The Future Five: The Most Exciting Month in Hockey
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 a few different perspectives on the Devils’ draft capital, and some trade options to help the top-6.
This week, we’re looking at more trade options to improve both the top-6 and the defensive core, as well as a few notes from the recent NHL draft combine.
1. Kevin Labanc
In the last edition of the Future Five we took a look at a few different options to upgrade the top-6 through trade. Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen, Ondrej Kase, and J.T. Miller are all good options that would provide an immediate upgrade to the top-6 RW, but there’s another option that merits some consideration.
Kevin Labanc is a RW/LW with the San Jose Sharks and is currently an RFA after completing his entry level contract. He is 23, stands 5”11’ tall, and is a right hand shot. During the 2018/19 season, Labanc scored 17 goals, and 39 assists for a total of 56 points in 82 games. His point totals have increased consistently over his first three seasons in the NHL, climbing from 20, to 40, and then 56 points.
I am not as high on Labanc as I am on some of the trade targets I outlined in my last article. However, there are several exciting trends we can see from his play throughout the past three seasons. First, he has a positive impact on his team’s possession when he is on the ice, and has averaged a 10.5 CF% in the past two seasons. He also seems to be fairly versatile, and moved between the third and second forward lines, and often played as the fourth forward on the Shark’s number one power play unit alongside Karlsson, Hertl, Pavelski, and Couture.
The Sharks themselves are a good trade target, although they don’t have a history of panic trades, or poor trades in general. They have $24 million in projected cap space for next season, and have to deal with a wide range of UFAs and RFAs
Erik Karlsson (D) - they likely want to try and keep him, but he will cost in upwards of $10 million
Joonas Donskoi (F)
Joe Pavelski (F)
Joe Thornton (F)
Gustav Nyquist (F)
Kevin Labanc (F)
Timo Meier (F) - the bigger impact forward between Labanc and Meier
Joakim Ryan (D)
The Shark’s cap situation isn’t as dire as some other teams around the league (Tampa, Winnipeg, Toronto), but it’s still bad. If Erik Karlsson decides to walk into free agency then the cap situation will become much simpler, limiting the amount of leverage the Devils will have on the Sharks in a trade.
Here’s how I see it - Labanc is a talented middle-6 forward who has the potential to move into the top-6 full time as soon as next season. He has averaged roughly 14 minutes a game, which is eerily similar to Palmieri’s deployment when the Devils traded for him in the summer of 2015. The problem is, with the benefit of hindsight, Palmieri was the more under the radar trade target. Labanc has already broken out to a degree that far surpasses Palmieri’s at the time of the trade:
Palmieri 2014/15: 14:06 TOI, 29 points including 10 ES goals
Labanc 2018/19: 14:01 TOI, 56 points including 15 ES goals
This means that the cost will likely be higher, should Labanc even be available.
Labanc shot 13% last season, which is up almost 3% from his career average. He also has a positive effect on possession when he is on the ice, but some of his micro-stats suggest that he isn’t an elite transition player. He falls into the same category as J.T. Miller where he doesn’t fall into any one archetype that hockey fans generally use (volume shooter, transition machine, wrecking ball). To me, the similarity in classification is so strong that I can’t help but compare the two. The unfortunate result is that when they’re compared, I simply prefer Miller, but only marginally.
If all else is equal, Miller comes out looking better in many metrics, including zone entries and exits. While these micro stats are only one small factor among many for player evaluation, what I have seen of both Labanc and Miller’s game has solidified my preference. Miller is signed to term, at a fairly reasonable contract, and provides a bit more physicality at 6’1 and 218 pounds.
I think Labanc would be a great addition to the top-6. His age and usage to date fits the mold of what I consider to be the ultimate Shero trade bait - low ice time, 22-25 years old, and top-6 potential. I would happily take him on the Devils - my only concern is that there are other players out there that could provide similar or more upside, on teams with less leverage, that could likely be had for less.
2. Trade Targets on Defense
The Devils’ defensive core badly needs an upgrade. On the latest episode of the podcast, Ian and I discussed how the team likely needs two top-6 forwards and two top-4 D. While Ty Smith projects to fill one of those top-4 spots, we can’t assume that he will reach that potential this season. Even if Smith rises to the challenge, that leaves a need for an additional top-4 D. Who are some players the Devils should be looking at?
Jacob Trouba - RD, Age: 25, Contract: RFA
Trouba and Winnipeg have had a rocky relationship for the past few seasons due to his desire to play higher up on the depth chart, and needing to play on the left side at various points. He is 6’3, 200 pounds, and plays a more uptempo, physical, and defensive game.
