Entering the 2022 offseason, New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald and his staff knew a lot of work had to be done to overhaul this roster, as the team finished within the bottom three of the Eastern Conference for the third consecutive season. Since that final game on April 29, they made a plethora of acquisitions to try and fix the roster construction. Today, we’re going to rank those moves.
Vitek Vanecek Trade & Signing
During the second day of the 2022 Draft, the Devils traded picks 37 and 70 to the Washington Capitals in exchange for goalie Vitek Vanecek and pick 46. They followed that trade by extending his contract at an average annual value (AAV) of $3.4 million for the next three years.
Vanecek is a 26-year-old from Czechia who can become a nice counterpart to Mackenzie Blackwood. The Devils have been looking for a solid one-two goalie tandem for the past three seasons and they may have something with this acquisition.
The 6-foot-2 netminder may not have eye-popping stats during his two NHL seasons, but he has displayed solid play. He’s played in a total of 79 games (75 started), has a record of 41-22-10, a save percentage (SV%) of .908, goals against average of 2.68, and a .480 quality start average.
Looking further, Vanecek’s numbers excel in the five-on-five area but lack during the penalty-kill. His SV% rises to .922 during five-on-five play – he finished top-10 in this department last season at .926 – but significantly decrease to .862 during the penalty kill.
If he can clean up the penalty-kill mistakes and continue to thrive at even strength, this could be deemed a massive upgrade for the Devils. If both goaltenders can stay healthy, he and Blackwood will likely split time 50/50, which could take a lot of pressure off the former second-round selection and hopefully get him back on track to what the organization believes he can be.
The Grade: B+
Erik Haula Trade
On July 8, the Devils shipped Pavel Zacha to their Eastern Conference foe, the Boston Bruins, in exchange for veteran forward Erik Haula. Zacha, the former sixth-overall selection in the 2015 Draft, spent five full seasons with the organization before becoming a restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason. His potential was high, but the results were ugly.
Zacha played a total of 386 games, accumulated 69 goals, tallied 110 assists, and had a plus/minus of minus-66. Haula, on the other hand, has played a total of nine full seasons which has equated to 534 games played, 112 goals, 128 assists, and a plus/minus of plus-42.
This was a great deal for the Devils. Haula is a third-line center who brings much-needed experience to a very young roster. He has also found himself a lot of postseason experience which Fitzgerald has valued thus far, given all the players acquired this offseason have played in the postseason as recently as last season.
Plain and simple, the Zacha pick was a failure, and it doesn’t make it better when you realize who the Devils could have had instead of the Czech-born lefty, as the organization passed up on guys like Zach Werenski, Timo Meier, Mikko Rantanen, and Mathew Barzal. The Devils wish they could have gotten more from the 25-year-old, but he wasn’t able to produce on the ice when they needed him most. As such, it was time to move on and give him a fresh start. They netted a solid return and a much-needed veteran who can help mold younger players such as Alexander Holtz, Yegor Sharangovich, Fabian Zetterlund, and others.
The Grade: B
Brendan Smith Signing
Heading into the offseason, the Devils had two players above the age of 30 on the roster. Those two players were Tomáš Tatar and Jonathan Bernier. Both guys may very well be on their way out of New Jersey following the 2022-23 season, and Bernier may not even play given his hip injury.
Why is this important? Brendan Smith was the second of three guys brought in a span of 24 hours that were over the age of 30. Fitzgerald has made it clear he wants some veteran leadership in the locker room. This move is low-risk high-reward. With an AAV of only $1.1 million for the next two seasons, Smith will most likely be the sixth/seventh defenseman. This signing isn’t something to get excited about, but he, along with Haula and Ondřej Palát, brings in a whole new dynamic to Newark.
The large-bodied Ontario native comes from the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers school of defense. That means he’s not going to show up on the scoring sheet often, but he’s going to hit you hard and block a lot of shots. The Devils haven’t had a player like that in a long time and Smith is someone who can take a lot of pressure off the goalies given his defensive nature. He probably won’t be seeing a lot of time on the ice, but he can certainly make a bigger impact than one would expect. Again, it’s a low-risk, high-reward move and not a lot should be expected from it.
