With the offseason approaching, it’s worth taking a looking at what the New Jersey Devils may do with all their cap space. The NHL salary cap will remain flat, at $81.5 million, due to revenue loss from COVID-19. That will put some teams in a bind, but not the Devils, who’ll have over $26 million in cap space to use and improve their roster.
One team that’s in cap hell is the Chicago Blackhawks. They have $7 million in cap space but have to re-sign restricted free agents Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik, as well as Slater Koekkoek. They’ll also need space to re-sign Corey Crawford, who’s a pending unrestricted free agent. There’s no way they can re-sign all those players without shedding some salary, and that presents an opportunity for the Devils to take advantage on the trade market.
The Devils had serious defensive struggles this past season, and it wasn’t just defending, either. They struggled to move the puck out of the defensive zone with possession effectively, something that’s been a problem for a few seasons. Murphy won’t help with the latter much, but he is a very steady defender.
The Blackhawks have had their fair share of defensive woes, too, but Murphy has been a bright spot. He has a goals above replacement (GAR) of 9.2 over the last three seasons, mostly because his even strength defense was worth a GAR of 7.2. He’s also logged the third-most defensive zone starts on the Blackhawks, so they haven’t been afraid to give him hard minutes.
And though Murphy may not have a ton of skill, he’s not dragging down the Blackhawks’ offense. He won’t get power play minutes any time soon, but he produced at a 27-point pace this season. And his offensive impact has been neutral over the last three seasons. Pair that with his positive defensive impact, and you have a solid looking blueliner:
Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald mentioned they could use some size on defense, with the ability to move pucks. Murphy is 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, so he has the size Fitzgerald is looking to add. He might not be the most effective passer, but it’s not bad enough to say it’s a liability.
Murphy is 27 years old, but his contract runs for two more seasons, at a cap hit of $3.85 million. That fits in perfectly for where the Devils are now, and they’d have no problem taking on his salary, given all the cap space they have. He’d be able to play top-four minutes, perhaps even on the top pair, for new coach Lindy Ruff. And given his skill set, it shouldn’t take much to acquire him — a second-round pick and mid-round conditional pick could do the trick.
The 2019-20 season was Maatta’s first with the Blackhawks. Before then, he spent the previous five years with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blackhawks acquired the 25-year-old defenseman last summer, in exchange for a 2019 fifth-round pick and forward Dominik Kahun.
Maatta is a bit of an enigma. On the surface, he may not seem like the most enticing trade target. He hasn’t progressed much since a solid rookie season in 2013-14, either. But his play over the last couple of seasons has been solid. He finished 2018-19 with an overall GAR of 12.4, ranked fourth on the entire Penguins’ roster. He didn’t quite match that this season but still finished with an overall GAR of 6.7.
Given the Blackhawks’ cap crunch, Maatta seems like the most probable candidate to be traded from their defensemen. His contract runs through the 2021-22 season, at a cap hit of $4.083 million, which is cap space they’ll need to re-sign Strome and Kubalik.
That could present an opportunity for the Devils. Does Maatta significantly move the needle for the team’s defense? Probably not. But they need a left-handed defenseman who’s capable of playing top-four minutes. His ability to defend at even strength suggests he could do so. Plus, he’s an effective penalty killer.
And considering what the Blackhawks gave up for him a year ago, it shouldn’t cost the Devils much more to acquire Maatta. Kahun is a dependable middle-six forward, but since the Blackhawks need to free up cap space, it’s unlikely they’d take an NHL contract in return. A package consisting of a mid-round pick and a prospect like Nick Merkley or Michael McLeod could get the job done.
The Blackhawks brought back Saad as part of the trade that sent Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets. That turned out to be a lopsided transaction, as Saad has not come close to filling Panarin’s shoes.
That said, it doesn’t mean Saad has performed poorly since returning to Chicago. He’s averaged 42 points per 82 games and has finished with 20-plus goals in each of the last two seasons. He was even producing at a 29-goal pace before the league suspended play in March due to COVID-19.
That’s where most of Saad’s value comes, as well. He’s not a great two-way forward by any stretch, but he can provide offense. His even-strength offense was worth a GAR of 11.1 over the last three seasons. On the other hand, his even-strength defensive GAR was worth minus-9.7 over that stretch. His RAPM also shows an overwhelmingly positive impact offensively, but a net-negative defensive impact at even strength:
From the Devils’ perspective, they need a little bit of everything, including goal scoring. Saad is not a first-line winger, but he can play in the top six because of his offensive impact. Ruff would need to shelter him defensively, but Saad would be a good fit as second-line left-winger alongside Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri.
The catch with Saad is he only has one year left on his contract, at a cap hit of $6 million. And with young wingers like Alex DeBrincat and Kubalik, the Blackhawks may deem Saad expendable. While he may not be worth $6 million, the Devils can more than afford to absorb that cap hit for one season. It also means they shouldn’t give up much to acquire him. A second-round pick and a B-level prospect should do it, considering his production over the last three seasons.
Koekkoek was a former top 10 pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2012 Draft. He played in five seasons for them, but never managed to break in as a regular on their blue line. That led to the Lightning trading him to the Blackhawks in exchange for Jan Rutta and a seventh-round pick a little over a year ago.
Since arriving in Chicago, Koekkoek seems to have found a consistent spot in the Blackhawks’ lineup — he played in 22 games last season and in 42 in 2019-20. He’s averaged a bit over 16 minutes of ice time per game while playing in a third-pair role. His numbers don’t jump off the chart, but they’ve been respectable. He had an overall GAR of 4.5 in 22 games last season and followed it up with a GAR of 3.9 in 2019-20.
Koekkoek will be a restricted free agent this offseason. And because he’s not going to get a significant pay raise from his $925,000 salary, he seems like a good bet to stick around with the Blackhawks. He’s an adequate depth defenseman and will be cost-effective for their cap crunch.
But if they do decide to trade him, he’d be a good target for the Devils. As much as they need a top-four defenseman, they must shore up their depth, as well. He won’t cost much more than what the Blackhawks gave up to acquire him, and he’d give the Devils’ third pair a significant upgrade.
Blackhawks Offer Defense, but is Saad the Best Target?
The Blackhawks don’t have a ton of game-breaking options, at least from the ones they’re likely to trade to open up cap space. Maatta would be an underrated pickup for the Devils, as he can play top-four minutes and defend well at even strength. The same is true of Murphy also.
But the most intriguing trade piece for the Devils would be Saad. He may not be great defensively, but he would be a significant upgrade for the team’s offense. The Devils need to find players who are the right fits as wingers for Hughes and Nico Hischier, and Saad would be that.
As long as they don’t give up the farm for Saad, perhaps for a little less than what they forked over to acquire Marcus Johansson in 2017, he’d at least improve the Devils in the short-term. And if he helps Hischier or Hughes take a jump in 2020-21, the Devils will feel the long-term benefits.
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Advanced stats and RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey