While this hockey enthusiast originally proposed that the New Jersey Devils were better off trading forward Kyle Palmieri this season, times have changed at the Prudential Center for Jersey’s team.
There’s no doubt that the newly appointed interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald executes a trade by the NHL’s 2020 Trade Deadline on Feb. 24. It’s a matter of which player, or players, he decides to ship off.
At this rate and keeping the future in mind, New Jersey should consider holding onto Palmieri while trading defenseman Sami Vatanen. Those are two skaters that are appealing assets for Stanley Cup Playoff contenders and players that the Devils could receive value for.
Here’s why the Devils should keep Palmieri and trade Vatanen.
Why Keep Palmieri
After the 2019-20 campaign, there’s a chance that veteran skaters such as Wayne Simmonds and Andy Greene leave New Jersey via unrestricted free agency. Keep in mind that Greene has been the Devils’ captain since 2015-16, which would leave a major void in relation to the team’s overall leadership.
If Simmonds and Greene depart, New Jersey would have one skater over the age of 30, Travis Zajac. A youthful Devils team could benefit from keeping Palmieri around. No. 21 has blossomed into an offensive threat since joining the team in 2015-16, and it’s fair to say that he’d automatically slide into a larger leadership role.
The 2009 first-round draft pick could end up as the team’s 12th captain in team history, and his fire and passion displayed on the ice every night benefit future stars such as Nico Hishier and Jack Hughes for the better. Both first-overall draft picks are cornerstone skaters and there’s no questioning a mentor such as Palmieri is necessary for their development on and off the ice.
The one-time NHL All-Star is set to become a UFA after the 2020-21 season and would likely ask for a pay raise from his current salary under $5 million per year. If New Jersey needs to overpay the winger, it should.
The UFA pool this upcoming offseason and the following doesn’t entail enough all-star caliber forwards for New Jersey to consider signing while parting ways with Palmieri. Notable UFA forwards this offseason are Taylor Hall, Chris Kreider and Mike Hoffman. While Hoffman is a skater New Jersey should consider, it’s hard to believe Hall would return to the Devils after his trade earlier this season or that the Rangers would let Krieder leave the Big Apple for New Jersey.
The 2020-21 UFA class features big names such as Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, but it’s unlikely those franchise skaters are available on the market.
Let’s not forget that Palmieri has led the Devils in goals every season but one (2017-18) since his arrival and also recorded a 30-goal campaign in 2015-16. He’s on pace to lead the team again in goals (currently 21) and is in the prime of his career.
The reality is that while the Devils could sell Palmieri and receive prospects or draft picks, but the team won’t have as much offensive depth without him and minimum options to fill that void. New Jersey is hoping to be competitive after this season, and it needs Palmieri to accomplish that.
Why Trade Vatanen
When it boils down to New Jersey’s blue line, the Devils need to part ways with Vatanen. Considering New Jersey won’t clinch a playoff berth for the second-straight season, it will have to trade one of its better skaters to receive some sort of value in return.
The Finnish native is an UFA this offseason and the chances are another team will overpay for the former Anaheim Ducks’ draft pick (2009).
The right-handed shot does offer value on both sides of the puck and is a top-tier defenseman for the Devils, but New Jersey also entails defensive prospects that should be given an opportunity as early as next season.
The timing seems right to trade Vatanen. The team is building for the future and the potential value it receives from the trade could have a positive impact when the Devils are playoff contenders again.
If the Devils decide to re-sign Vatanen, it arguably doesn’t do any good for either side. New Jersey appears that it’s still a few years away, at least, from being a Stanley Cup threat and the fan-favorite defenseman would essentially waste some of his prime playing years on a rebuilding squad.
Keep in mind that Vatanen would likely pursue a contract with a length of around five years, so he’d be 34 years old at the time it expires. No. 45 sees a ton of ice time while averaging over 20 minutes a night and there’s a chance he’ll lose major value as a Devil during his last two seasons if he were to re-sign.
Considering the Devils’ defense core is an area that needs to improve moving forward, it’s fair to ask “who will step in and help the team on defense” without Vatanen?
The Plan to Fill the Void
The Devils are a team that needs to build and rebuilding squads have to experience growing pains while providing prospects with playing time and the necessary exposure to develop.
Next season could host a prime opportunity for top defense prospects such as Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl to slide into the team’s top-six blueliners while gaining that valuable experience. Smith is a first-round draft pick (2018) and Bahl was a prospect acquired in the Hall trade with the Arizona Coyotes earlier this season.
There’s also a chance the Devils could acquire another defensive prospect if they decide to trade Vatanen.
Let’s not forget that while New Jersey should avoid spending serious money and overpaying for offensive skaters this offseason, there is another veteran defenseman who’s an upgrade from Vatanen.
The Devils should pursue St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo for a number of reasons. At the time of writing, if the Devils acquired the 2014 Olympic Gold medalist, Pietrangelo would be the only Devils skater that’s earned a Stanley Cup ring. His experience and overall value on and off the ice would act as an asset New Jersey’s roster hasn’t entailed in over a handful of seasons. Similar to Palmieri, the veteran blueliner would be invaluable as a mentor for the team’s younger defensemen.
The idea is to think long term for New Jersey and it seems that keeping a productive offensive threat such as Palmieri is more worthwhile than holding onto a defenseman whose trade value is at its highest in his career.
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Kyle McKenna is a social media specialist & freelancer who also covers the NHL for Elite Sports New York, Fansided & Hooked On Hockey Magazine.