With the NHL Trade Deadline less than a week away, the New Jersey Devils have already made it clear they’ll be sellers. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be looking to make a couple of trades to improve their future. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned the Devils could be targeting younger players who could get more opportunities in New Jersey than in their current situations.
It’s hard to know who’s 100% available and who isn’t. But there are a few names on TSN’s trade bait list who fit the criteria Friedman mentioned. And if the Devils are looking to add a young, long-term piece to compliment Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier at the deadline, they shouldn’t hesitate. Here are some potential fits.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are reportedly in the market for a defenseman, even when Morgan Rielly returns, and they may be willing to part with Kapanen to do so. The 23-year-old Finnish winger has 32 points in 59 games this season, putting him on pace to finish with 44 points. He finished last season with 20 goals and 44 points, so he has some scoring touch. But is there another level to his game he hasn’t unlocked?
Kapanen averaged 1.90 points per 60 minutes (points/60) at five-on-five last season and is averaging 1.88 points/60 this season, all while playing in a middle-six role. With a top-six consisting of wingers such as Mitch Marner and William Nylander, it’ll be tough for Kapanen to earn those minutes with the Maple Leafs.
It’d be a different story on the Devils, however. Kyle Palmieri is a sure bet as a top-six right-winger. But after that? It’s anyone’s game. Kapanen would provide depth at the position, and he’d play on one of the team’s top two lines right away. There’s breakout potential in him, especially if he finds himself on a line with Hughes or Hischier.
The tricky thing here is defense is not a position of strength for the Devils. And with the Maple Leafs wanting a defenseman with term for Kapanen, that could be a problem. A package around Damon Severson for Kapanen makes sense for the Maple Leafs, as Severson is under contract through 2022-23. But he’s the Devils’ best defenseman, and it doesn’t make sense to part with him at this time. So it may take some creative thinking for the Devils to land Kapanen.
I’ve been a big fan of Kase’s game for quite some time. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented him from becoming a well-known name around the league. But that doesn’t mean he can’t become a fixture in a team’s top six. He only played in 30 games for the Anaheim Ducks during the 2018-19 season but finished with 20 points, a 54-point pace over 82 games.
This season has been a tough one for Kase, though, as he only has 23 points in 49 games. With that said, he’s been the victim of some poor shooting luck — he’s fired a whopping 136 shots on goal but is shooting just 5.2%. A player can only shoot that low for so long while firing that many shots on goal, so he’s due for some positive regression.
But even though the points aren’t there, Kase’s on-ice numbers are pretty good. The Ducks have a 54.66% Corsi share (CF%) and 49.55 expected goals share (xGF%) with him on the ice. And he’s had an overwhelmingly positive impact on offense and defense since the 2017-18 season.
Not only does Kase have a strong positive impact on the game, but he can score too. He’s averaged 2.06 points/60 since the 2017-18 season, ranked second to Ryan Getzlaf on the Ducks. He’s an efficient scorer that could thrive with more minutes, but the key for him is staying healthy. Otherwise, he can play with the best of them, and he’s only 24 years old. A potential top line of Jesper Bratt, Hischier, and Kase — who’s also a right-wing — would be something to build around.
There isn’t any reason to believe the San Jose Sharks are actively shopping Labanc, as he’s not on TSN’s trade bait list. But like Kapanen and Kase, he fills a need for a young right-wing in the Devils’ top six. He had the best season of his career in 2018-19, finishing with 56 points in 82 games. That resulted in him signing a one-year, prove-it deal for $1 million, which raised plenty of eyebrows around the league.
The Sharks aren’t a young team, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to trade Labanc. But if they aren’t willing to pay him the money he’s worth, he could look to get a fresh start elsewhere. He’s originally from Staten Island, New York, and played youth hockey in New Jersey. So there’s an obvious geographic fit for him with the Devils.
But it’s more than being a New York native that makes Labanc desirable. He’s averaging 1.73 points/60 this season and averaged 2.12 points/60 in 2018-19, so he has top-six scoring rates. The Sharks have a 55.27 CF% and 52.45 xGF% with him on the ice since the start of last season, and he’s had a strong positive impact on offense.
A significant factor in a possible trade for Labanc is the Sharks don’t have a first-round pick after they acquired Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators in Sept. 2018. After yesterday’s trade that sent Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Devils now have three first-round picks in the 2020 Entry Draft (assuming the Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs). I’m sure the Sharks would gladly take one of those extra first-rounders, and the Devils are in a position to give one up and still have one to spare. For a player of Labanc’s ilk, it’d be worth it too.
Johnsson burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, finishing with 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) in 78 games. He had 21 points in 43 games this season — a 40-point pace over 82 games — before suffering a knee injury that’ll keep him out for the next eight weeks. And that could make trading for 25-year-old left-winger a bit more complicated if you’re the Devils.
There’s no doubting Johnsson has produced better than expected for the Maple Leafs, given he was a seventh-round pick in 2013. But unlike Kapanen, it’s hard to know if there’s another level to his game. Johnsson averaged 2.49 points/60 at five-on-five last season, but that’s dropped to 1.50 this season. With that said, he’s missed plenty of time due to injury, so that could be affecting his play.
Trading for Johnsson could be riskier than Kase or Kapanen, but he could be an effective second-line forward for the Devils. The Maple Leafs have a 53.58 CF% and 50.57 xGF% with him on the ice since the start of last season, and his impact has been generally positive. The Devils lost one of the best left-wingers in the league when they traded Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes, so Johnsson would help fill that void a bit too.
Young, Inexpensive Players is the Way to Go
The common thread between these players is they’re all under team control for a while. Labanc, Kase, and Kapanen will be restricted free agents at the end of their current deals, while Johnsson will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2022-23 season. And those are the types of “hockey deals” the Devils should be looking to make.
They’re more likely to win the draft lottery than make the playoffs at this point, so acquiring a player who isn’t under team control would not be a smart move. If the right offer comes about, interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald should go ahead and make the deal. Because if last summer taught the organization anything, it takes more than a few weeks of transactions to make drastic improvements to a roster.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick