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Tom Fitzgerald Put the Devils in a Position to Win: A Summary of the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline

After landing Timo Meier over the weekend, Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald made one more move before the deadline to add Curtis Lazar, a depth forward. This post explains how Fitzgerald did a good job addressing several needs.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at New Jersey Devils
Good job, Tom Fitzgerald
Tom Horak-USA TODAY Sports

Different teams have different objectives going into the NHL Trade Deadline every year. If you are a buyer, you may make a litany of moves like the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs did in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline to enhance your chances of winning the Stanley Cup. If you are being honest with yourself and acknowledging that it’s not your year, you can retool on the fly like the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators did, stock up on assets, and live to fight another day. And then there are all of the teams in the mushy middle who make moves for a variety of reasons, are overselling their chances of winning or contending, are failing to acknowledge that they’re not actually good enough and be more aggressive in selling. Not to mention whatever the heck the Philadelphia Flyers are doing.

After many seasons of being sellers, Tom Fitzgerald and the New Jersey Devils correctly approached the 2023 Trade Deadline as first-time buyers. Perhaps even more impressively, they didn’t go overboard like the first time you might have at 23 years old the first time you got that big paycheck from your first real job and blew every last penny of it partying. Already one of the best teams in the NHL, the Devils made a pair of acquisitions that addressed specific needs and prepare the 2022-23 version of this team for the postseason. They also did it while maintaining flexibility moving forward. They kept their very best prospects while trading away from their depth, and accomplished this without mortgaging the future.

As you undoubtedly have heard by now, the Devils acquired the services of Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks over the weekend. Meier was the single best player who was traded in-season this year and while he has yet to make his debut for the Devils, they can rest assured knowing they got the best possible player on the market. He checks every box of what the Devils needed. A scoring winger who can get to the front of the net, score from everywhere, shoot first, ask questions later, and use his size to do whatever he wants on the ice. He can help the Devils power play go from league average to a Top 10 unit. He can do all of this while adding some physicality as well. Meier is a perfect fit, and one that the Devils will be hoping to get to commit to New Jersey long-term as their competitive window is just now beginning to creak open. There is no doubt the Devils paid a significant price, but they did not overpay, and they got their man.

With the heaviest lifting done and with five days to spare before the deadline, Fitzgerald had the luxury of time to continue to monitor the market. He didn’t necessarily HAVE to make a move...the Devils are already a really good team and will be a tough out in the playoffs regardless. If the opportunity to tweak around the edges of the roster presented itself though, Fitzgerald had the flexibility to do so. He did exactly that this morning when he traded a 2024 4th round draft pick to the Vancouver Canucks for veteran forward Curtis Lazar. John broke down the thought process as to why the Devils felt Lazar was worth going after earlier today, but I wanted to highlight this from his writeup....

“Head coach Lindy Ruff has not been particularly pleased with his bottom two lines throughout the season, leading to some bench shortenings and a cycle of scratches that have included, at one point or another, Nathan Bastian, Fabian Zetterlund, Jesper Boqvist, and Alexander Holtz. Holtz is in Utica, Zetterlund was traded to San Jose in the Meier trade, and Boqvist and Bastian have seemingly got back into the coaches’ good graces. Bastian in particular has done well after a couple of games in the scratch suite with goals in back-to-back games. Lazar’s arrival will mean one of them will have to sit. Something that was bound to happen anyway with Meier’s eventual on-ice debut. I do not think Tom Fitzgerald makes this deal just for Lazar to sit around.”

Lazar’s arrival to the Devils roster comes with far less fanfare than Meier, but as with many of the players traded over the last few days, he is here to address a specific list of needs that the Devils had. The Devils felt they needed better defensive play from their bottom six. They felt the need to add a player who will be hard on the puck and forecheck. They wanted to add a little more physicality and toughness, but not to the point where the player is being reckless and stupid. They wanted a player with a little more size who can kill penalties, if needed. Who can play center, if needed. Who can win faceoffs, if needed. They wanted another player who has more than a handful of games of postseason experience on hand to help this group. Lazar checks all of those boxes, and does so at a team-friendly $1M cap hit through the 2024-25 season. When you consider that one of the biggest flaws with the Devils is that the BMW has a tendency to get stuck in their own end, Lazar can help them get the puck out of the defensive zone.

We’ve talked a lot on these forums about what the Devils needs actually are. I didn’t just pull up the TSN Trade Board and randomly wrote about the first 30 or so forwards I saw because I had to file a new post every Wednesday. I covered players that I thought would check boxes of what this year’s version of the Devils were missing and put them in the best position to go as far as possible. We covered a wide variety of players, of all shapes, sizes, and skillsets. We’ve talked a lot about fit, addressing needs, and making it all work while remaining cap compliant. We’ve talked about maintaining enough flexibility to take care of the players who still need to be taken care of when the time comes. One thing we haven’t talked much about is chemistry and not tinkering too much with a team that has consistently been at the top of the NHL standings all season. We also haven’t talked about doing the worst thing a GM can do, which is making a move for the sake of making a move.

Chemistry is difficult to gauge because even with all of the analytics, spreadsheets, and JFresh charts in the world, you don’t know how players will mesh together until they get out there together on the ice in a game setting. There is a learning curve, and time is needed for new teammates to learn each others tendencies. The trade deadline is fun because we can all put our GM hats on and play pretend GM like this is a fantasy hockey league. But this isn’t fantasy. It’s real life. The eye test still matters in this respect. We watch the games and we know the Devils can look really good when they’re firing on all cylinders. We also can see them battle at times and fight through it when teams play a heavier style of hockey or sell out to try to stop Jack Hughes.

