Devils’ Deadline Day Comes and Goes Quietly

The NHL Trade Deadline came and went without much flash this season. That was to be expected given the current environment. Teams are tight on cap space due to the COVID pandemic, meaning most contenders couldn’t add significant money to their books. 

For the New Jersey Devils, that meant a quiet deadline day that featured just one trade. They sent defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2022 fourth-round pick. That pick could become a third if the Oilers win a playoff round. 

That closed out a series of moves for the Devils that featured them trading Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders for a package that included a 2021 first-round pick. And even though the Devils were sellers, they acquired Jonas Siegenthaler from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 2021 third-round pick. 

There was no blockbuster trade this year. The Devils didn’t acquire themselves another Nolan Foote, but they still added to their draft capital. Plus, they managed to hold on to a notable veteran who should help guide a young squad to finish the season. 

Devils Trade Kulikov to Oilers

Kulikov was a new face to the Devils this season. They brought him in as a free agent during the offseason, signing him to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. He only had two points in 38 games before the trade, but make no mistake, he’s had a strong season defensively. 

Dmitry Kulikov New Jersey Devils
Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kulikov’s even strength defense was worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 3.9 before the trade, 11th-best among all defensemen in the league. He should improve the Oilers’ defense and hopefully help them win a playoff round to help meet the conditions that will give the Devils a better draft pick. 

As for the return, a fourth-round pick is a bit less than I had anticipated. Brandon Montour fetched the Buffalo Sabres a third-round pick, and Kulikov has had a much better season than Montour. A second seemed like a reasonable ask. But if the Oilers win a playoff series and the pick turns into a third, that’s more than a fair return. 

Related: Oilers Acquire Kulikov From Devils

Because Kulikov played so well for the Devils, there was probably a case for re-signing him. With that said, he was a pending unrestricted free agent, and they needed to recoup an asset in the event he walked as a free agent. If they want to bring him back, they can always revisit it in the offseason as they did with Sami Vatanen this year. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if that were the case. 

Devils Retain Murray

Among the Devils’ other pending UFA defensemen was Ryan Murray. Unlike Kulikov, they decided to hang on to the 27-year-old blueliner. The Devils had acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets last offseason in exchange for a fifth-round pick. 

In his trade deadline press conference, general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he received calls on Murray but didn’t have any offers of value. “We weren’t going to give players away” were his exact words. Given that, it probably means he wasn’t getting anything much better than the fifth-round pick they gave to Columbus to acquire him. 

So what’s next for Murray and the Devils? 

Murray has 10 points in 32 games and has looked better offensively than he has defensively. That usually hasn’t been the case with him, though. Aside from a career year offensively in 2018-19, his defensive game has been more of his strong suit. His even strength defense was worth a positive GAR in each of the previous three seasons, but it’s been worth a GAR of minus-0.3 in 2020-21. 

Ryan Murray New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Ryan Murray (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I’d imagine the Devils are betting on that improving next season, especially if they make some additions to their blue line. It’s probably fair to assume they’ll make an effort to sign him to an extension at some point during the offseason, and I think they’d be smart to do so. 

Murray doesn’t turn 28 until the end of September. He’s stayed healthy this season, which has been a problem for him in the past. And with some improvements, he’d be a good second-pair defenseman to have on their roster. 

Related: Devils Acquire Siegenthaler From Capitals

It’s hard to say what a new contract would look like now, but if there’s a path to an extension around 2-4 years, that’d probably make sense for the Devils. He’s an effective two-way defender and could serve as a bridge until prospects like Kevin Bahl and Shakir Mukhamadullin are ready to play in the NHL. Murray’s current cap hit is $4.6 million, and I don’t think there’d be much of an increase there. The Devils have plenty of cap space as is, so there’s probably a path to finding common ground. 

Stars Claiming Vatanen Opens Opportunity for Young Devils

After placing Vatanen on waivers Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Stars went ahead and claimed the defenseman yesterday. He has six points in 30 games this season, though he has played better as of late. 

Vatanen would’ve been a nice veteran presence to have to close the season. But with him and Kulikov now on new teams, the Devils will have a couple of spots for their younger players to get good ice time. One of those being the newly acquired Siegenthaler, who should get second-pair minutes with the Devils. He didn’t play much with the Capitals, but he did have strong defensive impacts. He’s 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and should add much-needed physicality on the Devils’ back end too. 

Other young Devils who could see playing time are Nikita Okhotiuk and Josh Jacobs. Okhotiuk was a second-round pick at the 2019 Draft and plays a physical game. He doesn’t have a ton of offensive upside, but he skates well for someone his size and can move the puck up the ice without constantly chipping it off the glass. The Binghamton Devils, New Jersey’s AHL affiliate, has struggled this season, specifically on defense. But Okhotiuk has played well and was arguably their best blueliner. 

Clarke Okhotiuk Binghamton Devils
Graeme Clarke and Nikita Okhotiuk with the Binghamton Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Jacobs is an interesting story. He was a Devils’ second-round pick in 2014 but has yet to play regular minutes in the NHL. He had a good training camp and was impressive in some of the team’s scrimmages. At 25 years old, it’s worth seeing if he can be a depth defenseman. He has good size at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and plays a sound defensive game. The question is if he can move the puck effectively enough to play in the NHL. Per the team’s website, he is on their taxi squad, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he made his way onto the active roster. 

All in all, it was a relatively successful deadline for the Devils. They now have 18 picks between the 2021 and 2022 drafts, including 10 in 2022. They also have multiple firsts in the 2021 Draft from the Palmieri and Zajac trade, so they have ammo to be active this offseason. How they decide to use those picks remains to be seen, but Fitzgerald has set himself up nicely to help him improve the Devils’ roster in what should be an active offseason with the Seattle Expansion Draft taking place in July. 

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