Fresh off a 4-2 home loss to the Minnesota Wild, Devils fans were hastily shifting gears towards getting ready for the Patrik Elias jersey retirement this Saturday, in addition to keeping up with the latest trade deadline rumors. It was a frustrating loss, but the news that followed would make Devils fans forget all about last night’s outcome. For the first time ever, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils made a trade, sending winger Michael Grabner to Newark in exchange for a 2018 second round pick and defensive prospect Yegor Rykov.
There were plenty of rumors to go around for both teams over the past couple of weeks, and when the Rangers confirmed their intentions of rebuilding, Michael Grabner immediately became the subject of trade speculation. Most analysts and fans thought Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton would send Grabner to a team in a more secure playoff position looking to shore up their offensive depth like Nashville, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis. The Devils, on the other hand, were expected to keep a low profile on the rental market, and only make a significant deal if it involved a player they had control over beyond this season.
According to Pierre LeBrun, the Devils jumped into the Grabner sweeps late, and were one of 10 or so teams that expressed interest. Don’t get me wrong; Grabner is exactly what this Devils offense needs. He currently has 25 goals (one fewer than Hall), and can be effective on any four lines. With Jesper Bratt slumping and the uncertain status of Marcus Johansson, Grabner adds much-needed secondary scoring to aleviate pressure off Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. While Grabner has a knack for scoring empty-netters (he has seven this year), all but one of his goals were scored five-on-five. This doesn’t necessarily help New Jersey’s power play woes, but could help the team in close contests like the one they played in last night.
The return for Grabner is quite fair, considering how the Rangers were expected to garner at least a first-round pick for the speedy forward. Although Rykov was largely considered the Devils best defensive prospect, he’s under contract with his current KHL team until 2019, and cannot play in the NHL until that deal expires. Nonetheless, I think this is yet another deal made by Shero that benefits both sides—not bad for a first-time trade between two teams.
The issue I have with this trade is Ray Shero’s message to the fans and team. Despite their surprising success this season, the Devils arguably seem to be overachieving, and management indicated they were still committed to their rebuilding state. The deal for Sami Vatanen was justified, since he’s a young player under contract beyond this season, fulfilled a glaring roster need, and was made with the team’s future in mind. Grabner effectively defies that particular player profile Shero has based all of his biggest deals around since becoming Devils general manager. Despite his $1.65 million cap hit and offensive boost he’ll bring, Grabner is currently slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and will definitely seek a long-term deal with a substantial pay raise.
Yes, the Devils currently have a comforting five-point cushion in the first wildcard spot with 21 games left, but they’re a combined 6-9-2 against the seven other Eastern Conference teams currently in playoff positions. Simply put, between the Devil’s evident overachieving and regular season struggles against the Eastern Conference’s playoff-caliber teams, it makes sense for fans to have more of an “anything can happen in the playoffs”-type mentality than genuine expectations of a deep run. Shero made this trade sacrificing his 2018 second round pick (leaving the Devils without draft picks in the second or third round this year), which is a common practice of general managers with a buyer’s mindset, instead of one who’s supposed to have his team’s future in mind in any deal he makes.
Having said that, Shero did complete this deal without affecting any part of his current roster, and acquired a player expected to make an immediate impact in the Devils lineup. It’s possible the Devils could work out an extension with Grabner, or even flip him before Monday’s 3pm deadline. Either of these scenarios have the team’s future in mind, especially considering the potential return New Jersey could still fetch for the 30-year old winger. One move ultimately isn’t enough to determine management’s faith in this team’s postseason chances, but if Grabner is any indication, Shero and Co. may have concluded that the rebuild is indeed well ahead of schedule.