It’s easy to look at all of the players that Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek talk about in their 32 Thoughts podcast and fall in love with a big name that doesn’t do much to address an actual need. It’s also easy to make moves for the sake of making moves and overhaul your skater lineup like the aforementioned Bruins and Maple Leafs have. Boston might be the best team of the modern era and Toronto is one of the best teams in the league. There is significant pressure on both teams to win the Stanley Cup right now, for very different reasons. We’ll see how those moves ultimately pan out, although its fair to wonder if either team might have tinkered too much.

It’s also easy to lament moves that other teams made and wonder why the Devils weren’t involved with any of them, but there really isn’t a whole lot that happened in the last few days where I felt Fitzgerald missed the boat or misread the market. I liked Tanner Jeannot enough to write about him last week. I don’t like Jeannot enough to trade five picks and an NHL defenseman for him. I liked players who share some similarities to Lazar like Nick Bonino or Nick Bjugstad. The price on Lazar was lower and you’re getting two more years of control at a low price entering an offseason where you’re going to look to save money on the fourth line and allocate those resources to Meier and Jesper Bratt. I think teams are generally making mistakes if they commit term to 4th line players, but at a $1M AAV, its not anything that will make or break the Devils. I don’t like Max Domi all that much in the first place, so why would I give up a 2nd round pick like Dallas did? Or give up multiple draft picks for Jordan Greenway like Buffalo did? Or give up a first round pick for a pure rental in Tyler Bertuzzi like the mighty Bruins did? Do one-dimensional players like Andreas Athanasiou (just to name a name), who wasn’t moved at the deadline, do anything to move the proverbial needle? No, they do not, and I credit Tom Fitzgerald and his staff for not taking the cheese on the Brock Boesers and Kevin Labancs and Josh Andersons of the world. Fitzgerald correctly assessed the areas of the Devils roster that needed the most help right now going into the final stretch and addressed them in a responsible manner that keeps the Devils window of contention open for many years to come, and he should be commended for that.

Now that the heavy lifting is now complete, the onus falls on Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff to figure out how the new pieces fit together. With the additions of Meier and Lazar up front, the Devils are better positioned to match up against opponents who play specific styles. Maybe that means Yegor Sharangovich sits a game if the Devils want a little more beef up front against a heavier lineup, or maybe it means Nathan Bastian sits because he doesn’t have enough footspeed to keep up in a track meet. If Michael McLeod takes a puck off of his hand and has to miss a week’s worth of games, they have the depth now where they can insert a Lazar into the lineup and not lose a whole lot. Ruff has a wealth of options now at his disposal that he didn’t have a week ago. Add in a Luke Hughes signing once the Michigan season ends, as well as Simon Nemec waiting in the wings in Utica, and the Devils can go nine deep on NHL caliber defensemen. Don’t forget that the Devils have a trio of goaltenders who they trust in Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, and Mackenzie Blackwood as well. This will be one of the deepest rosters in the playoffs.

Are there areas where we can nitpick? Sure. Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of Blackwood. I roll my eyes when someone tries to tell me how well he’s playing while he simultaneously gives up juicy rebounds and four goals a night. I get frustrated that he’s always hurt (and is currently injured again). I’m not a fan of Miles Wood. I would hope that with the Devils depth at forward, they don’t feel obligated to insert him into the lineup every night just because they don’t think they have a better option. If Wood goes back to how he played in January and February, I would hope he’s scratched for one of the other options on the roster. Maybe Fitzgerald could have moved out Blackwood, Wood, or Sharangovich to free up some salary cap space to do something else, but now we’re starting to get in the area of tinkering too much when you’re actively looking to subtract from the NHL team (something most contenders don’t do). The Devils added to this group in a big way and the only noteworthy piece from the NHL roster that he moved out was Fabian Zetterlund. That matters.

I can appreciate that Fitzgerald started some work cleaning up a future problem by seeing Nikita Okhotiuk didn’t have a clear future here and made him part of the Meier trade rather than potentially lose him for nothing on waivers next season. I wish that maybe Nolan Foote, Reilly Walsh, or Tyce Thompson would’ve been moved as well for that reason. And while its nice to see that Fitzgerald has tried to get out in front of a new Jesper Bratt contract in recent days, they still have not agreed to a long-term deal as of this writing.

Ultimately, the business side of hockey will have to wait to be addressed on another day. Today is about the trade deadline, the work Tom Fitzgerald has done to this point to help put the Devils in a position to contend, and the work he did at the deadline to add to this group. Fitzgerald has built one of the deepest rosters in the NHL, and with the trade deadline additions of Meier and Lazar, he has put them in a position to win now. Time will tell whether or not these moves work, if the Devils can win a Stanley Cup, and if not, how close or far away they actually are. The Eastern Conference IS loaded, after all, and the Devils are as likely to win the East as they are to lose in the first round. As far as the 2022-23 iteration of the Devils is concerned though, Fitzgerald has done his part. Now it’s time for the coaching staff and the players to do theirs as we enter the home stretch and the postseason.

You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. Are you satisfied with the acquisitions of Meier and Lazar? Did the Devils do enough to make themselves a legitimate contender? Was there a move or two that they didn’t make or that someone else made that you wish they did? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading.