It might be crazy to think about, but with the NHL season approaching the halfway point, that means the trade deadline will be upon us before you know it. With yesterday marking March 1, most media outlets released a trade bait or trade watch list of players most likely to be moved by the April 12 deadline.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this trade deadline will have an odd feel to it. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams make deals later this month and the beginning of April due to potential quarantines and safety protocols.
If that’s the case, the New Jersey Devils will have some tough decisions to make with their pending unrestricted free agents. Among them are Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev and Ryan Murray. There’s also Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen in a tier below them, as well as Travis Zajac.
Zajac is an interesting case because he was asked to waive his no-trade clause last season but declined to do so. In the middle of a pandemic, it’d be a surprise if he did now, so we’ll sort out his situation another day if need be.
As for the rest of the Devils’ UFAs, they should have some attractive pieces. Let’s look at each and what they could net for them if they decide to make deals.
Per The Fourth Period, Palmieri checks in at no. 7 on their initial top 30 trade watch list. He’s one of the longest-tenured Devils, having been with the team since 2015. He’s in the final year of a five-year deal he signed in 2016 and is due for a significant pay raise from the $4.65 million cap hit he has now.
Palmieri has been a streaky scorer this season. He had three points in his first eight games, then followed it up with six in his next four games. He’s now in the midst of another cold spell, with no points in his last four contests.
Though Palmieri has been streaky to begin this season, consistency is the name of the game with him. He’s averaged 29 goals and 56 points per 82 games and has never finished with less than 20 goals in a season as a Devil. That’s the type of scorer any Stanley Cup contender would like to add to their roster for a playoff push.
In a regular year, the Devils would be looking at a pretty good return for a player of Palmieri’s caliber. But with contending teams in a financial crunch, they may get less than what they’re hoping for. They should still be able to land a top prospect and a relatively high draft pick, but it’d have to be under the right circumstances.
It also wouldn’t be a surprise if the Devils kept Palmieri. He was born in Long Island and grew up in New Jersey. He’s a veteran leader on a young team, and it’s hard to come across consistent goal scorers like him. It is worth noting that The Fourth Period mentioned the Devils could look to trade Palmieri then attempt to re-sign him in the offseason. That doesn’t happen often, but given his roots in the state, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it did.
Gusev was one of the Devils’ best players in the 2019-20 season. He finished with 44 points in 66 games — a 55-point pace over 82 games — and was one of the most efficient 5-on-5 scorers in the NHL. Fast forward to this season, and it hasn’t clicked for him as it did a year ago.
Through 14 games, he has just two goals and two assists and has struggled at 5-on-5. His play at that game state has improved over the last few games, and he does have three points over his previous five games. Some of his struggles have to do with his linemates, though he did play with Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt on Sunday and looked more comfortable alongside players closer to his skill set.
Gusev came in at no. 26 on The Fourth Period’s list but was not on either TSN’s trade bait list or The Athletic’s Trade Deadline Big Board. That could change as the deadline gets closer, but it’s not a total surprise he’s not on most lists, given his start to this season.
At this point, the Devils aren’t likely to get much more than a mid-round pick (maybe a B-level prospect if they’re lucky, too) for Gusev if his production doesn’t improve. If that’s the case, they’d probably be best off hanging on to him, hoping that he improves as the season closes, then signing him to a short-term, prove-it deal if he’s open to it.
Murray was the Devils’ top offseason addition on defense after they acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets for just a fifth-round pick in the 2021 Draft. His tenure with the Devils got off to a good start, and he looked like one of their best defensemen through their first 10 games or so. But he’s struggled as of late and was a healthy scratch for consecutive games this past weekend.
If the Devils do trade Murray, he should net them more than the fifth-rounder they gave up to acquire him. He’d likely go for a second and/or third-round pick, but it’s also possible the Devils re-sign him if he picks up his play over the next month. He’s a top-four defenseman when healthy and would create another hole on the team’s blue line they’d need to fill this offseason if they deal him away.
Trading Vatanen away wouldn’t be the first time the Devils have done so, as they moved him to the Carolina Hurricanes at last season’s deadline. That deal netted the organization a third-round pick, which they used to draft goaltender Nico Daws at the 2020 Draft, and Janne Kuokkanen, who has six points in 13 games this season.
The Devils would probably deal Vatanen again if it got them the same return it did a year ago. But with three pending UFAs on their blue line, some of them have to stay, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Vatanen stuck around this time. He’s familiar with the organization and is a good locker room presence for the third-youngest roster in the league to have as they close out the season.
The Devils signed Kulikov to a cheap one-year, $1.15 million contract this past offseason, but he’s played well above that worth. He only has one point in 16 games, but he’s been arguably the team’s best defenseman behind Damon Severson. He’s had a positive impact on offense, even though the points aren’t there, and he’s been a beast on defense.
Because Kulikov is on such an affordable deal, there could be a few teams lined up for his services at the deadline. That’s especially true if there are savvy clubs that do their homework and realize the season Kulikov is having. The return probably won’t be that high, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it’s not that far off from what Murray could fetch.
Don’t Expect a Fire Sale at the Deadline
In a non-pandemic season, the Devils would be in a prime position to stock their war chest of draft capital and prospects. But don’t expect that this time around. Teams are tight on money, especially contenders, and it’ll be tough for them to take on players with sizable cap hits.
It’s also unlikely that teams will be willing to give up their best assets if they’re acquiring rentals in this environment. From the Devils’ end, if general manager Tom Fitzgerald can’t get the right value for a player like Palmieri, does it make sense to trade him? Probably not, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they re-sign him, among other reasons.
That’s why there’s a good chance the Devils won’t be able to sell everyone at the deadline. They’ll probably find takers for a couple of their pending UFAs, but it’s more likely they hang on to most of their guys because they might not have any other choice. And that should make for a quieter deadline than in years past.