Things have quieted down dramatically since a busy opening day of free agency on Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean the New Jersey Devils are done wheeling and dealing after signing star defenseman Dougie Hamilton. In his press conference yesterday, general manager Tom Fitzgerald stated he’s still searching for a top-six winger.
There are still options on the trade market for Fitzgerald, and there’s still one big-name unrestricted free agent worth considering. Adding a top-six winger is a pressing need for the team, so I’d expect Fitzgerald’s pursuit to continue until he finds a deal he likes. Plus, a look at the Devils’ trade of Will Butcher and why it was the right time to move on from the 26-year-old blueliner.
Devils Give Butcher a Fresh Start
After signing Hamilton and Jonathan Bernier on Wednesday, the Devils decided to deal Butcher and a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres. The Devils received nothing in return, and there was no salary retained on the final year of his deal, which comes at a cap hit of $3,733,333. Some fans were a bit upset about the Devils giving up a pick and not receiving something in return. But I don’t think they had much of a choice if they wanted to move Butcher.
Butcher had a sensational rookie season in 2017-18, where he recorded 44 points in 81 games. His production slipped a season later, but his underlying numbers were still strong. However, since then, both his traditional and advanced stats have dropped quite a bit. After having a goals above replacement (GAR) of 13.1 in 2018-19, he was barely above replacement level this season, finishing with a GAR of 0.6.
There are a couple of factors for Butcher’s struggles in 2020-21. For starters, the coaching change didn’t help. With the hiring of Lindy Ruff, the Devils moved to an up-tempo, rush-based system. That became a problem for Butcher since he lacks quickness and explosivity in his skating. Ruff seemed to recognize that, which is why Butcher was a healthy scratch for more than half of the season.
The lack of playing time and his struggles hurt Butcher’s value and are most likely why the Devils were never going to get anything significant in return for him. It was a bit of a surprise they couldn’t get at least a late-round pick for him, but it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
With the Devils’ additions over the last few weeks, it was clear there wasn’t a spot for Butcher in their regular blue line rotation moving forward. They get his contract off the books, and he gets a fresh start in Buffalo. It’s unlikely he ever reaches the level he did as a rookie. But he does seem like a prime bounce-back candidate and should be a good trade chip for the Sabres at next season’s trade deadline if he rebounds.
Devils Still Have Options for a Top-Six Winger
The Devils’ quest for more scoring continues this offseason. They were in pursuit of Brandon Saad before he signed a five-year deal with the St. Louis Blues yesterday afternoon. They’ve scoured the trade market, including engaging in talks for Vladimir Tarasenko, but have yet to have anything materialize.
Because the Blues added Saad to their top six, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Devils re-engaged in trade talks for Tarasenko. Jeremy Rutherford hinted at that possibility in his latest piece for The Athletic (From ‘Blues sign Brandon Saad: What it means for the forward lineup and how it could spark a Vladimir Tarasenko trade,’ The Athletic – 7/29/2021). The Blues overplayed their hand with Tarasenko, and his trade value only decreases with each passing day he remains with the team. I think it’d be smart of the Devils to check back in since that’s the case. They should be able to acquire him without giving up any valuable assets. And if he’s healthy, it could turn out to be a real low-risk, high-reward acquisition.
If a deal for Tarasenko doesn’t work out, the Devils should still have options on the trade market. One name to consider is Jake DeBrusk, whose name has seemingly been in the rumor mill since last offseason. The Boston Bruins have $1.089 million in cap space, and with DeBrusk seemingly having fallen out of favor with head coach Bruce Cassidy, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they dealt him before the start of next season. He’s only 24 years old and has shown he can score 20-25 goals a season. Like Butcher, he seems like a good bounce-back candidate in 2021-22.
Another trade option to keep an eye on is Vegas Golden Knights winger Reilly Smith, who The Fourth Period linked to the Devils in their latest trade watch update. Smith is a solid two-way winger with strong underlying numbers and has averaged 54 points per 82 games the last three seasons. He only has a year left on his deal, but he’d be a good stop-gap option until prospects like Nolan Foote or Alexander Holtz are ready for full-time NHL action. Because he’d likely be a cap dump and only has a year left on his contract, he should cost very little to acquire.
But before exploring the trade market, the Devils still have a great option available to them in free agency. Tomas Tatar was a healthy scratch for a majority of the Montreal Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. But make no mistake, he was one of the team’s best players at five-on-five over the last three seasons. His expected goals percentage of 59.8 percent ranks first in the league for forwards with 1,000 minutes at five-on-five since 2018-19. Overall, he’s had an overwhelmingly positive impact at even strength:
Evolving-Hockey predicted Tatar to land a three-year deal at a cap hit of $5.236 million as a UFA. But the longer he goes unsigned, the cheaper he should be. Plus, his value is likely already depressed after not playing for most of the playoffs. If the Devils can sign him to a two or three-year contract for around $4 to $4.5 million per year, it’d be well worth the gamble. He’s averaged 62 points per 82 games over the last three seasons, so he’d be a big boost to the Devils’ top six. Unlike a trade, he won’t cost assets to acquire, so that gives Fitzgerald the potential to add great value to his roster.
In short, the Devils still have plenty of routes to find a top-six winger, even as free agency has dwindled down. They also still have options on the trade market, as not all the dominoes have yet to fall. It’s a pressing need for the team if they want to make real noise after acquiring Hamilton and Bernier. So I expect Fitzgerald to get something done before the 2021-22 campaign kicks off. It just may require some patience.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017