The New Jersey Devils are at the beginning of an eight-day break that doesn’t seem them play another game until Feb. 24. But just because they’re out of action doesn’t mean there hasn’t been news in the last 24 hours. Yesterday morning, Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli reported that the Devils have interest in Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser. Their interest in Boeser is nothing new, either, as Seravalli indicated the Devils had deep talks with the Canucks about Boeser in the past but could not agree to a deal.
Not only did Seravalli connect the Devils to Boeser, but he also connected them to Chicago Blackhawks forward Brandon Hagel. The 23-year-old is in the middle of a breakout season, with 14 goals and 27 points in 44 games — a 26-goal, 50-point pace over 82 games. It’s no secret the Devils are in the market for a scorer at this point, so let’s take a look at what each player could offer the team.
Hagel an Intriguing Option at the Right Price
We’re going to start this post off with Hagel, even though he’s not the flashier name of the two. I was pretty unaware of the season he’s having with the Blackhawks. But when looking up his underlying metrics, you could very well argue he’s been their best forward.
To date, Hagel has a goals above replacement (GAR) of 12.7, the best mark on the Blackhawks this season. That’s about on par with his expected GAR of 11.3, which is second-best on the team to Alex Debrincat. He’s been their most-efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 1.96 points per 60 minutes. There’s a lot to like about what he’s done this season, but there are also some concerns.
For starters, Hagel is shooting 19.2 percent on the season, which is not sustainable in the long run. He’s scored 14 goals on 8.46 expected goals at all strengths, so there will be some regression down the road. What does that look like if it happens next season? That’s hard to say for certain, but it’s more likely he’s a 15 to 20-goal, 40-point scorer in a middle-six role. Still, he’s a good player who’s had a notable positive impact on the Blackhawks:
Per Seravalli, he reports the Blackhawks’ ask for Hagel is a first-round pick and a top-tier prospect. The Devils have the sixth overall selection in the 2022 draft as it stands, so that’s probably a no-go for them for a player like Hagel.
As for a top-tier prospect, it’s hard to imagine the Devils parting with any one of Alexander Holtz, Luke Hughes or even Shakir Mukhamadullin for Hagel. Based on Seravalli’s report, the Blackhawks’ ask seems like, “we won’t trade Hagel unless you offer us something we can’t refuse.”
It’s easy to see why the Blackhawks would have that train of thought, too, especially when you look at the visual above. Hagel is 23 years old, is having a breakout season, and is under contract through 2023-24 at an insanely valuable cap hit of $1.5 million. Even if he regresses some, he’s likely to provide more value than $1.5 million per year. However, a first-round pick and a top-tier prospect for Hagel seems like a pretty big stretch since he’s never produced at this rate before. If the Blackhawks come down from their price, there may be a deal to be had, but it’s hard to see it right now.
Devils Could Use Boeser’s Goal Scoring
Boeser is not the only Canucks forward the Devils have been connected to lately. Just a couple of weeks ago, Elliotte Friedman also reported their interest in Conor Garland. I touched on both players in a post when the rumors first appeared. But now that Seravalli has confirmed the Devils’ interest in Boeser, it’s worth going into a deeper dive.
Boeser did not get off to a great start this season. But ever since the Canucks hired Bruce Boudreau as their head coach, he’s been on a tear, totaling 18 points in 22 games. That’s closer to the Boeser most fans have grown to know since he entered the NHL in 2016. Eleven of those points have been goals as well, so it looks like he’s back to being a high-end sniper. However, it is a bit concerning that more of his goal scoring has come on the power play rather than at five-on-five:
Compared to Garland, Boeser is the worse five-on-five scorer — Garland has averaged 2.25 points per 60 minutes since the start of 2019-20, while Boeser has averaged 1.79 points per 60 minutes. That’s not a poor scoring rate from Boeser, but it’s not one you’d expect from a winger who’s averaged 63 points per 82 games since the start of 2019-20.
With that said, Boeser would have the opportunity to play alongside some pretty skilled play drivers in New Jersey in Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. Hughes is beginning to break out, while Bratt has been the Devils’ best play driver all season long. Those three could all be linemates, which is a scary thought when you consider what Bratt and Hughes could do to help improve Boeser’s five-on-five scoring because of their play driving.
There’s no doubt Boeser is a fit for the Devils. They need a scoring upgrade, and he’d very much give them one, especially if he, Bratt and Hughes end up as linemates. The key is, what will it cost to acquire Boeser? And that’s where things get a bit tricky.
Boeser’s Situation Complicates Value
Boeser is in a bit of an interesting spot regarding his contract status. He’ll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer and has a pricey qualifying offer of $7.5 million. Per Seravalli’s reporting, he emphasized that Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford has stressed creating cap flexibility.
If that’s the case and the Canucks are looking to shed salary and teams aren’t crazy about Boeser’s qualifying offer, that will lower his value. Thomas Drance and Jamie Dodd spoke about that on the latest episode of Canucks Hour (about 30 minutes in), so they’d very much be selling low on Boeser if they moved him now.
The Canucks wouldn’t come away with a bag of pucks for Boeser, but landing top-tier assets given the circumstances is not a guarantee at all. If the Canucks are selling low, they aren’t getting Luke Hughes. The Devils are not giving up Jack’s younger brother for a scoring upgrade only to upset Jack, so that was a pipe dream anyway.
Holtz is probably not an unreasonable ask from the Canucks, but I would be surprised if the Devils parted with him because, again, circumstances. Plus, Holtz will probably be able to have the same impact as Boeser in a couple of years, and he’ll be much younger and perhaps still on his entry-level contract. That matters, especially if the Devils want cap flexibility themselves when they’re ready to be playoff contenders.
The name that’s been floated around with the Canucks is Pavel Zacha. Jeff Marek reported their interest in Zacha less than a week ago, and Seravalli speculated that Zacha could be one of the pieces in a potential Boeser deal. In the same episode of Canucks Hour mentioned above, Drance indicated the thought around the industry is the Canucks have interest in Devils defenseman Ty Smith. He’s struggling this season, but he’s still only 21 years old and was a highly-touted prospect around this time a year ago.
Given the Canucks’ potential desire to shed salary and that teams aren’t crazy about Boeser’s qualifying offer, Zacha and Smith are not an unreasonable starting point. Zacha may be an RFA this summer, but he will not cost anywhere as much as Boeser. Smith is still on his entry-level deal, meaning the Canucks would get two NHLers but with some cap flexibility instead of re-signing Boeser to a pricey extension, if that’s what they really want.
The Devils would have to throw in a draft pick, but if the Canucks are going to sell low on Boeser to free up cap space, I’m not sold on it being a first-round pick. It probably will be, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lock. If it is, the Devils would have to ask for some conditions since they have the sixth overall pick in the 2022 draft (likely something along the lines of top 10 protected, or it slides to 2023).
If that’s what it takes to acquire Boeser, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald probably has to make the deal. If Rutherford ultimately decides he wants cap flexibility and is willing to move Boeser to get it, there’s a real chance for the Devils to buy relatively low on him.
Boeser’s contract situation is tricky, so that will have to sort itself out; the Devils will have to get him signed to a long-term deal to make a trade worth their while. But he’s exactly what they need in a scoring upgrade, and he fits in with the team’s core since he’s only 24 years old. He’d be the better option over Hagel, especially for what the Blackhawks’ ask is, and he’d likely help the Devils take a step forward once 2022-23 begins.
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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