Devils Have Other Options if DeBrincat Is Out of Reach

It sure looks like the New Jersey Devils are in for a busy offseason. They’ve already been tied to names like Kevin Fiala and Johnny Gaudreau. Now, we can add Alex DeBrincat to a growing list as David Pagnotta reported the Devils are one of a few teams already showing interest in him. Pagnotta also wondered if the second overall pick, which the Devils own in the 2022 draft, could be in play for DeBrincat. 

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There’s no doubt that DeBrincat is a talent worth a high draft pick in a trade. He’s produced at 40-plus-goal paces over the last two seasons and would provide a noticeable scoring lift to the Devils. But the cost of what it may take to acquire him is something they should consider, given the other options available this summer.

DeBrincat Fills Devils’ Goal-Scoring Needs

Though not much has gone right for the Chicago Blackhawks over the last few seasons, both on and off the ice, DeBrincat has been one of their few bright spots. He finished the 2021-22 campaign with 41 goals and 78 points in 82 games. During the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, he totaled 32 goals in 52 games — a 50-goal pace over 82 games. He had 41 tallies in 82 games as a 21-year-old four seasons ago, so he can clearly put the puck in the back of the net. 

But DeBrincat isn’t a one-trick pony. He has much more to offer than just his shooting ability. He plays well off the rush, which is how the Devils like to play under coach Lindy Ruff. Though playmaking isn’t his forte, he still does a good job setting up teammates for high-danger chances. And even though he’s not a high-end defender, he’s a perfectly average defensive winger at even strength, not something you always see with a player of his makeup: 

Alex DeBrincat
Alex DeBrincat ranks in the 97th percentile in wins above replacement (WAR) among his peers

The Blackhawks have not been a good team during DeBrincat’s NHL career, having made the playoffs once in five years. And that was because they upset the Edmonton Oilers during the play-in round in the Edmonton bubble in 2019-20. Had it not been for COVID, they would’ve missed the postseason altogether. 

But despite the team’s struggles, the numbers portray DeBrincat as one of the Blackhawks’ best players over the last couple of seasons. He finished the 2021-22 season with an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 23.7, first on the team. His xGAR of 18.3 in 2020-21 was also first by a country mile; Connor Murphy came in second with an xGAR of 7. 

There’s no doubt DeBrincat is a quality player, but most of his time with the Blackhawks has come alongside Patrick Kane. Though he may not be the play driver he once was, Kane is still an elite playmaker, which helps a shooter like DeBrincat. However, some of DeBrincat’s five-on-five numbers did improve when away from Kane: 

Time on IceCorsi PercentageExpected Goals PercentageScoring Chances PercentageHigh-Danger Chances Percentage
Debrincat w/Kane1669:3747.86%45.09%45.97%41.7%
Debrincat w/o Kane1281:0447.97%50.6%48.52%51.55%

The reason for the uptick in some of DeBrincat’s numbers away from Kane is pretty simple: Kane is a defense-optional winger at this point in his career. From the Devils’ perspective, it’s good to see that Kane isn’t carrying DeBrincat. It probably means he can sustain his goal-scoring if the Blackhawks trade him, especially if the Devils plan to play him alongside Jack Hughes. But they do have to consider the cost of what it’ll take to acquire him compared to other wingers.

Trading the 2nd Overall Pick Is a Rarity

Talent-wise, there’s no doubt DeBrincat would be worth a high draft pick. If the Devils acquire him, it could mean the second overall pick heads to the Blackhawks. The last time a team dealt away a draft choice that high was in 2001, when the New York Islanders traded the second overall pick to the Ottawa Senators. The Islanders also sent Zdeno Chara and forward Bill Muckalt to the Senators in addition to the second pick, which they used to draft Jason Spezza. 

Yashin’s stint with the Islanders was a mixed bag. Then-general manager Mike Milbury signed him to a massive 10-year, $87 million contract. He had some productive years but never really lived up to the deal. While the Islanders did make the playoffs four of the five seasons Yashin played for them, they never advanced past the first round. They eventually bought him out in 2007, while Spezza would go on to become a star for the Senators. 

