Devils Trading 2nd Overall Pick Seems Unlikely

Yet again, the New Jersey Devils will be drafting in the top two at the NHL Entry Draft after getting some draft lottery luck. If they make the selection, they’ll add another blue-chip prospect to an already stocked cupboard of young talent they have in the organization. But what if they decide to trade it? 

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On Saturday night, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Devils are considering all options for the second overall pick and that “they’ll be firming up a list of players over the next couple of weeks that they’d consider moving it for.” What could that list look like, and will general manager Tom Fitzgerald move the pick? Let’s take a look. 

Who Could Devils Target for 2nd Overall Pick?

When moving a top two pick in the NHL Draft, the list of players you could move it for is no more than a few players because he has to be an elite talent. The one name that every Devils fan has been enamored with for quite some time is Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk. That’s probably the case with the Devils’ front office as well. After all, Tkachuk is cousins with Fitzgerald. 

After a down year in 2020-21, Tkachuk bounced back in a big way this season, finishing with 42 goals and 104 points in 82 games. He was also one of the best players in the league at five-on-five. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 59.29 percent ranked sixth in the league for all forwards, while his expected goals percentage (xG%) of 60.46 percent was ninth (min. 200 minutes played). He finished with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 23.8, ranked seventh in the NHL for forwards. 

Tkachuk is a restricted free agent and is in line for a big payday this summer. Per Evolving-Hockey, they project him to land an eight-year deal at a cap hit of $11.27 million. The Flames have just a touch over $26 million in cap space this offseason. They should be able to fit in Tkachuk, but the Devils will likely include him on their list regardless. It’ll take more than the second overall pick to acquire Tkachuk. A prospect like Alexander Holtz would have to go back to Calgary and then some, but it’d be worth it for Tkachuk. 

Matthew Tkachuk Calgary Flames
Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If not Tkachuk, then who’s next? We know about the Devils’ interest in Kevin Fiala, but he isn’t worth giving up the second overall pick. One team to watch is the Winnipeg Jets, where big changes could be coming this offseason (From ‘Winnipeg Jets roster decisions: Who stays and who goes this offseason?”, The Athletic – 5/13/2022). 

The Jets’ player that makes sense for the Devils is Kyle Connor, who finished this season with 47 goals and 93 points. He’s a bit of a defensive liability, but there’s no questioning what he brings offensively. He’s averaged 44 goals and 86 points per 82 games over the last three seasons and would be the elite shooting threat the Devils could use next to Jack Hughes. Connor is under contract through the 2025-26 season at a cap hit of $7,142,857. That’s a bargain for what he offers, so it’d likely make the price for him in a trade similar to Tkachuk’s. 

The last player to consider giving up the second overall pick for is Mitch Marner, who had 35 goals and 97 points in 72 games in 2021-22. He’s had elite two-way impacts over the last three seasons, is one of the NHL’s best play drivers, and has been a top five scorer in the NHL at five-on-five since the start of the 2019-20 campaign. He’d be an ideal fit for the Devils in their top-six alongside Hughes or Nico Hischier. Again, these are players worth targeting with the second pick at the 2022 draft and not ones that are necessarily available. But that leads me to my next point. 

Limited Options, ELC Value, Reasons to Keep 2nd Overall

When it comes to Tkachuk, Marner and Connor, they’re obviously ideal targets for the Devils. But let’s be realistic; the Flames, Jets, and Toronto Maple Leafs are not moving any of them. The Flames will re-sign Tkachuk, while it’s probably safe to assume the Jets view Connor as untouchable, even if they’re planning for sweeping changes this offseason. Same with the Leafs and Marner. 

After Tkachuk, Marner and Connor, it’s hard to think of players that’d be worth targeting with the second pick. We always hear William Nylander’s name in the rumor mill, but he’s not worth the second overall selection. Plus, he only has two years left on his deal before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2024, so it doesn’t make sense to give up the pick for him even if he were worth it. 

Kyle Connor Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets winger Kyle Connor (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

So why write this article? The point is to show that the chances of the Devils trading the second overall pick are probably pretty low. One) because the list of players worth the second overall pick will be quite small since those types of players are rarely available. And even if the Devils’ list is lengthier, the chances of those players being available are also probably slim to none. 

Two) there’s also the value of having the second overall pick on an entry-level contract for the first three years of his NHL career. Let’s say the Devils draft Juraj Slafkovsky at second overall, and he becomes a top-six winger by his sophomore season. They’d have him signed for a minimal cap hit of $925,000 for three years. 

Related: Devils Can Upgrade Scoring Without Moving 2nd Overall Pick

Slakovsky might not be as good as someone like Tkachuk, especially in his first couple of years in the NHL. But if the Devils believe he can contribute first-line minutes during his ELC, they gain valuable flexibility with their cap space. It affects their whole cap situation positively. For example, the Devils have to sign Tkachuk to a new deal if they acquire him. Maybe it won’t be for $11.27 million a year, but it will still be for eight figures. In Marner’s case, they’d be adding $10.903 million to their salary cap. And even without them, the Devils already have a few expensive contracts, with maybe more coming soon: 

  • Dougie Hamilton: $9 million cap hit through 2027-28
  • Jack Hughes: $8 million cap hit through 2029-30
  • Nico Hischier: $7.25 million cap hit through 2027-28

Jesper Bratt is currently a restricted free agent and will likely earn $6 to $6.5 million per year on a new contract. There’s Yegor Sharangovich, Damon Severson, Ryan Graves, and Jonas Siegenthaler to re-sign within the next year. And that doesn’t count any additions the Devils make this offseason, which they have to do given their roster needs. 

Andreas Johnsson Dawson Mercer Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
Jesper Bratt with Andreas Johnsson and Dawson Mercer (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Their salary cap could get tight in a hurry if they add someone like Tkachuk or Marner to the roster, and it might not leave much room for other additions that they have to make. That’s why having a player like Slafkovsky on an ELC for three years could be so valuable. It’ll give Fitzgerald flexibility to improve what he needs to improve while getting an NHL contributor — hopefully, a top-flight one — for cheap for a few years while they continue to build up the roster before becoming legit contenders when it makes more sense to spend big money on elite talent.

For those reasons, you’d be safe betting that the Devils hang on to the second overall pick to draft Slafkovsky or Logan Cooley. The options they’ll have to trade the pick are limited, and there’s value in having either prospect on an ELC for three years. The last time a top-five pick ended up getting dealt was at the 2008 draft. It wasn’t to acquire NHL talent, either, as the Maple Leafs moved up to draft Luke Schenn. I wouldn’t expect the Devils to buck that trend in 2022, so expect the pick to stay in their hands come July 7. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey; contract projections from Evolving-Hockey