The New Jersey Devils’ regular season was a mess. Plain and simple. But they have a lot of things going right for them this offseason. They won the first overall pick at the Draft Lottery and will get the chance to select Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko at the Entry Draft.
They’ll also have over $30 million in salary cap space, and they have 10 draft picks to work with at the Entry Draft. That puts general manager Ray Shero in a spot to have an active offseason, and one way to improve the Devils’ roster is by diving into the trade market. Since free agency won’t fix all their problems, here are six players that Shero could target through a trade.
Jason Zucker (Left Wing)
After totaling 64 points last season, Zucker had a bit of down season in 2018-19, finishing with 21 goals and 21 assists. A large part of that was percentage-driven as he finished with a 9.8 shooting percentage, which is a bit below his career average of 12.1 percent. The Minnesota Wild’s on-ice shooting percentage of 5.97 percent with Zucker on the ice was ninth-lowest on the team, too, so luck wasn’t on his side.
Even though he didn’t score as much, Zucker played very well at five-on-five, and it dates back to last season. Here’s where his Corsi for percentage (CF%), scoring chances for percentage (SCF%), high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%), and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) rank among Wild skaters since the start of last season (> 200 minutes played):
- CF%: 51.50 percent (fifth best)
- SCF%: 55.85 percent (third best)
- HDCF%: 57.86 percent (sixth best)
- xGF%: 56.98 percent (second best)
Zucker checks off a lot what the Devils are looking for; scoring and someone who produces at five-on-five. The Wild almost sent him to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and if they’re still looking to move him, Shero should be all over it. His deal runs through 2022-23 at a very reasonable cap hit of $5.5 million, and he’s only 27 years old. Even though he’s 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, he’s the perfect fit for the Devils’ top six. And given the Wild’s recent trade history, it might not cost much to get him.
Jacob Trouba (Defenseman)
Trouba’s willingness to remain with the Winnipeg Jets remains a question mark, and he hasn’t done much to erase the doubt, either. “Same answer as always,” Trouba said to Rory Boylen of Sportsnet. “We’ll figure it out once things get going in the summer, what’s best, and move forward from there. We gotta sit down, have a meeting and figure out what to do moving forward. I haven’t really thought about it. I tried to put it in the back of my mind as much as I could this year.”
If Trouba is available, he’d be a significant upgrade for the Devils’ blue line. He’s become a top-pair defenseman for the Jets and finished with a career-high 50 points this season. Just how much of an upgrade would he be for the Devils? His goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, would have him second among Devils’ defensemen.
Acquiring Trouba will not be cheap. My guess is the Jets would want Damon Severson as the building block for a trade. He’s under contract through 2022-23 at a cap hit of $4.16 million and is only 24 years old. And that doesn’t include any draft picks Shero would have to throw in to make things work. That’s a hefty price to pay, but it’d be worth it for someone of Trouba’s caliber.
Kasperi Kapanen (Right Wing)
Kapanen had been a highly-touted prospect for quite some time, and he finally broke out in his first full season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 22-year-old right wing finished 2018-19 with 20 goals and 24 assists in 78 games played while averaging 16:37 of ice time per game.
He hasn’t been the center of trade discussions, but the Leafs’ cap situation has them in a bind. Kapanen, along with Mitch Marner and Andreas Johnsson, will be restricted free agents (RFA) this summer. With Marner rumored to be wanting eight figures per year, and the Leafs only having a projected $5.2 million in cap space, not factoring in the project cap increase, that puts them in a tough spot.
It’ll be difficult to afford all three, and if Kapanen becomes a cap casualty, he’d be worth a look. His 1.90 points per 60 minutes (P/60) would’ve ranked third on the Devils this season to Taylor Hall and Jesper Bratt. He also finished with a CF% of 52.91 percent and an xGF% of 51.28 percent, showing he had a strong presence at five-on-five.
Kapanen would be a natural fit for the Devils as they could use another top-six right wing. He’d work well with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier on the first line and would allow Kyle Palmieri to move to the second line to balance things out. Shero used second and third-round picks to acquire Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals when they needed to shed salary after they extended Evgeny Kuznetsov. Given the Leafs’ situation, Kapanen shouldn’t cost much more.
J.T. Miller (Forward)
It’d be odd for the Tampa Bay Lightning to trade J.T. Miller a year after they signed him to an extension, but they might not have a choice. They have just $5.7 million in cap space to sign RFAs Brayden Point, Adam Erne, and Cedric Paquette. That puts them in a spot where they’ll have to shed some salary.
Miller had a bit of a down season, finishing with 47 points in 75 games, but his underlying numbers were still very good. Here’s where his CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and xGF% ranked among Lightning skaters with at least 100 minutes played at five-on-five:
- CF%: 53.94 percent (fifth best)
- SCF%: 52.88 percent (seventh best)
- HDCF%: 50.33 percent (17th best)
- xGF%: 53.88 percent (fourth best)
Larry Brooks of the New York Post mentioned Miller as a possible candidate to be traded this offseason, and there are a couple of reasons he should interest the Devils. He has a pretty good track record of producing offense as he’s finished with 40 points or more in each of the last four seasons, including 56 and 58 the previous two seasons. He turned 26 in March and is under contract through 2022-23 at a reasonable cap hit of $5.25 million.
Miller is also versatile and can play any position up front, so the Devils can move him around the lineup when they need to. This would be a similar situation to the Devils acquiring Johansson, too, so Shero shouldn’t be looking to give up the farm. A couple of draft picks should get the job done.
Nikolaj Ehlers (Left Wing)
The Jets had a disappointing end to the season, and that means changes are likely on the way. They have to re-sign Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Trouba — all of whom are RFAs. And that doesn’t include Kevin Hayes, Tyler Myers, and Brandon Tanev, who will be unrestricted free agents this summer.
They’ll have $23 million in cap space, so their situation isn’t as dire as the Leafs or Lightning’s, but they could still to look shed some salary. Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman wonders if they’d consider moving Nikolaj Ehlers.
Ehlers finished the season with 21 goals and 37 points in 62 games played, a dip from the 60-plus points he posted in each of the previous two seasons. Even though his counting totals fell, he still produced at five-on-five, where he averaged 1.88 P/60, ranked sixth on the Jets. And he had some of the best on-ice stats on the team — his xGF% ranked fifth, while his CF% and SCF% ranked second and third.
I’d be surprised if the Jets moved Ehlers, but he’s an intriguing trade target if available. His contract runs through 2024-25 and comes with a cap hit of $6 million, and it’ll eat up some UFA years since he’s only 23 years old. The Devils have the cap space to make it work, and he’d fit in their top-six perfectly, but he won’t come cheap in a trade. He’d probably cost a high pick and a top prospect, or a high pick and a roster player. That could make players like Zucker or Miller, who’d probably cost less, more attractive to the Devils than Ehlers.
Brett Pesce (Defenseman)
The Carolina Hurricanes have an embarrassment of riches on the blue line with Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Calvin de Haan, and Pesce. They have four right-handed shots, including Pesce, so they could look to trade from a position of strength if they’re active on the trade market.
Pesce may not get the love he deserves, but he’s arguably the Hurricanes’ best defenseman. He led their blueliners with a GAR of 13.2 and was only second to Sebastian Aho on the team. He may not come across as an elite puck-moving defenseman, but he carries the puck into the offensive zone at a high rate. And he’s excellent at preventing zone entries with possession.
The Hurricanes would probably want a scoring forward in return for Pesce, and that’s not a position of strength for the Devils. But if there’s a way to make a deal work without giving up scoring talent, Shero shouldn’t hesitate. Pesce’s deal runs through 2023-24 and comes with a very friendly cap hit of $4.025 million. He’d be a significant upgrade to their blue line and would play on their top pair right away. He’s entering the prime of his career at 24 years old, so that makes him a prime target for the Devils.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017