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Are the Devils Better off Buying or Selling at the Trade Deadline?

The Devils could go in either direction at the Trade Deadline, loading up for a playoff run or conceding that its not going to be their year and gearing up for 2024-25.

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2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
What will Tom Fitzgerald do at the Trade Deadline this year?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The roller coaster that has been the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils season has experienced some pretty significant highs. The team has also experienced some devastating lows between their recent rash of injuries and the subpar goaltending they’ve gotten all season.

All of this raises the question of what exactly they should do at the trade deadline with the team at a crossroads and the season hanging in the balance. Should the Devils go for it, or take a step back and reaccess? This is a question that seemingly has a different answer as we go week-to-week and perhaps even day-to-day.

If you had asked me back when I said the Devils looked nothing like a playoff team, I probably would’ve looked at you and begrudgingly accepted that maybe its just not going to be their year and that selling at the deadline would be the move that makes the most sense. But if you had asked me last week when the Devils finally made up enough ground to vault into a playoff spot, I’d say you’re a fool and the Devils should be going for it considering how pot-committed they are in terms of an investment in this team. After all, missing the playoffs isn’t acceptable.

And then this past week or so happened. The Devils lost Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, Jack Hughes, and Jonas Siegenthaler one after another after another after another in a span of just a few days. Add in the torn pec that likely ended Dougie Hamilton’s season and the Devils are missing a Starting Five’s worth of talent from their lineup.

I don’t envy Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff trying to navigate this mess. Nobody asked for these injuries on top of the inconsistencies the team has experienced day in and day out this season. Unfortunately, it’s the hand that has been dealt to Fitzgerald and he’s the guy sitting in the big chair who has to make a call on what the plan is for this team moving forward.

But what should that plan even be? Does it make more sense to look at the injuries as an opportunity to add to this lineup that you otherwise wouldn’t have? Or do you chalk it up as “one of those years” and go in the other direction by selling and doing a soft reset? Both arguments have merit, but which is the correct course of action?

Let’s take a look at the case for each and see if we can come up with a consensus opinion on what, exactly, the Devils should do. But before getting into that, let’s see what the latest even is with the injuries.

What’s the Latest With the Injuries?

Jack Hughes is out with an upper-body injury after taking an awkward fall late in the win over Chicago last Friday. Elliotte Friedman reported over the weekend that the expectation is that Hughes won’t need surgery and that the injury is arm-related. The Devils might have dodged a bullet in that he won’t need surgery, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be back soon as this injury timeline is “considered a matter of weeks, not months”. Hughes will be reevaluated on a weekly basis until it is determined he’s healthy enough to practice, let alone play.

Ondrej Palat suffered a lower-body injury during practice last week, with Lindy Ruff saying at the time that he’s likely unavailable for the next few games. Palat did not play last weekend, and it doesn’t look like he’ll play anytime soon as he was lumped into a group with Dougie Hamilton and Tomas Nosek of players “We don’t expect back short-term”.

The one player who might be the closest to returning is Timo Meier. Meier recently resumed skating “in a limited fashion” and while he hasn’t yet returned to practice, he’s probably in the “sooner rather than later category” to return according to Ruff. Meier was placed on IR retroactive to December 30th over the weekend, so he would be eligible to be activated once he is deemed healthy enough to play.

As for Jonas Siegenthaler, we at least know what his injury is as Lindy Ruff disclosed that he suffered a broken foot after blocking a shot during Saturday’s loss to Vancouver. We don’t know how long Siegenthaler will be out, but seeing as it’s a broken bone, we have an idea what the timeline for that type of injury might be. Siegenthaler was placed on IR prior to yesterday’s practice, with Cal Foote being recalled to take his spot on the roster. Shane Bowers was also recalled, replacing Graeme Clarke who was assigned to Utica on Monday.

They join Dougie Hamilton on the shelf, as the veteran defenseman has been out indefinitely since early December with a torn pectoral muscle. Tomas Nosek was recently placed on LTIR as he remains out with a foot injury. Neither player is close to returning to the lineup, and Hamilton is likely to miss at least the remainder of the regular season.

Assuming the information we have is accurate and there are no setbacks, I’d guess Meier is the closest to returning, followed by Hughes, and then who knows when it comes to Palat, Nosek, and Siegenthaler.