Other than that trade (at least in the last 20 years), high picks rarely get traded for NHL talent. The Columbus Blue Jackets did acquire Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers for the eighth and 68th overall picks and Jakub Voracek in 2011. The Flyers used the eighth overall pick to draft Sean Couturier, and Voracek’s best years came in Philadelphia, so that worked out for the Flyers. In 2012, the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for the eighth overall pick, Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin. 

Alexei Yashin
The Islanders’ acquisition of Alexei Yashin in 2001 was the last time an NHL team dealt away the 2nd overall pick (Photo by Mike Stobe /Getty Images)

As you’ll notice, the teams with the high pick usually end up having to deal more assets to acquire a high-end NHL talent. If the Devils are going to send the second overall pick to Chicago for DeBrincat, they will have to give up more, perhaps a top prospect such as Alexander Holtz. 

If we’re going off the Yashin trade, it could include a third asset too. The Blackhawks will likely want someone who’s young and cost controlled that can help them accelerate their rebuild a bit. Either way, a package of second overall, Holtz and another player with NHL potential or who’s already NHL-caliber is a pretty high price to pay. 

Related: Alexei Yashin Trade Revisited

There’s also DeBrincat’s contract situation to consider if you’re the Devils. He has one year left at a cap hit of $6.4 million and will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent next summer. Given his goal-scoring output, he’s in line for a significant pay raise in the next 12 months, perhaps around at least $8.5 million a year. It’s not that the Devils can’t afford to re-sign him, but you could certainly argue either way about whether giving up the blue-chip assets they’d need to give up makes the most sense, especially with what else may be out there on the trade market and free agency. 

It’s Not DeBrincat or Bust

While it’s easy to see the fit for DeBrincat on the Devils’ roster, they will have plenty of other options available to them, such as Fiala. Some people around the league seem to believe the Devils are the favorites to land him whenever the Minnesota Wild pull the trigger on a trade in the next few weeks. (From ‘Would the L.A. Kings be interested in a Kevin Fiala trade? Mailbag, part 1’ – The Athletic, 6/6/2022) 

Everyone knows the Wild’s cap situation this summer. Their dead cap hit will increase to just over $12.7 million due to the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter from a year ago. It’ll also jump an additional $2 million next summer for the next two years before decreasing to $1.666 million in 2025. That means it’ll be near impossible to re-sign Fiala, a restricted free agent this offseason, to a new deal. 

Kevin Fiala Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild winger Kevin Fiala (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While Fiala will cost some valuable assets, he should not command the second overall pick, given the Wild’s cap situation. The Devils would likely be looking at giving up their 2023 first-round pick with some draft protections on it, a prospect, and perhaps a roster play like Andreas Johnsson, who has one year left on his contract at a $3.4 million cap hit (the Devils would need to retain 50 percent to make it work for the Wild). 

Fiala is coming off an 85-point season and has averaged 32 goals and 75 points per 82 games over the last three seasons. He’ll likely command a cap hit somewhere around $7 to $7.5 million on a new contract this offseason. Given he’d cost less to acquire in a trade than DeBrincat, that could be another option the Devils and general manager Tom Fitzgerald consider. 

Related: Devils Can Upgrade Scoring Without Giving Up Second Overall Pick

If the Devils don’t add scoring through a trade, there’s also free agency. Gaudreau may cost quite a bit of cash to sign as a UFA, but signing him doesn’t require giving up anything other than cap space. You can debate whether or not the Devils should pay up for someone like Gaudreau in free agency. But no matter what, you’ll never have to give up the second overall pick and a prospect like Holtz. 

When the dust settles, I’d probably bet on the Devils acquiring someone other than DeBrincat that won’t cost giving up the second overall pick and then some. Fitzgerald will get inquiries and talk to other GMs, but given the rarity of such a high pick getting dealt, the chances are they end up going in a different direction. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey