The Future Five: Draft or Trade?
Welcome to the Future Five, a weekly column featuring five thoughts on the future of the New Jersey Devils franchise.
Last week we looked at the effects of the Devils’ draft lottery win.
This week, we’re looking at a few different perspectives on the entry draft and the value of draft picks, and potential offseason moves.
1. To Draft or To Trade?
The New Jersey Devils will arrive in Vancouver ahead of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft with one of the most valuable collections of draft picks in the league. They have the first overall selection, three picks in the 2nd round, two picks in the 3rd, and one pick in each of the next four rounds for a total of ten.
During GM Ray Shero’s tenure, the Devils have continually made moves to increase their draft capital, even with a roster that did not feature many tradeable assets. This gave the team the ability to make 20 selections across the 2016 and 2017 drafts, some of which have started to pay dividends. As Ian Pulz mentioned on the most recent episode of the Devils in the Details Podcast, all nine members of the Devils 2016 draft class have signed entry level contracts, with 6th rounder Jesper Bratt being the biggest impact player to date.
Of the three seasons Ray Shero has been in full control of the team, 2018 appears as an outlier. The team made a gutsy push for the playoffs on the back of Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy season, and Shero rewarded the team by trading away draft picks (2018 2nd, 2018 3rd, 2019 3rd) along with an assortment of players and prospects (Adam Henrique, JD Dudek, Yegor Rykov) to upgrade the team. As a result, the Devils only made five picks at the 2018 draft.
I don’t expect that the Devils will pick ten times at the 2019 draft. In fact, I’d be surprised if we pick more than once in each round. Given the state of the team, Shero’s historical record, and our likely timeline, I think that of our current picks we are likely to use:
one 1st rounder (1st overall)
one 2nd rounder
one 3rd rounder
the rest of our depth picks.
That gives us two seconds and a third to play with to improve the team immediately. Think about it - we have traded extra picks in the first three rounds as often as we have used them:
In 2015, we drafted Mackenzie Blackwood in the second round, but traded another second, along with a 2016 third, for Kyle Palmieri.
In 2016, we drafted two players in the third round (Joey Anderson and Brandon Gignac), but traded another third for Beau Bennet.
In 2017, we drafted two players in the third round (Fabian Zetterlund and Reilly Walsh), but traded an extra second and fourth for Mirco Mueller, along with a 2018 2nd and 3rd for Marcus Johansson.
In my mind, this history, and the fact that the Devils are further into their rebuild than they were at the time of many of these trades, suggests that Shero is going to be active on the trade market around the draft. This should be exciting for a few reasons:
We have enough draft capital to do this - just look at the cost of players like Palmieri and Johansson - and keep at least one pick in each of the first three rounds to help keep our prospect pool stocked
Shero has proven to be fairly shrewd and savvy on the trade market. For every Mueller or Bennett, there is a Palmier of Johansson. This should also help set expectations for the kind of player(s) we are likely to land, so adjust your thinking accordingly
There are a variety of cap-strapped teams that currently have players that could benefit the Devils
2. Trade Picks Not Prospects
If Shero is trading our extra draft capital, when can we expect it to happen? To put it simply, before the pick is called.
This may seem overly simplistic, but recent history is full of examples of how vastly different each team’s draft lists really are. Each year teams will surprise experts by taking a projected second or third rounder in the first. In the various behind the scenes videos we’ve seen over the years, Paul Castron and Ray Shero have said that there are usually players they have marked for the first round available in the second, and players taken in the first round that they wouldn’t draft in the depth rounds. This is true of every team.
Because of this, it is much more prudent to trade picks ahead of the draft, rather than drafting the players you like and trying to trade them. Other teams might have a wildly different view of that prospects value.
Because of the uncertainty and time pressure surrounding the draft, you need to be prepared to make those picks if the trades you want to make for more established pieces fall through. That’s why the Devils scouting staff spent twenty minutes recently arguing about who is ranked #4 on their draft board, even if they’re drafting at #1 and #34 - you need to be prepared.
Looking at Shero’s recent history, these trades are most likely to occur in the week preceding the draft, up to draft itself - whether the Friday night or as the Saturday day rounds progress. Magic tends to happen when the General Managers gather together - the draft was where the groundwork for the Hall/Larsson trade began.
Speaking of behind the scenes draft videos, one interesting mantra has come out of the Devils under Shero and Castron. Across a few different seasons, they have repeated the same thing:
“There’s a hall of famer in every draft - it’s our job to find them”
While the evidence behind this claim is dubious, the philosophy behind it shows some of the organization’s thinking on the draft. Part of me believes this had some small part in the decision to draft the dynamic Nico Hischier in 2017, but it’s really hard to say. Hischier was certainly the more dynamic prospect of the top-2 in 2017, but is dynamism really the it factor when it comes to the hall of fame? To my mind, that seems biased towards a certain style of play, and that a higher level potential - however vague and indefinable - is what Shero and Castron are talking about. There aren’t established criteria for the hall of fame other than the basic eligibility rules, but generally elite production, individual accolades, championships, and longevity make up a good bid for the hall.
Does this impact the Devils and their pick at 1st overall in the 2019 draft? Use this information as you will.
4. Offseason Needs - Trade Options at Forward
As Ian and I discussed on the podcast, the Devils need to improve their team by adding two top-6 forwards and two top-4 defensemen. While ideally two of those prove to be top line players, making a move for a top line forward and top-2 defenseman comes with a high cost of assets or cap space. I think it’s more realistic to hope to add to the top-6/4 and hope that young talent continues to grow on this team.