The Case For the Devils Buying At the Deadline

If there is such a thing as good news when it comes to injuries, I think its that the Devils have at least shown they can get by without Hamilton and Nosek in the lineup for a stretch. That’s not to say they don’t miss Hamilton and what he brings to the table, but the results in terms of the win-loss record are what they are since they’ve been out of the lineup and the Devils are still very much alive for a playoff berth.

Obviously, it’ll be challenging for the Devils to get continue getting by without Hughes, Meier, Palat, and Siegenthaler out now on top of what they were already missing. Say what you will about any of those players and how they’ve played at various points this season. They’re still NHL-caliber players and its a significant dropoff between them and the bottom of the roster with players like Max Willman, Shane Bowers, and Cal Foote. The guys who have been here all need to step up, from Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt to Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. Unfortunately, the Devils depth has been compromised, the bottom six is a mess, and expect to see a lot more Brendan Smith going forward. To be clear, I believe the Devils did a good job this offseason of putting the requisite depth in place to get through an 82-game season. But at some point, I don’t care how deep your roster is when you’re missing $36M worth of players from your regular lineup for an extended period of time.

There aren’t a lot of positives to look to at the moment, but one of them is how light the schedule is going forward. The team, which hasn’t played since Saturday, has nine games between now and February 6th, thanks in part to the Devils having a “bye week” leading into the All-Star Game on February 3rd. And while its a very difficult nine-game stretch (more on that in a bit), there’s a reasonable chance Meier returns sometime in the near future. I would guess Hughes is already penciling February 6th as a potential return date as well.

Obviously, the rest of the team will need to do their part and keep the Devils afloat until they get reinforcements from within. But the team is still right there in the thick of it and they have as much talent as anyone with the very significant caveat of “when healthy”. The loss to Vancouver, while frustrating given how poorly they played through most of the game, reinforced the notion that this team will fight, scratch, and claw their way to making a game out of any game they’re in. If nothing else, they’re a live underdog.

Shouldn’t a team like that be rewarded and get much needed reinforcements at the deadline?

The Devils already had some flexibility to do something at the deadline with just under $2M in deadline cap space, according to CapFriendly. Or at least they did prior to Nosek going on LTIR and the Devils needing to recall Bowers and Foote to have enough healthy players to ice a team. More importantly, they also have $9M of Dougie Hamilton LTIR money unspent and burning a hole in their pocket.

The Case for the Devils Selling at the Deadline

Like a boxer going up against prime Mike Tyson, the Devils have taken punch after punch over the last 30 games or so.

At some point, one can only withstand so many brutal shots before they go down for the count.

When you’ve been as unlucky with injuries as the Devils have been thus far, there’s little reason to think that luck will turn around. Murphy’s Law says anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Why would things change now?

Of course, any hope of the Devils making a run is under the assumption that the team doesn’t lose anybody else to injury for anything more than a handful of days on top of the players already out of the lineup. Injuries aren’t an excuse as everybody deals with injuries, but they can certainly be a reason to explain why the team ultimately finishes wherever they finish in the standings. It’s also under the assumption the coach will not be part of the problem (no more second line Nate Bastian, please and thank you) and stay out of the way.

With any injury, setbacks are certainly a possibility. Nobody wants to see anyone rush back only to aggravate an existing injury. Yet, the Devils are probably going to need every last point they can get in order to make the playoffs. It’s a tough balancing act the Devils will need to manage going forward.

I mentioned how the upcoming schedule is light in terms of quantity of games earlier, but I didn’t mention how loaded it is in terms of quality. They have Tampa on the road twice, Florida on the road, Boston on the road, Carolina on the road, and home dates against Vegas and Dallas before the end of the month. It’s as tough a stretch as you can get in this league and the kind of stretch where if the Devils can survive it at NHL .500, you’ll feel great about their chances coming out of it with reinforcements on the way. It’s also the kind of stretch though where if they go 2-8-0, they’ll wish they didn’t blow so many opportunities earlier in the season to bank “easy” points because its coming back to bite them now with their backs against the wall.

Obviously, the biggest on-ice argument against going for it at the deadline is the Devils goaltending. With everything else that has changed recently for the Devils, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that the goaltending is still somewhere between inconsistent and bad. There is no easy fix there. The prices for goaltenders at the deadline are currently outrageous, and Fitzgerald isn’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength. As frustrating as it would be for the Devils to punt on addressing the position in-season, more options will present themselves in the summer. The prudent move might be to not make a trade out of desperation and simply wait until the offseason.

There’s also the fact that if the Devils wanted to be sellers, they’d have a few attractive pending UFAs. Tyler Toffoli would fit in the Top Six for a lot of teams looking for a scoring winger, and while we might scoff at the idea of Colin Miller and Brendan Smith being attractive trade deadline targets, their low cap hits, style of play, and skill sets would be easy for most playoff teams to fit in somewhere on their rosters. In addition to that, the Devils do have that aforementioned Hamilton LTIR money to play with. The Devils could clean up nicely by acting as a third-party facilitator and taking on unwanted expiring salaries. And while I get that accumulating more draft picks and futures isn’t exactly exciting given the expectations going into the season, its not necessarily a terrible consolation prize either.

I’m not necessarily saying the Devils should go the seller route, but they’re going to have similar holes in their lineup going into the 2024-25 season regardless of what they do at the deadline. The Devils goaltending issue isn’t going to magically fix itself just because the 2023-24 season came to an end. They’ll need a goaltender and will probably want an upgrade in terms of a defensive defenseman over what they currently have. Assuming Toffoli isn’t back, they’ll also have a Top Six winger spot available. I would expect Tom Fitzgerald to address those holes in a similar manner to what he did this offseason by trading future picks and any players who are deemed to not be a long-term fit, so taking a step back and recouping some of the future draft capital that the Devils have already spent in previous trades for Timo Meier, Curtis Lazar, and Colin Miller would be logical.

What Makes the Most Sense?

This answer might feel like a bit of a cop-out, but I think the path that makes the most sense is probably the Devils doing a little bit of both.

I’ve been consistent with my opinion that the Devils should be beyond punting on seasons and they should be doing what they can to maximize their window. That includes this year, which has gone awry, so I can’t in good faith endorse a plan where the Devils flat-out quit on the season. Unfortunately, opinions are allowed to change and evolve when presented with new information, and I think four key injuries in a span of a week changes the math whether we like it or not.

What is particularly frustrating is that I believe fixing the goaltending fixes maybe 70-80% of the issues the team has in the first place, and the team should get healthier as the season goes on. If the Devils were to get in to the playoffs, they could be that team that “nobody wants to face” and for plenty good reason. So I hate the idea of waving the white flag.

I say all that to say that if they can swing a deal for a goaltender now, they should probably pull the trigger on it regardless of how the next six weeks or so plays out.

The Devils currently have $67.4M committed to next season’s payroll for 16 players, meaning they should have roughly $20M remaining to fill out the rest of the roster, minus whatever they need to put aside for performance bonuses. That number does go to $23.4M in space to acquire 8 players if they trade Vanecek though. Either way, they have enough flexibility with their cap, both this season and moving forward, where they could take a small to medium-sized swing on a goalie.

Pierre LeBrun recently mentioned a Chris Tanev-Jacob Markstrom package making sense for New Jersey and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he has a pretty good idea that the Devils had been checking in regularly on both players prior to these injuries. A trade like that where you’re picking up an extended rental with the player under control for several seasons is probably preferable to a traditional rental, and a player like Markstrom who has been more consistent year-to-year than John Gibson and is signed for one less season makes more sense to take a stab on to try to solve the goaltending issue than dipping into UFA next summer.

Just to further use that Tanev-Markstrom trade as an example, there’s certainly ways where with some creativity (Tanev salary retention by Calgary and/or Calgary taking back Vitek Vanecek), not only is that doable thanks to Hamilton’s LTIR money, but the Devils should have enough cap space left over where they can act as a facilitator for other teams to recoup some of their draft capital. And while Fitzgerald won’t win any Executive of the Year awards for renting out $2M or so in expiring dead cap charges, draft picks are ammunition and cap space is still a commodity. Recouping the 4th and 5th round picks Fitzgerald previously gave up for Lazar and Miller will make it more palatable when he turns around this summer and gives up 2nd or 3rd round picks for the players he actually wants.

With that said, I’d be surprised if the Devils pursued rentals. They didn’t do it last year with their playoff spot all but secure at the deadline, swinging deals for Timo Meier and Curtis Lazar. Both of those players had some control after last season. They definitely could use a little more help on the blueline (a statement that was true before Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler got hurt), and they were probably a bottom six forward short before all of the injuries hit, but its going to come down to where the Devils are in the standings as we get closer to the deadline that will determine the course of action. It’s probably too early to make that call one way or the other on January 10th.

If it sounds like I’m torn, it’s because I am, as I could see this going either way. The next six weeks will tell us a lot about this team, and the Devils will make it clear what direction they should go in.