary retention slot on Oliver Ekman-Larsson through 2027, so they only have two to play with every year until then.
Ritchie likely wouldn’t cost much to acquire. My guess is he could be had with a 5th to 6th-round pick or equivalent prospect. I just don’t think acquiring a worse version of Miles Wood is the way to go in terms of improving the team for a playoff push. The Devils should be looking to upgrade over Wood, as he hasn’t been good for several months now, but this is a linear move at best.
Anybody Else from Arizona Pique Your Interest?
Liam O’Brien is a somewhat interesting name at the bottom of Arizona’s NHL roster. The 6’1”, 213 lb. forward has played parts of six NHL seasons with Washington, Colorado, and Arizona, but has emerged as a regular on perhaps the league’s worst roster in part due to his physicality. He is currently on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.
O’Brien is signed through next season with an affordable $775,000 AAV cap hit, so there’s no reason for Arizona to move him at the deadline as he doesn’t have a ton of standalone value. He provides almost nothing offensively but has respectable defensive metrics in limited ice time. I would guess if he got moved, it would be for a D-tier prospect or conditional 7th round draft pick. If you think its worth flipping an Aarne Talvitie type to improve the 14th forward on the roster, I guess that’s something the Devils could do.
Wait, What About the Good Arizona Players We’ve Heard Of?
Umm......what good Arizona players?
The name everyone is looking at Arizona for a potential trade is Jakob Chychrun, who has 2 more seasons remaining on a contract that pays him $4.6M AAV. He’ll be traded at some point between now and 2024, but I don’t think it’ll be to the Devils. The Devils have a few puck-moving defensemen already in the system and Chychrun isn’t exactly a shutdown defender in the first place. He’s not a bad player by any means, just that I don’t think he really fits what the Devils need both in the short and long-term. Let Boston, Edmonton or Toronto overpay for him.
Shayne Gostisbehere and Troy Stecher are pending UFA defensemen but both are flawed players. Gostisbehere is all-offense, zero defense and Stecher is some defense, no offense. The Devils might need a veteran depth defenseman if John Marino takes longer than expected to return to the lineup or the team has no confidence in Kevin Bahl or Nikita Okhotiuk continuing to play sporadic NHL minutes, but neither Coyotes player here is the answer.
Most of the other Arizona forwards I haven’t mentioned are either signed forever (Keller, Schmaltz, Crouse), are bad hockey players (Kassian), or are the few potential building blocks they have on the NHL roster (Guenther, Maccelli). None of this should be surprising as Arizona built their roster for the sole purpose of being as bad as possible this season.
This leaves goaltender Karel Vejmelka, who has solid metrics in net despite only having a .904 save percentage. He’s signed for two more seasons after this one at a reasonable $2.725M AAV.
Full disclosure, I believe Mackenzie Blackwood is closer to being a liability than someone the Devils can rely on. I believe the Devils need to upgrade over Blackwood as the 1B goaltender to ultimately get where they want to be. With all that said, I don’t see the Devils moving on from Blackwood in-season. Vejmelka might be worth circling back on at some point down the road, especially if Arizona wants to keep tanking past this season (and they should as this roster can’t be fixed in one year). The Devils will have to make some tough long-term decisions when it comes to Blackwood, but I don’t think it’ll be done here in the next month.
Arizona should be looking to continue to sell off pieces and acquire more draft capital, but in my opinion, the only piece they have that makes sense for the Devils is Nick Bjugstad. I could see Bjugstad being the quality 3C they lack at a fraction of the price of, say, an Adam Henrique, and he’d bring enough other qualities to the table where I think he’s the type of low-risk, high-reward rental that could pay off.
Aside from that though, I wouldn’t be interested in much else Arizona has to offer. Vejmelka might be a slight upgrade over Mackenzie Blackwood but I don’t see why the Coyotes would make that move now when he’s signed to a reasonable contract and Arizona is still trying to figure out what they have in him. Nick Ritchie is interesting because of his physicality but there’s enough other flaws there with his game where he is probably not an upgrade over what the Devils currently have. The rest of the Coyotes roster is a hodgepodge of bad contracts and bad players, with a couple promising young players sprinkled in that they should not be trading.
You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. Is there anyone on the Arizona roster that has your interest? Would you be interested in Bjugstad as the 3C? Do you agree with me that Ritchie isn’t an upgrade over what the Devils currently have? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading!