If you have the green light, and can stand the initial ruin, there are few better strategies as an NHL executive than wiping the slate completely clean.
Those low-stress, low-expectation seasons aside, it’s one of the few available routes to fully cater personnel to a system and style that a franchise has identified. This happens through draft and development, of course, but the real competitive advantage while catering a roster is absolute flexibility in the trade market.
New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero slapped another key brick onto the increasing pile Wednesday morning, acquiring ace puck-moving defenseman Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks for veteran center Adam Henrique, forward Joseph Blandisi and a third-round draft pick.
Given the Devils’ position, with low cap pressure and a strong prospect base, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it was Shero who ultimately procured a proven top-four defenseman from the bottleneck Bob Murray has been working tirelessly to preserve.
What is surprising is that it’s not a move for the future; acquiring Vatanen might be the difference between consolidating the No. 2 position in the Metropolitan Division that no expected them to be holding down this late into the season.
The only knock this season on the Devils — a legitimately fun, fast, and counteracting team — is that their talent on defense lags behind the transition talent up they have up front. It’s why they chased Kevin Shattenkirk so hard in free agency, and why landing Will Butcher’s signature seems like the most important bit of business they were able to complete over the summer months.
Butcher’s value has been undeniable, having scored two goals and tabulated 18 points in his first 24 games. But Butcher is only a small part toward a solution on the back end. He’s taking the fewest average minutes on the Devils blue line because he’s still very much learning the game, and simply wouldn’t have the same impact at this point in his career without sheltered minutes.
Vatanen won’t provide similarly outstanding point production (38 points is his career high). Instead, his value is the ability to exchange defense for offense as a middle-pair defender, and the ability to retrieve pucks in all situations, before pushing them up ice and into the hands of the forwards. A proven puck mover, Vatanen helps fill the biggest void on a roster closer to completion than anyone gave them credit for before the start of the season.
It’s a win for Shero, who has now acquired Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson in addition to Vatanen in the process of sinking into a position to nab Nico Hischier – the No. 1 pick who ultimately made Henrique expendable. That isn’t to say it’s a major loss for Anaheim, however.
Henrique remains a quality center, and was Jon Hynes’ most trusted pivot before the deal. He can’t pull the Ducks out of their malaise by himself, but will provide value from all three top-nine center positions (he’ll shoot to the top of the depth chart until Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler can return) on a very reasonable $4 million salary.
Dealing from a position of strength, the loss of Vatanen doesn’t hurt the Ducks nearly as much as it will help the Devils. And fans of the Vegas Golden Knights, who see the potential in Shea Theodore, would argue that he’s not the best defender Murray has traded in this calendar year.
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