Luckily, the Devils will potentially add two of these assets this offseason without making any moves. Whether they select Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko, the Devils will likely have an immediate top-6 forward with the potential to grow into a franchise player. Ty Smith, the Devils 1st round selection from 2018, has the potential to make the team next season and grow into a top-4 role within a season or two.
I’m going to focus on forwards for now. Below are some names that I think the Devils should be looking at via trade:
Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild - LW/RW, Age: 27, Contract: 5.5 Million x 4
Zucker is a talented forward who can play both left and right wing. He could slot into the top line alongside Hall and Hischier, giving Hughes more talent to play with in Jesper Bratt and Kyle Palmier. He averaged 25 goals over the past three seasons, and while he only scored 21 goals last season, his shooting percentage was down more than 2% than his career average. Over the past two seasons he has averaged a CF rel % of 3.85, meaning that his team’s corsi-for percentage was 3.85% better when he was on the ice. He is a cost controlled asset that is likely undervalued by his team, and would be a great (if not splashy) addition to the Devils top-6.
Recent news has shown that he is currently being shopped, and is part of a deal that the Wild and Penguins are putting together surrounding Phil Kessel. Pierre LeBrun is reporting that Kessel is not yet waiving his no-trade clause to move to Minnesota.
For Devils fans who might be thinking “Wait, Kessel is available? Why wouldn’t we trade for him instead?” we talked about that a bit on the podcast. Todd Cordell has some simple explanations on why, but Zucker is younger and has a bigger impact on his team in defense, 5v5 scoring, and possession.
Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs - RW, Age: 22, Contract: RFA
Kapanen is a speedy, skilled right wing that would immediately compliment the current build of the Devils. The Leafs are entering a major cap crunch this offseason, and will likely have to trade one or both of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, both of whom are RFAs that will command significant raises. While both are talented, Kapanen has the stronger transition game by a wide margin, and as a second liner could help ease Hughes into the league. He scored 20 goals this season, and has the potential to be a consistent 20-25 goal scorer. His main assets are his speed (both top-end and acceleration) and his ability to enter the zone cleanly. He is likely to be a relatively expensive trade piece, even with Toronto’s cap crunch.
While Kapanen is likely the better player between him and Johnsson, the trade may be made easier to swallow due to the emergence of RW Jeremy Bracco at the AHL level, who could step into Kapanen’s role next season.
Ondrej Kase, Anahiem Ducks - RW, Age: 23, Contract: 2.6 Million x 2
Kase is a bit of a pipe dream, but would be an incredible fit on this Devils squad as a top line right wing. He is the archetypical Shero trade - a young, talented forward who is underutilized on his current team. Averaging only 15:30 per game on a poor Anahiem team this season, Kase shined. Although limited to 30 games due to injury, he produced 11 goals and had a whopping 10.2 CF Rel%. His transition game is elite. He would provide incredible value on his contract over the next two years, and would provide much needed zone entries and volume shooting on a team that lacks both.
Anaheim is unlikely to part with Kase cheaply, but I wonder if picks, a roster player, and one of the Devils higher end prospects (McLeod, Davies, Boqvist, etc) could start the conversation as Anaheim looks to set up their future window if they believe that Kase will be past his prime when they are ready to contend.
J.T. Miller, Tampa Bay Lightening - LW/RW, Age: 25, Contract: 5.25 Million x 4 - Miller is coming off of a down year on a team that is in an extreme cap crunch, which brings Tampa GM Julien Brisebois fully into phone him daily territory. He has been a consistent (barring this year) 20 goal scorer with a positive possession impact on his team. His transition game is good, not great, but he also brings an element of physicality that would be welcome on this team. While he doesn’t fit either a shooter or transition archetype, he would constitute an immediate upgrade to our top-6. Add in the cap relief we could provide Tampa in taking on extra salary via Ryan Callahan, and Shero could potentially acquire an immediate impact player at a reasonable price.
I, like many others, breathed a sigh of relief when the season ended with displays of competent goaltending from both Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood. With that as our likely tandem for next season, look for the distribution of games to approach a 1A/1B distribution, which will create some healthy competition from within the organization.
With Blackwood making the NHL full time, look for the Binghamton Devils to add a veteran goal into the mix to help Evan Cormier and Gilles Senn. Eddie Lack might make some sense given his familiarity with the team, but his time in Binghamton hasn’t been particularly successful, and I would expect the team to look for options from outside of the organization.
As for the draft? We’ve seen Shero select a goalie in every draft he’s run. I expect that trend to continue, and one goalie I think could prove to be a good value pick is Mads Søgard, who is likely to go in the second or third round. Søgard, who plays with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, is 6’7 and shows competent technical ability in tracking the puck and controlling rebounds. His draft stock has fluctuated wildly throughout the season, which saw a mix of excellent play in the WHL mixed with two disastrous outings for Denmark’s U18 and U20 squads. The relative strength of Denmark’s teams compared to their opponents should certainly be taken into account, but Søgard does have an aura of risk about him as we approach the draft. If the Devils do end up making multiple selections in the 2nd or 3rd rounds, I wouldn’t be mad to take a flyer on a big, raw goalie - the pay off has the potential to be large relative to the risk. At the end of the day, goalies remain a mystery to me, but Søgard is a prospect I will be watching over the next few years.