Timing is everything in a rebuild and it’s never just a matter of drafting high for a few years in a row. The New Jersey Devils have already done the draft-high thing and will once again have a great pick when they select fourth overall later this month, but GM Tom Fitzgerald made a canny move when he struck a trade with Colorado peer Joe Sakic on Thursday.
New Jersey acquired defenseman Ryan Graves from the Avs in exchange for big winger Mikhail Maltsev and a 2021 second-round draft pick. Graves had been excellent for Colorado since coming over from the New York Rangers and the 26-year-old brings a coveted skill set to the Devils: he’s big, physical, competitive and he defends well. With Colorado, he mainly played with puckmoving wizard Samuel Girard and it wouldn’t be hard to picture the similarly gifted Ty Smith lining up with Graves in New Jersey next season.
But this trade was significant for more than just the fit in New Jersey. Because this was not necessarily a trade Colorado wanted to make, but one that was prudent because of the looming Seattle expansion draft: Simply put, the Avs had too many good players.
Even with Erik Johnson waiving his no-move clause (thus making him eligible to be exposed), Colorado was likely to lose Graves on the back end in favor of protecting fellow blueliners Girard, Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
For Sakic, he still loses Graves, but at least he gets a much-needed draft choice in return – since the Avs are in the process of going for a title, the 2021 draft board had been nearly wiped out, with Colorado slated to pick only three times (first round, third round, seventh round). That second-rounder is important. In Maltsev, the Avs get a young and cheap winger who might be able to help their impending cap crunch. Colorado has some crucial free agents to deal with in the off-season, including captain Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer and in the RFA category, rising superstar Makar. So they’ll need every possible penny pinched going forward.
And this is all where Fitzgerald deserves a lot of credit. Much like the Viktor Arvidsson trade from Nashville to Los Angeles, the Seattle expansion draft has everyone on high alert and for teams with cap space and expansion slots available, they can take advantage.
We all know how the Vegas Golden Knights managed to fatten their lineup thanks to side deals made before their expansion draft and it became almost immediately clear that some franchises gave up too much just to make sure a certain player was not selected from the Golden Knights (Shea Theodore, anyone?). So teams are definitely leery of the Seattle draft, but that’s great news for someone like Fitzgerald, who is helming a team that is pretty much free and clear for the expansion draft: even with Graves coming aboard, he can easily go the seven forwards/three defenseman route thanks to Smith being on an entry-level deal (and thus ineligible to be picked by the Kraken). P.K. Subban’s $9 million stipend and drop in effectiveness means the Devils can leave him unprotected and up front, New Jersey has wiggle room thanks to the entry-level deals of Jack Hughes and Jesper Boqvist.
Which is all a way of saying that Fitzgerald may not be finished dealing yet. If there’s another team with too many assets to protect, they could certainly give New Jersey a call to make a trade similar to the Graves deal, one which gives each team a little something-something, but ultimately has no down side for the Devils.
And once the Devils get to free agency, Fitzgerald stands to have around $30 million to play with, give or take a few million for some RFAs and maybe UFA Ryan Murray. Are the Devils ready to compete for a playoff spot in the Metro division next season? They’ve still got building to do, but a big summer would put them a little further along. Either way, Fitzgerald is showing that the team is on the right path.