Despite his more defensive skillset, he scored 50 points last season, up from 24 the previous (in 55 games, a 37 point pace over 82 games). 18 of his points last season come from the powerplay, which is a significant increase from his 3 powerplay points in 2017/18. His average powerplay time per game increased from the previous season too (2.06 minutes per game in 2018/19, up from 1.47 minutes in 2017/18), meaning that he was given a larger role on the team, and used that role to great effect. Overall, he played almost 23 minutes a night for the Jets.
Trouba will come at a large cost, but would be an immediate upgrade for the team. He is a top-4 defenseman that could likely contribute in a top pairing role on the Devils immediately, and assist with one of the Devils’ biggest needs - breaking the puck out of the zone. He could help spread out some of the defensive responsibilities within the top-4 along with Severson, Greene, and Vatanen, and could help anchor one of the two powerplay units.
Winnipeg is one of the teams currently experiencing a cap crunch, and Trouba’s rocky history with the Jets would make him a prime target. They have $25 million in projected cap space to sign RFAs Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Nathan Beaulieu, Jacob Trouba himself, as well as UFA Tyler Myers. Laine and Connor are likely to take up more than half of that space.
The only problem I see with a Trouba trade, other than an ambiguous cost to acquire him in the first place, is having too many powerplay options at D. The Devils have been running a 4F/1D powerplay for some time, and the thought of one of Butcher, Vatanen, Trouba, Smith, or even Severson not getting powerplay time is problematic. Perhaps one of Butcher or Vatanen would be included in the package to acquire Trouba, making it a moot point. This is also consistent with the idea that Winnipeg, a contending team, won’t be interested in moving one of their top-4 defensemen for only futures. Look for an established roster player to be included in any deal for Trouba.
Colin Miller - RD, Age: 26, Contract: $3.875 x 3
The Vegas Golden Knights have $0 in projected cap space, which moves Miller up in the rankings of possible trade targets almost by default. He’s a right-hand shot defenseman that stands 6’1 tall and 200 pounds. While no one part of his game is excellent, his overall play would still be an improvement to New Jersey’s top-4. He averaged a 5.5% CF Rel over the past two seasons, and produced at a 37 point pace last year.
His zone exit and entry stats are good, not great, but when compared to other players that the Devils have employed in a top-4 role, the upgrade seems obvious. Combine that with his ~19:00 minutes of average ice time in the past two seasons, and Miller starts to look like a competent, if not entirely inspiring, addition. His main contribution to the Devils would be a competent transition game, a bit more size on the back end, with the possibility of limited penalty killing.
My main concern with a trade for Miller is that it feels a bit underwhelming. While he would definitely be an upgrade, it wouldn’t be an move that screams ambition. At the same time, Shero has proven to have a love for more incremental, shrewd trades, so perhaps I need to adjust my own expectations. With Vegas’ cap problems, perhaps the relatively lower cost for Miller would allow the Devils to keep enough assets to make another swing on defense. Because of this, I would be both surprised and relatively underwhelmed if a trade for Miller was the Devils’ only offseason move to address the defense.
Jared Spurgeon - RD, Age: 29 Contract: $5.1875 x 1
We have spent some significant time talking about the Minnesota Wild and the need to call General Manager Paul Fenton daily, and one of the players should be calling about is Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon is a 5’9 mobile offensive defenseman who plays 24 minutes a night for the Minnesota Wild. He showed a positive impact on his team’s possession with a 2.67 CF Rel%, and when he was on the ice his team had an expected goals for percentage of 68.2%, meaning that the possession he presumably helped contribute to led to more dangerous scoring chances.
While I think Spurgeon’s skillset suggests greater potential in his offensive game, his deployment by the Wild has not been sheltered in any sense. For those who are skeptical of adding a 5’9 creative defenseman in an effort to add “defensive responsibility” consider that he has had almost exactly equal shorthanded ice time per game (2:27) as powerplay time (2:26) over the past three seasons on a team that stresses, if not with wholly successful results, defensive acumen. He may be small but he can effectively contribute in all three zones.
Spurgeon has been in trade rumours for some time, and is also one of the comparables experts have used for Devils prospect Ty Smith. He would be an invaluable addition to the Devils defensive core and would provide another layer of much needed defensive responsibility, relatively effective transition both out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone, and effective playmaking from the back end. He could step into a top-pairing role on the Devils next fall. One area Spurgeon would need to address is gap control and consistently preventing zone entries from the opposing team.
While Jonas Brodin’s name has also popped up in recent trade rumours, I tend to prefer Spurgeon’s game as a whole. While Brodin would also be an good addition to the team, Spurgeon’s skillset and deployment more perfectly fits the Devils’ system.
Of Trouba, Miller, and Spurgeon, I would rate Trouba and Spurgeon as 1A/1B choices, with Miller in a second tier.
