The New Jersey Devils surprised the world last season by fast-forwarding their rebuild and making the playoffs. However, that success was fueled by an MVP effort from Taylor Hall and a surprising takeover in net by Keith Kinkaid. The 2018-19 campaign has been a little different; Hall has battled injuries and is currently on a scoring pace far below his 93 from last year and Kinkaid has struggled greatly in goal. Elsewhere in the lineup, injuries and under-performing players have sunk the Devils season, as a career campaign from Kyle Palmieri and the emergence of now-injured MacKenzie Blackwood have not been enough to keep them in the playoff picture.
The question for GM Ray Shero and company now is whether to chalk the season up to a minor setback or consider last season the outlier and return to their rebuild. During a radio segment on TSN 1290 in Winnipeg yesterday, Darren Dreger stated that he feels the team will opt for the latter and are ready to move out several pieces. Just a year after being one of the more active buyers on the trade deadline market, acquiring both Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon, it appears the Devils could instead be major sellers this season.
Dreger noted that the likes of Hall and Palmieri, signed for one and two more years respectively, are nevertheless untouchables, while Sami Vatanen, considered the team’s No. 1 defenseman, is also part of that group. Of course, the team’s many young roster players are also part of the long-term solution and most likely won’t be dealt away either.
Yet, that still leaves a long list of intriguing trade options, perhaps none more so than the aforementioned Kinkaid. Despite having a down season this year, Kinkaid was already considered a high-end backup prior to his breakout last year and would now certainly have value on the trade market for teams in need of an upgrade to their goaltending depth. An impending free agent making just $1.25MM, Kinkaid is affordable and risk-free to any team willing to acquire him. With 22-year-old Blackwood and the virtually immovable contract of Cory Schneider on the books moving forward, Kinkaid may not have a role with the Devils moving forward and the team is likely to get what they can while they can. The same goes for forward Marcus Johansson, whose injury struggles have kept him from being a difference-maker over two years in New Jersey and have almost certainly ruled him out of the team’s future plans as an impending free agent, barring a discounted contract. Although his health concerns could drive down his price on the trade market, Johansson’s offensive upside is worth more to a contender than it is to the Devils down the stretch and they could seemingly find a taker so long as his current injury is not considered season-ending. Reliable veterans (and prototypical deadline rentals) Brian Boyle and Ben Lovejoy also seem likely to move. Boyle, one of the biggest forwards in the league and a defensive specialist, is also on pace to approach his career high of 35 points this season. While he has been embraced completely by the Devils faithful and plays an important locker room role, Boyle should still be dangled at the deadline if the team is truly committed to adding pieces to their rebuild. Boyle could always re-sign with the team as a free agent. There won’t be a similar attachment to Lovejoy, who is as solid as they come as a stay-at-home defenseman and penalty killer, but merely stands to block New Jersey’s budding defensive depth. Lovejoy will be very valuable to a contender as a depth addition on the blue line and is as good as gone at the approaching deadline.
Where things begin to get interesting is whether or not the Devils would – or could – move long-time teammates and locker room leaders Andy Greene and Travis Zajac. Greene, 36, is signed for one more year and Zajac, 33, is signed for two more years, both with salaries that aren’t great on paper, but look better in the midst of bounce-back season. Both veterans have been around the team since 2006-07 and are entrenched in Devils culture. However, if New Jersey is committed to a rebuild, this is likely their best time to get rid of one or the other and get a substantial return back. Zajac has been more involved in the offense this season than he has in years and could potentially reach 50 points for the first time since 2009-10. He has also been automatic at the face-off dot and plays a smart two-way game. A number of teams might be willing to take on the remainder of his contract this season, but might not be as willing the next time around if he regresses in the second half or next season, well within the realm of possibility. The same goes for Greene, who needs just one point for a new season high over the past four years. Greene continues to play big minutes for the Devils, is an elite shot blocker, and an experienced, intelligent presence in his own zone. His game is not without flaws, but just when it looked like he was really slipping over the past couple of seasons, Greene has bounced back this year. His value at the deadline this season, as a year plus rental, will be far more than next deadline, when he will be months away from a likely retirement. Do the Devils capitalize on the improved status of their two elder statesmen? Or do they preserve the culture of the team at the cost of the rebuild?