Devils’ Retool Should Start With Trading Vatanen

The decision to fire general manager Ray Shero came as a shock to almost everyone. But when looking at the New Jersey Devils’ situation, it makes more sense. They had one playoff win in four-plus seasons under Shero, which is not good enough that far into someone’s tenure. Now comes the hard part of trying to regroup, which adds some intrigue to the job of interim GM Tom Fitzgerald. 

Tom Fitzgerald New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils’ interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald has a tough task ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The NHL Trade Deadline is just a month away, and Fitzgerald will have some difficult decisions to make. Ownership seems to want to win sooner than later, but the Devils are not in a position to be buyers on Feb. 24. However, there are moves Fitzgerald can make to help the team restock their assets for the offseason. One way to do so is by trading defenseman Sami Vatanen, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer and is due for a significant pay raise. Here’s why a trade makes more sense instead of signing him to a long-term extension.  

Why Devils Should Be Wary of Extending Vatanen

Defense is not a position of strength for the Devils, so it may seem counterintuitive to trade Vatanen. After all, he leads the team’s defensemen with 22 points in 44 games, putting him on pace to finish with 41, which would be a career-high. He’s also been one of the few bright spots on a Devils’ power play that ranks 30th in the league, as he has 10 points on the man advantage. 

But points don’t usually tell the whole story for defensemen. In Vatanen’s case, his play at even-strength leaves a lot to be desired. The Devils have controlled just 45.76% of the expected goals, as well as 48.46% of the shot attempts with him on the ice this season. And those numbers don’t improve much from 2016-17 to 2018-19, as they’re both just under 48%. 

The Devils have not been a great team since Vatanen’s acquisition early during the 2017-18 season. It’d be easy to assume his numbers are just the result of playing on bad teams. But his overall impact isn’t what you’d like it to be for someone due to make a lot of money this summer. 

This RAPM chart isn’t an indictment of Vatanen’s talent. We know he’s a skilled hockey player who can contribute to an NHL team. Rather, it shows his offensive and defensive impact at even-strength from the 2016-2019 seasons. He has about a league-average impact on shot attempts for (CF/60) and against (CA/60), as well as expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60). The only outlier is his impact on xGA/60, which is below league-average. 

Vatanen’s always thrived on the power play, as the chart above shows. But for someone who could make north of $6 million, the Devils would be taking a risk on signing him to such a contract. There could also be a limited amount of right-handed defensemen available at the Trade Deadline. So a scarcity on the market could drive Vatanen’s price quite high by the time Feb. 24 rolls around. 

The Best Suitor for Vatanen

Playoff contenders are always looking to improve at the deadline, especially on defense. Vatanen will have his fair suitors if the Devils make him available. A team like the Toronto Maple Leafs would make sense, given their need to improve their blue line. But the team that could be a perfect fit for all sides is the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Related: Devils’ Longest Winning Streak Revisited

They hold a 25-20-7 record and may be underperforming relative to expectations. That’s what may have led to the unexpected firing of head coach Gerard Gallant just over a week ago. But while they may be underperforming, the Golden Knights are just a point away from first place in a weak Pacific Division. It’s highly likely they end up being buyers, and defense is one position where they could use an upgrade. 

Vatanen would give the Golden Knights the boost they need on their blue line, and they have an intriguing prospect pool. The Devils got three of the Coyotes’ top 10 prospects when they traded Taylor Hall away, but none of which were in their top three. So what could that mean in dealing with the Golden Knights? For starters, that rules out their three best prospects — Peyton Krebs, Cody Glass, and Nicholas Hague. 

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
Sami Vatanen is the Devils’ best trade chip from their pending UFAs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The first prospect that should interest the Devils is forward Pavel Dorofeyev. He’s having a strong season as an 18-year-old in the KHL and was one of Russia’s best players at the 2020 World Junior Championships (WJC). Chances are the Golden Knights may consider Dorofeyev untouchable too. But their system is deep enough where the Devils can look elsewhere. 

Swedish winger Lucas Elvenes is having a great season in the AHL as a 20-year-old, with 34 points in 44 games. Right-winger Jack Dugan leads the NCAA in scoring and is the teammate of Devils’ prospect Tyce Thompson at Providence College. The Devils lack high-end, skilled wingers in their farm system, so that’d make either Elvenes or Dugan a good fit in a trade for Vatanen. 

Related: 5 Candidates Who Could Replace Devils’ Shero

If Fitzgerald is looking to boost the Devils’ blue line, Dylan Coghlan would be worth targeting. He was the Golden Knights’ seventh-best prospect entering the 2019-20 season, ranking him just ahead of Elvenes and right below Dugan. Coghlan finished with 40 points in 66 games in the AHL as a 20-year-old last season. He’s taken a bit of a step back this season, but he does have a legit shot at being an NHLer. 

Devils Need Assets for the Offseason

The Devils should be able to get a valuable return for Vatanen if they decide to trade him. What could that return look like? The Devils need assets to retool for 2020-21. They have an extra first-round pick from the Hall trade, but they don’t have a second or third-round pick in the 2020 Entry Draft. 

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen
Sami Vatanen should net a valuable return for the Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Sticking with the Golden Knights as an example, Dorofeyev, a lesser prospect — like defenseman Kaedan Korczak — and a draft pick could work. If Dorofeyev is untouchable, either Elvenes or Dugan and a couple of high draft picks should get the job done too. And Vatanen should be worth that price since only a couple of right-handed defensemen are available on the trade market. He likely won’t be worth the contract he’s going to get as a UFA this summer, either. So getting a prospect and draft capital makes the most sense for the Devils heading into a crucial offseason where they’ll need more assets than they have to improve their roster. 

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Advanced stats from Corsica Hockey