The NHL Trade Deadline can be one of the most exciting times of the season for fans around the league. If your team is contention for a playoff spot, and even the Stanley Cup, you’ll be keeping an eye on who your team could acquire to help make a deep playoff run. That excitement may not be the same if a team is out of contention and looking to sell. But the thought of acquiring draft picks and prospects can help build up some hope for the following season.
That’s the position the New Jersey Devils find themselves in for the second year in a row. They have an 18-24-9 record and have a literal one percent chance of making the playoffs. But fortunately for them, they have plenty of tradeable assets to work with to help restock their cupboard of draft capital and prospects. They already traded away Taylor Hall before Christmas, and there are likely to be more moves by the Feb. 24 deadline. So who should interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald be looking to sell to potential playoff contenders?
The Top Trade Candidates
Vatanen got off to a great start to the season, but the 28-year-old defenseman has cooled off since the calendar flipped to 2020. After totaling 21 points in his first 35 games, he has just two in his last 12 games. His underlying numbers during those 12 games are some of the worst on the team, too.
Vatanen will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer, and the Devils would be wise to move him by Feb. 24. His offensive and defensive impact at even-strength are at or below league average. And that should make the Devils wary of signing him to a long-term extension. He’s also the best of the team’s trade chips from their UFAs, so he should net them a valuable return. A second-round pick and a legitimate NHL prospect aren’t out of the realm of possibility.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Simmonds didn’t enjoy being a rental last season, and that he’d like to be part of the Devils’ solution. With that said, I’m not sure there’s much of a future for him with the team. Prospects like Joey Anderson and Nick Merkley are knocking on the door of an NHL roster spot. They’d fill a similar third-line role Simmonds does now, but they have more offensive upside and figure to be a part of the team’s 2020-21 roster.
Simmonds hasn’t played poorly for the Devils. He has 19 points in 51 games and has also been the victim of some bad luck — he’s fired 99 shots on goal but has just five goals to show for it. He’s creating a fair amount of high-danger chances, too, so he could thrive with a change scenery. He doesn’t have any no-trade protection, which should make moving him fairly easy. The return for Simmonds would most likely be something around a third or fourth-round pick. But that’d be better than losing him for nothing this summer.
The Devils are in a tough spot with the veteran defenseman and their captain. The 37-year-old is in the final year of his contract but has a full no-trade clause. So the final decision of whether to take a chance at the Stanley Cup will come down to him. And if he decides to leave as a rental, he should have suitors.
Greene may not be the defenseman he once was at even-strength, but he’s still an excellent penalty killer. Say a team like the New York Islanders, whose penalty kill ranks in the bottom half of the league, is looking to make improvements there, he’d be an ideal fit. And it helps that Islanders’ GM Lou Lamoriello is plenty familiar with Greene from his days with the Devils. Like Simmonds, a return for Greene wouldn’t be anything outrageous, but a mid-round pick and maybe a B-level prospect could be what it takes to acquire him.
Wood may be the most frustrating player to watch on the Devils. He’s one of the fastest skaters on the team and creates a ridiculous amount of high-danger shots and chances. Unfortunately, he does a poor job of converting on those shots and chances. He had 159 shots on goal last season but shot just 6.5% (10 goals). It’s been much of the same this season, as he’s shooting 6.3% on 107 shots on goal (seven goals).
But even though the scoring touch isn’t there, Wood could sneakily be one of the Devils’ best trade chips. His contract runs through the 2021-22 season and comes at a very reasonable cap hit of $2.75 million. He’ll still be a restricted free agent when that deal expires, so an acquiring team will have him under control for a while. He’s only 24 years old, so there could be quite a bit of interest in him at the deadline. It’s hard to say what the return would be, but it could be better than some expect.
Who the Devils Should Hang on To
Coleman had a breakout campaign in 2018-19, finishing with 22 goals and 36 points in 78 games. And he’s proven that was no fluke, as he has 19 goals in 51 games, putting him on pace to finish with 30 while playing alongside Travis Zajac and Nikita Gusev on the team’s second line.
Coleman has one of the best contracts on the team, as it runs through next season, at a cap hit of $1.8 million. He’s likely due a significant pay raise in the summer of 2021, but it’s one the Devils should be willing to hand out. He’s one of the team’s best defensive forwards and now has the scoring touch to compliment his defensive prowess. Unless Fitzgerald is completely blown away by a trade offer, there’s no doubt Coleman should be part of the team past Feb. 24.
Palmieri’s situation isn’t much different than Coleman’s. He just turned 29 years old and has one year left on his contract, at a cap hit of $4.65 million. He’s been one of the Devils’ most consistent players since they acquired him in 2015, as he’s averaged 29.4 goals per 82 games. He has 17 goals in 47 games this season, putting him on pace to finish with 28.
There’s no doubt Palmieri could get the Devils a massive return if they decide to trade him. He has term on his contract, and they could easily afford to retain some salary, which would increase the value of his return. But at some point, they have to start locking up some of their core players to long-term deals. Palmieri is an elite shooting talent, and it’s not easy to replace that type of player. Unless the Devils receive an offer with multiple high draft picks and a top prospect, he’d be worth keeping around and signing to an extension in July.
This section was going to read, “No way he’s traded. Are you nuts?” But it isn’t that simple. The Devils acquired the Russian winger in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights this summer. He got off to a slow start this season, but he’s arguably been their best player since Nov. 1. He has 27 points in his last 39 games and looks more like the player that was the KHL’s MVP in 2018-19.
I’m sure the Devils will get calls on Gusev, but trading him shouldn’t even be an option, even though his contract expires in 2021. It’d send the wrong message to the team by trading a player who was acquired barely six months ago, and he should 100% be a part of the solution moving forward. He turns 28 years old in July and doesn’t play a style of hockey that lends to him aging poorly. If anything, the next GM of the team, whether it’s Fitzgerald or someone else, should look to sign Gusev to a long-term extension when he becomes eligible for one on July 1.
Is Any Devil Untouchable?
When a team has only 18 wins in 51 games, no one should be truly untouchable unless you’re Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Mackenzie Blackwood likely falls into this category, as does Jesper Bratt, given his production in the NHL after being a sixth-round pick. Otherwise, everyone else on their NHL roster should be fair game. As much as it makes sense to keep Coleman and Palmieri, Fitzgerald shouldn’t hang up on calls for either winger because their returns could be quite enticing.
The Devils are facing another pivotal offseason. They have one playoff win since their Stanley Cup run in 2012, and it’s time they start putting things together to become playoff contenders. They have an extra first-round pick from the Arizona Coyotes as a part of the Hall trade, but they don’t have a pick in either the second or third rounds. They’ll need that draft capital to help make improvements this summer. And the only way to do so is by becoming sellers over the next few weeks, which is the best approach Fitzgerald could take for the team’s future.