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NHL trade deadline: Why Devils are most interesting team to watch

The Devils have emerged as the NHL's most fun team on the ice, and they are positioned to get even better at the trade deadline.

The NHL trade deadline always invites rampant speculation and trade proposals, but this year feels different for two core reasons: the Eastern Conference powers are engaged in a bloodbath and the league’s middle class has been slightly distorted as teams bottom out in an attempt to secure the top pick in a loaded draft class — there are at least five players in this year’s cohort that would’ve gone first overall last year.

Arriving on schedule is a key dynamic of how the league unfolds, but the New Jersey Devils have emerged as a bona fide contender earlier than anyone expected, led by Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton and a number of veterans that have turned this group into the NHL’s most exciting team.

The fireworks extend off the ice too. Since the Devils are looking to win the Cup while boasting the profile of a team that may have been Tanking Hard for Bedard pre-season, they’re armed with the requite prospects and cap space that make them the most interesting and dangerous team ahead of the March 3 deadline.

Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald needs to reward his current group for exceeding expectations and threatening the rest of the Eastern Conference with its blistering pace. Hughes and Hischier have already signed long-term extensions, John Marino and Hamilton are under contract through 2026-27 and 2027-28, respectively. Jesper Bratt is a restricted free agent and will surely be rewarded, while Damon Severson and Ryan Graves need new deals this summer as well. But those concerns are somewhat overblown, and conservatism under the guise of long-term pragmatism won’t fly in this year’s climate where teams are pushing all their chips in.

The Devils have plenty of options available heading into the NHL trade deadline. (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Devils have plenty of options available heading into the NHL trade deadline. (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The greatest danger lies right ahead of the Devils, within their own division. Carolina is slowly but surely pulling ahead in the great Metropolitan race and the stylistic differences between both teams on the ice extends off the ice as well.

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While the Devils have wowed teams with their pace and two-man forecheck, along with Hughes’ otherworldly flair, Carolina has suffocated teams entirely, while leading the NHL in virtually every possession metric at 5-on-5, ranking first in expected goals percentage, while New Jersey ranks third. Both teams dominate possession, but the Devils do it with highlight-reel style, while the Hurricanes are methodical and calculating, following in line with Jordan Staal and Jaccob Slavin’s playing aesthetic.

Carolina currently boasts $10 million in deadline space after sending Max Pacioretty and his $7 million cap hit to long-term injured reserve when he suffered an Achilles injury. There is a sense of urgency as well, as Staal, Pacioretty, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta and Jesper Fast are all slated to test unrestricted free agency this summer. Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon also says he expects his team to be "more aggressive than ever," and because of these factors, it may force New Jersey to dig into its unrivalled prospect pool.

There are a few legitimate game-changers left on the market: Timo Meier is a shot-creation machine, Erik Karlsson might win the Norris, Jakob Chychrun can play both sides while holding two years left of team control, and depending on what you think of Patrick Kane’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act this season, the Devils can’t sit idly by.

Assuming Meier is the top target for both teams, New Jersey can throw Alexander Holtz, the seventh-overall pick from the 2020 draft into any package, a 2023 first-round pick, and that’s without touching Luke Hughes (who won’t be moved) or 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec. Chase Stillman — yes, Cory’s son — is the Devils’ 2021 first-round pick and he could be readily put into any trade without the Devils losing any sleep about it. New Jersey has $2 million in deadline space, which is a somewhat misleading number given that many teams will be willing to retain salary in the right deal. If the Devils were to acquire Meier, they would want to work out an extension, per Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

There are pathways for the Devils to improve their roster without touching their current assets. Not to make this about the Maple Leafs, but that’s exactly what Kyle Dubas did when acquiring Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the Blues, and it’s the type of thinking that could put the Devils over the top. If the Hurricanes acquire Meier, New Jersey should target Karlsson and one of Kane or Brock Boeser to counteract any move made by its divisional rival.

Hughes and Nemec are the trade chips that make the Devils the most dangerous team at the deadline. Sure, the Hurricanes have more cap space and can likely find a way to include some of their expiring assets — Fast and Paul Stastny could be on the move without much afterthought — but the Devils have the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency assets to accelerate their timeline. Hughes is 21, Hischier is 24, and adding a 26-year-old Meier into the mix directly aligns with the timeline of their top stars. Picks generally don’t matter to elite teams and though Luke Hughes is likely untouchable, it’s the almost singular element that makes the Devils so fascinating to look at, firmly in their window to compete for titles, while knowing patience can be a virtue.

It’s going to be a battle to the end, but expect the Devils and Hurricanes to take major swings at the top players available on this year’s market. Carolina didn’t expect Pacioretty to get injured again and would surely rather have the 34-year-old veteran healthy and playing rather than have his cap hit tacked onto the LTIR pool. And this is to say nothing of Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and the Rangers making subtle moves at the deadline as well.

Virtually every NHL fan will be thrilled about the prospect of a Devils-Rangers first-round matchup, but with over 20 games left in the regular season, both teams are duking it out for the divisional top seed. New Jersey has the best package of trade assets, it can mortgage its future to accelerate a promising present, so all options are on the table. The NHL’s most fun team on the ice should be the most fun team at the deadline as well.