The Devils’ 2020 Fire Sale: One Year Later

This week marks the one-year anniversary of a flurry of Devils’ trades. The team made two deals on Feb. 16, 2020, and another three eight days later at the trade deadline, selling off every asset they could in a bid to strengthen their rebuild. New Jersey moved their captain, their co-leading goal-scorer, and one of their top defensemen. The year since has been anything but typical, but it still gives us enough distance to analyze how these deals have worked out for the Devils thus far.

The Path to the Fire Sale

Nothing had gone according to plan for the Devils in 2019-20. The team had made several splashes in the offseason; drafting Jack Hughes first overall, trading for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, and signing Wayne Simmonds. But New Jersey failed to win any of their first six games, and things never got much better. Head coach John Hynes was fired in December with the team sitting at 9-13-4. General manager Ray Shero followed him out the door in January, replaced by assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald.

Ray Shero, New Jersey Devils
Former GM Ray Shero addresses the media at the New Jersey Devils 2017 Development Camp. (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

Shero’s last big decision was selling off Taylor Hall in December, less than two years after the winger won the Hart Trophy. Hall and Blake Speers went to the Coyotes in exchange for a package of picks and prospects highlighted by Arizona’s first-round pick in 2020. The Devils later used that pick to select center Dawson Mercer 18th overall.

February 16, 2020: Trade #1 – The Captain

With a little over a week remaining until the trade deadline, the Devils shifted fully into selling mode. Andy Greene, playing in his 14th season with the franchise and fifth as captain, was traded to the Islanders in exchange for defenseman prospect David Quenneville and New York’s second-round pick in the 2021 draft.

Andy Greene New Jersey Devils
Andy Greene, former New Jersey Devil (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Greene, now 38, has since settled into a third-pairing defenseman role for the Islanders. Quenneville, still only 22, appeared in seven games for the Binghamton Devils last season before COVID shut everything down. He has yet to play this season through Binghamton’s first three games.

Trade #2 – The Goal Scorer

The Devils stayed busy that day, dealing Blake Coleman to the Lightning. At the time, the 28-year-old was tied for the team lead with 21 goals.  With Tampa Bay pushing hard for a championship, New Jersey was able to extract a hefty return for Coleman: a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, and winger Nolan Foote, whom the Lightning had just drafted in the first round in 2019.

Blake Coleman #20, New Jersey Devils
Blake Coleman, former New Jersey Devil, October 20, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Coleman certainly enjoyed the outcome of this trade as he went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Lightning last season, chipping in five goals and eight assists in the playoffs. The Devils used this first-round pick, which was originally Vancouver’s, to select defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin. Neither he nor Foote has appeared for the Devils yet, but their youth and potential represent a promising future for the organization.

February 24, 2020: Trade #3 – Moving on From a Disappointment

Eight days later, with the trade deadline just hours away, the Devils got serious about selling anything that wasn’t nailed down. They started with Wayne Simmonds, who had been signed as a free agent in the summer to a one-year, $5 million deal but had disappointed, with just 24 points in 61 games.

Wayne Simmonds New Jersey Devils
Wayne Simmonds, former New Jersey Devil (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Simmonds netted a meager return from the Sabres, just a fifth-round pick in the 2021 draft. The return looks even smaller when considering the Devils retained 50% of his salary. Simmonds tallied just one point in seven games for Buffalo before the shutdown, and later signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Maple Leafs for this season.

Trade #4 – How to Win a Trade

The Devils’ biggest move on trade deadline day saw Sami Vatanen traded to the Hurricanes in exchange for defenseman Fredrik Claesson, forward prospect Janne Kuokkanen, and a conditional 2020 draft pick. Vatanen ranked third on the team in time on ice/game but had struggled with his health that month, spending time on injured reserve. The conditional draft pick was due to be upgraded from the fourth round to the third depending on how many games Vatanen played for Carolina, so New Jersey caught a break when the COVID shutdown allowed him to get healthy. Vatanen appeared in seven of the Hurricanes’ eight playoff games and the condition was fulfilled.

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Claesson only played for the Devils five times before the season was shutdown, later signing with the Sharks as a free agent. However, the rest of the deal has turned out rather well for New Jersey. Kuokkanen, 22, has played every game this season and tallied three assists in Tuesday’s win over the Rangers. The draft pick moving into the third round allowed the Devils to select goalie Nico Daws 84th overall. And the cherry on top is that Sami Vatanen came right back to New Jersey in free agency, signing a one-year, $2 million deal, a cap hit less than half of his previous contract.

Trade #5 – The Anticlimax

After a burst of trades, the Devils capped it off with a bit of a whimper. They sent Louis Domingue to the Canucks in exchange for Zane McIntyre in a swap of minor league goalies. Neither has appeared in an NHL game this season.

The Devils’ Bright Future

Taking stock of the deals the Devils made last February, it’s easy to see the progress the team made in accelerating their rebuild. Given Greene’s age, it’s arguable that Coleman was the only real asset they lost. And yet they were able to net three prospects in Kuokkanen, Foote, and Quenneville, as well as four draft picks. With a strong youth movement already being led this season by the likes of Hughes and Ty Smith, the Devils could be contending for deep playoff runs again within a few years if these youngsters develop well.

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