The Grade: B-
Ondřej Palát Signing
I loved the signing when I first heard the news, then I saw the contract details. Signing a 31-year-old to a five-year deal with an AAV of $6 million is not ideal. The Devils even gave him a no-move clause, meaning that they cannot trade Palát without his consent.
Before the season ended, I wanted the Devils to be all over Palát, as he is a great player who found a lot of success in Tampa Bay. I also believe that he was overlooked and underappreciated during the Lightning’s past three Stanley Cup appearances.
A player of Palát’s caliber is what the Devils have been searching for for quite some time. He is a top-six forward who is used to winning, something the team has been lacking for pretty much a decade now.
Palát will bring similar veteran leadership as Haula and Smith and the three of them can help coach the youth on how a winning locker room should look and act. After all, between the three of them, they have played in 255 playoff games. That’s nine games more than three full NHL seasons.
The fear that comes with Palát – outside of his contract – is there are a lot of miles on his skates. He’s played in 73 playoff games in the past three seasons alone and more than 55 games per season from 2013-14 through 2021-22. The upside in this is that he’s shown that he is durable, but the downside is, that he may not be for long.
The first half of Palát’s contract would be great for a team in win-now mode, but the Devils aren’t quite there yet. Realistically, their near-decade rebuild will be complete at the earliest during the 2023-24 season, but most likely not until the 2024-25 season. As a result, his contract may become a burden at the point where they finally are starting to turn the corner.
At the core, Palát made a lot of sense on both sides. He wasn’t going to get this money given the Lightning’s tight cap and the Devils desperately needed forward help and a culture shift. It’s the contract that should scare the fans and organization in the future though.
The Grade: B-
John Marino Trade
To close out the new acquisitions, we turn to the most recent trade made by the team. The Devils sent Ty Smith and a 2023 third-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for John Marino.
Smith’s situation was like Zacha’s; a former first-round selection with a lot of potential, but it never panned out. Although it wasn’t nearly as big as a disappointment, you could argue it comes close. Smith is an interesting case though, as he never got the second opportunity and time Zacha did. The Alberta native was only given two seasons to showcase his potential, and one of them was the shortened 2020-21 season.
Smith also saw his minutes drastically decrease during last season. After averaging 18:34 time on ice per game in the first two and a half months of the season, it dropped to 14:20 in January. Following the drop, it rose back up to around his normal time the following month. He was seeing an average of 18:18 per game in February, but his time then decreased again to 15:05 come March. Whether they gave up on him too early or not, Devils fans should be very happy with Marino coming back in the deal. The 25-year-old is cost-controlled with an AAV of $4.4 million for the next five years and he is also a very sound defender.
Marino and Smith are complete opposites in terms of their style. The newly-acquired right-handed shot is strictly a defensive type of player and lacks offense. Meanwhile, the organization’s former left-handed shot is more of an offensive type of defender and lacks this type of defensive asset. Given the lack of defensive defensemen of years past, this move seems like a no-brainer.
Marino is modeled as a top-four defender but may see the majority of his time on the third pairing, which shows the depth and overhaul of this defense. However, that all depends on what route head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff want to go.
The Grade: A-
Where All This Leaves the Devils
There is still work to be done to make the Devils a competitive team, but this was a nice offseason for a struggling organization. Their projected cap space currently sits at $73,375, meaning more moves will come sooner rather than later.
The Devils are most likely done with major moves for the offseason, so a lot now hinges on the youngsters. If the youth mix well with the newly acquired veterans and everyone stays healthy, they could be a dark horse playoff team this upcoming season.
Nick Stanziale is a THW writer covering the New Jersey Devils. He is excited to put his journalism degree from Marist College to use and to share his thoughts and feelings on the organization. You can follow Nick on twitter for his latest articles and more.