Revisiting the Devils Acquisition of Sami Vatanen

Major trades have been a staple of the New Jersey Devils under general manager Ray Shero. Key players like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Marcus Johansson all came to the organization that way. Another key piece who joined the team through a trade was Sami Vatanen.

Vatanen, a defenseman, was acquired by the Devils a year ago today in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a conditional draft pick. He’s played in 77 games since then and has become one of the team’s top defensemen. Let’s look back at the trade and what Vatanen means to the organization.

Why the Devils Had to Acquire Vatanen

The Devils weren’t pegged to contend for the playoffs in 2017-18, but they found themselves in a top spot in the Metropolitan Division through the first two months. Though they were winning, they were giving up a lot of goals and had to make a move to ensure they could compete with the rest of the Eastern Conference.

That move was acquiring Vatanen, and though it was a difficult one, it’s something the Devils had to do. Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod were high draft picks and were regarded as top prospects at the time. Nico Hischier was also having a major impact as an 18-year-old. Those three gave the Devils depth at center, which made Henrique expendable.

Sami Vatanen New Jersey Devils
Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils, January 20, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for their blue line, the Devils needed someone with Vatanen’s skill set in their top four. He had fallen out of favor in what became a deep group of Anaheim Ducks defensemen. He had only four points in his first 15 games of 2017-18, and his ice time had dipped. But the Devils still saw an opportunity to help improve their roster.

Vatanen’s impact was felt right away, assigned a top-four role in his first game. He became one of the Devils’ main offensive threats from the back end, which is needed to succeed in today’s NHL. He finished last season with 28 points in 57 games, a 40-point pace over 82 games. Had he not performed the way he did, the Devils probably would have missed the postseason.

Vatanen Has Been an All-Around Defenseman

Vatanen isn’t an advanced stats king, but he’s posted solid numbers at five-on-five. The Devils have an expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%) of 50.78% and a 257-225 advantage in high-danger chances with him on the ice. He’s also logged the second most defensive zone starts (522) since joining the team.

It isn’t just five-on-five play where Vatanen’s impact has been felt. He’s been a steady contributor to the Devils’ special teams, too. He’s averaged 14.2 shots per 60 minutes and 5.81 scoring chances for per 60 minutes on the power play, both of which are the best of the team’s defensemen, giving them a power play quarterback they haven’t had in quite some time.

Sami Vatanen New Jersey Devils
Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils, January 20, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He wasn’t known as a penalty killer while in Anaheim, but that’s changed in New Jersey where he’s logged over 136 minutes while down a man in 72 games, and the results have been mostly positive. The Devils have an expected-goals-against (xGA) of 16.35 with him on the ice. Only Mirco Mueller has a better xGA of any defenseman on the active roster.

If there’s a knock on Vatanen’s penalty killing, it’s that opponents generate a fair amount of shot attempts (97.84 per 60 minutes) when he’s on the ice. At the same time, they don’t generate many high-danger chances per 60 minutes, at 15.15 he ranks fourth on the Devils, so they’ll take that tradeoff.

More THW Devils Coverage: Devils’ Schneider on the Schneid

Has the Vatanen Trade Paid Off?

The Devils may be having a rough start to 2018-19, but that doesn’t take anything away from Vatanen. When they acquired him, he still had two-plus years left on his deal. It was a long-term investment they needed to make because their blueline needed a shakeup. He was also 26 years old at the time of the trade, so they were getting a defenseman in his prime.

Losing Henrique may have hurt the Devils a bit. He has 50 points in 84 games as a Duck, which the Devils could use in their top six since they haven’t received the production they hoped for from Zacha, and McLeod is making his NHL debut tonight. Hopefully, one of them gets going or that Jesper Boqvist makes an impact in the NHL soon to shore up their top six.

Sami Vatanen New Jersey Devils
Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils, January 20, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Maybe it’s a bit premature to say the Devils won the trade but it’s hard to argue that they haven’t benefited from it. Vatanen has 10 points in 20 games this season, which would put him on pace for 40 points over 82 games. That offensive output has been a significant plus for a Devils blue line that needed it.

His performance on the power play hasn’t been a big surprise given his results with the Ducks but his time on the PK has been an added bonus for the Devils and making it one of the strongest PKs in the league. His all-around play is what they needed and it’s why the Devils benefit from having him on their roster.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Offside Review