Devils Receive Fair Returns for Simmonds, Vatanen

It’s no surprise the New Jersey Devils were sellers yesterday, as they traded away Sami Vatanen and Wayne Simmonds before the 3 P.M. trade deadline. They received a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick from the Buffalo Sabres for Simmonds, while they were able to get a few pieces for Vatanen from the Carolina Hurricanes

The Devils are at the bottom of the NHL standings, and they had no other option but to recoup some assets. But did interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald get enough for each player? Here’s a breakdown of both trades. 

Devils’ Return for Simmonds Underwhelming

The Devils signed Simmonds to a one-year deal worth $5 million over the summer, which made him a prime candidate to be a rental if the team struggled. So when it became clear they weren’t going to be playoff contenders, the writing appeared to be on the wall for him. 

When Ray Shero, the Devils’ GM at the time of Simmonds’ signing, brought him to New Jersey, the hope was Simmonds would bounce back. But it’s been an up and down season for the veteran winger, as he had 24 points in 61 games at the time of yesterday’s trade. Those are decent totals for a bottom-six forward, and he could have more than eight goals if it weren’t for some poor shooting luck — he’s fired 110 shots on goal but is only shooting 7.3%. 

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

But Simmonds has been playing a little better as of late. He has five points, three of which are goals, over his last eight games, so he’s finding the back of the net a bit more often. A change of scenery may benefit him, although the Sabres have had their fair share of struggles too. 

Related: Sabres Acquire Simmonds from Devils

As for the return for Simmonds, it’s a bit underwhelming. He may not be the player he once was, but it would’ve still been fair to expect something like a third-round pick in return for him. With that said, there’s not a massive difference between a third and fifth-round selection turning into an NHLer. Where it could have an impact is if the Devils want to use that extra pick as trade bait. Even if the Sabres make a miraculous run to the playoffs and it becomes a fourth-round pick, there wouldn’t be a ton of trade value, so that could hurt them down the road.

Devils Got What They Could for Vatanen

The Devils’ trade of Vatanen was a bit more complicated than Simmonds. They acquired a legit NHL prospect in Janne Kuokkanen, a depth defenseman in Fredrik Claesson — who’ll join the team in the NHL — and fourth-round pick with a couple of conditions on it. 

A bit is going on here, but it’s pretty simple. Vatanen has been dealing with an injury since the beginning of the month, hence the conditions, but he should return in early March. If he plays in five-plus games for the Hurricanes, the Devils receive the fourth-round pick. If he plays in 12 or more games or 70% of the Hurricanes’ playoff games, they receive a third-round pick. It’s also important to note it’s one or the other; the conditions don’t build on each other. And if Vatanen doesn’t play in more than five games, they don’t receive any draft pick at all.

But while getting a pick for Vatanen would be nice, it’s not the centerpiece of the deal. Kuokkanen was a second-round selection of the Hurricanes in the 2016 Entry Draft. The 21-year-old forward is in his third season on North American ice, having spent all of that time with the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate. 

At the time of the trade, Kuokkanen was leading the Checkers with 42 points in 52 games. He has high-end playmaking ability and is versatile enough to play either wing or center. His skating needs to improve, but it isn’t a detriment. He likely projects as a third-line forward, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets a look in the NHL before the season ends. 

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

There’s also the team’s acquisition of Claesson. He hasn’t played in an NHL game this season but had played in 150 games from 2015-2019. He provides almost no offense, but he’s had a generally positive defensive impact when he’s played in the NHL. The Devils’ blue line needs a massive overhaul, so it’s not a surprise to see him get a look with the big club. He could be someone worth keeping beyond this season for organizational depth if he plays well. 

Fitzgerald Made the Right Decision to Sell

The Devils were never going to give up assets at the deadline unless it was for a young player with term on his deal. They needed to hit the reset button and stockpile on assets, which is what Fitzgerald did. Could they haven’t gotten more for Simmonds? Possibly. But he had an eight-team, no-trade list that could’ve limited the options they had to move him. And it was best they got something in return for him because it’s unlikely he was a part of their future.

Related: Hurricanes Trade for Vatanen

The same is true of Vatanen, although they may have been able to get more for him if he were healthy (they were eyeing a second-round pick and then some). If he plays in 12-plus games and they net a third-round pick, then they’ll end up with close to what their asking price was. Kuokkanen is a good prospect, as well, and has a shot at becoming an effective NHLer. There isn’t a ton to complain about in this return, especially if Kuokkanen pans out. So that makes for a pretty successful deadline day for the organization.