The trade deadline for the NHL this season is March 8th, which means teams have a little over a month at this point to determine if they want to be buyers or sellers, and what they want to do to position their franchises for the present and future. For some teams, the answer is already fairly easy. If they are definitively in the playoff hunt and could use a piece or two to become true Stanley Cup contenders, they will buy. On the other hand, if a team is out of it and is having issues this year, they will look to sell to those contenders to gain draft capital for the future.
For teams like the New Jersey Devils, however, at this point, it is far from clear what they will do, or what they should do. Right now, there are sound arguments for selling, for really staying pat, and potentially for buying, depending on how things go once out of the All-Star Break. Tom Fitzgerald just got extended with a nice contract, and he is going to need to get to work this month to determine what the best path is for the present and future of the Devils.
The Case for Buying
Heading into this season, everyone was looking at this roster thinking this was a strong team that should definitely make the playoffs and perhaps could have a deep playoff run in them if things fell the right way. Of course, things have not fallen the right way at all, really they have mostly gone in the opposite direction. There have been a ton of injuries and poor play that have doomed this team to this point. But at the heart of it, this is still basically the same roster that won a playoff series last season and has the potential to do that again should they get hot and get there. The one key weak link this year has consistently been the goaltending position, and that would be the position to buy before the March 8 deadline.
If this team can get healthier quickly thanks to this break we are in right now, they have the talent to go on a run and nab a wild card spot. It is not out of the equation by any means. But with sub-replacement level goaltending, it will never happen. Of course, health is a huge question mark and a big wild card, but if that works in this team’s favor, then one move to get a good goalie could propel this team into a hot stretch to end the season. And there is no better time to be hot than heading into the playoffs, and at that point, this team would be dangerous.
The Case for Selling
On the other hand, the odds of what I just said happening are not terribly high. At the All-Star Break, MoneyPuck has the Devils with a 21.3% chance to make the playoffs. A 1-in-5 chance is not very great. Yes, those chances worked out well for Fulton Reed and the Mighty Ducks, but this isn’t Hollywood. In reality, those are not great odds, and the Devils will need a ton to go right over the next two months to get into a wild card position. And considering what has happened so far this season, who is actually optimistic that the best-case scenario will come to pass? This team has looked listless at times, and they have not played with the desperation needed of a team that is holding onto their playoff hopes by only a thread.
To that end, selling certain pieces could really boost this team’s prospects for next season and beyond. And considering how young this roster still is, that isn’t a bad thing at all. Players like Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tierney, and Colin Miller are all in the final year of their deals and could be rental targets for other teams. Or, they could move someone like Nathan Bastian or Curtis Lazar, guys who have another year left after this one. Yes, only Toffoli is really going to bring back a big haul of the names I just mentioned, but I don’t think anyone believes this team is in pure firesale mode, so you wouldn’t see any major selling regardless. Maybe Erik Haula would be the biggest surprise to get moved, as he has 2 years left after this one, but even then I doubt it. Selling at this deadline wouldn’t be to stockpile for a distant future. It would be to reload for next year. Little moves like that could give Fitzgerald the pieces he needs to upgrade the goaltender position in the offseason or to get another piece he feels this team needs.
None of the Above
There is also a chance that they really don’t do much of anything before the deadline. As mentioned, besides goaltender, which is desperately needed, there is still a lot to like about this roster, even if it has underperformed and been struck with lots of injuries this season. And the Devils have already shipped out a few 2024 draft picks. As of now, the team does not have a 2nd or 4th round selection, and we all know the dangers of just trading away pick after pick to win now. That is what Lou did that doomed this franchise a decade and a half ago, and we don’t want to see that again. Buying heavily for a 20% chance could easily lead to folly and could destroy the bright future this team has. But selling might seem imprudent too, especially if the returns for guys not named Toffoli are not great. Putting that all together, Fitzgerald might opt to keep things as is and let it play out. Maybe the 1-in-5 hits and they get lucky, but at that point, it would just be a learning experience for this team heading into next year. Then, in the offseason, he could look to bolster the roster with a better goaltender and whatever else is needed at that point.
In the end, a lot still rides on how this team performs in February. Come the deadline in early March, the playoff odds for NJ could look very different. Maybe they get on a hot streak and it forces Fitz to buy. Or, they remain cold and trade wins and losses and enter March mostly out of it. That would make deciding to sell much easier. But you can bet that Fitzgerald has all of the scenarios playing out in his head as we speak, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the trade deadline this season.