3. Big Game Hunting
While Trouba and Spurgeon would be excellent additions to the Devils next season, neither is a move that would shock or excite most casual hockey fans. If Shero’s mandate is to add more talent this offseason, why not aim a bit higher?
P.K. Subban - RD, Age: 30 Contract: $9 Million x 3
P.K. Subban is a truly elite defenseman that impacts the game at a high level in all three zones. When he is healthy, he is a consistent 50-60 point scorer, effective powerplay producer, and zone-exit machine . He produced a CF Rel % of 2.4 over the past three seasons, and has some fairly encouraging micro stats.
Simply put, I would love to see the Devils take a shot at bringing Subban to the Devils. He would instantly be the team’s best defenseman, and one of the team’s best players. While he has a tendency to make some risky plays, he is actually much better defensively than many give him credit for, and he is quick to transition the puck out of the defensive zone, whether using his skating to move the puck up the ice himself, or with clean passing.
We’ve spoken a bit about Nashville’s cap problems moving forward, and Subban’s $9 million contract could be an interesting piece to move. I don’t have a clear idea of what Subban would cost in a trade, but Shero has a good relationship with Nashville GM David Poile. Recent news has suggested that Nashville is interested in upcoming UFA Matt Duchene, who will be looking for a large contract on July 1. If moving Subban’s contract could help Nashville secure another solid top-6 centre, then I think this trade starts to look a little bit more realistic.
4. NHL Combine Interviews
The NHL Draft Combine, held each year in Buffalo, is the final step in a long process for most draft eligible players. While the combine includes medical and physical testing, team interviews are the most heavily scrutinized event. Media coverage of combine interviews is reminiscent of a high school dance - who is talking to who? Why are they talking to him? Don’t they know they’d never have a shot at dating, uh, drafting him?
Draft eligibles are invited on a team by team basis to meet for a twenty minute interview, during which they can be asked a variety of sometimes good, sometimes off-putting questions. If you look, you can find all sorts of horrifying questions or scenarios teams have cooked up for the 17-18 year old players. Most recently, the Arizona Coyotes spent some of their twenty minutes with Cole Caufield going over game tape they had prepared, and ripping his game (see 11:30 mark).
The current Devils regime has been thankfully absent from negative headlines, and instead has been held up as leader when it comes to the interview process. Headed by Dr. Aimee Kimball, the Devils use the interviews to help discern a player’s competitiveness, resilience, and the ever-present grit. Dr. Kimball was recently a guest on the Devils’ Road to the Draft Podcast, where she went into more detail about her role, and the importance of the interview process. While interviews are unlikely to make or break a prospect’s chances at being drafted, they provide one of many layers of information about a player’s personality both on and off of the ice, and could help break a tie if two players were otherwise seen as equal.
One interesting thing that came up on Dr. Kimball’s appearance was a question they asked players last year - If you could take one teammate with you to the next level, who would it be? While not a particularly revolutionary question, it breaks down what we might think is one of the primary weaknesses of the interview - these players come to interviews heavily prepared to field questions about themselves. By asking about teammates, you avoid that barrier, and also start to gain some less rehearsed insight into other players, who you might also be thinking about drafting.
Dr. Kimball, and later GM Ray Shero, said that Ty Smith was a player that was consistently mentioned in this way during last year’s interview process. The Devils selected Ty Smith 17th overall in the 2018 entry draft.
I don’t mean to be presumptive, but I wonder how many of the USNTDP members that were interviewed by the Devils would have answered with the name “Jack Hughes” this year. Does anyone want to place a bet?
5. The Most Exciting Month in Hockey
June is my favorite month for hockey. Despite the fact that during my time following the Devils, they have only played in June once, the month itself represents a wealth of excitement for hockey nerds. The Stanley cup is awarded in June. The Draft is in June. The interview period for UFAs and RFAs begins in June. Teams make foundational trades and adjustments in June. Free agency rumours, trade rumours, and draft rumours dominate in June. It’s heaven for those of us who find this stuff exciting.
On June 29, 2016, the Devils traded Adam Larsson in a one-for-one trade for Taylor Hall, who won the Hart trophy two seasons later. On that same day, one of the most exciting offseasons days I have ever seen, P.K. Subban was swapped for Shea Weber, and Steven Stamkos signed a long term contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. All of this happened within twenty-three minutes.
You are going to see many rumours about the Devils, and players you want the Devils to draft, trade for, or sign. My advice is to follow along, participate in the excitement, but not to take what you read too seriously.
June is the most exciting month in hockey. In a year when the Devils are selecting first overall in a deep draft, make sure that it stays fun. Enjoy the ride!