3 devils on the trading block this offseason
The New Jersey Devils will continue to improve their roster this offseason to break their playoff drought in 2022-23. General Manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald will return to the drawing board over the summer to work through the Devils’ goalie dilemma to find the right goaltender for the team. Goaltending was one of the 2021-22 Devils’ lingering issues that have hampered their success as seven goaltenders – Mackenzie Blackwood, Jon Gillies, Scott Wedgewood, Jonathan Bernier, Nico Daws, Akira Schmid and Andrew Hammond have all started between the posts for them this year.
Along with improving the goalie, the Devils need to improve on the power play (PP) in 2022-23, as they’ve been terrible with the man advantage this year. They also have a lot of Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) and some Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) on the roster and will be open to improving it through free agency and trades. Here are three players who could be on the trading block this offseason.
Mackenzie Blackwood has suffered multiple injuries in 2021-22 as the heel surgery he underwent last offseason impacted his performance during the year. He struggled in 25 games played this season as he finished with a 9-10-4 record, 3.39 goals-against average (GAA) and .892 save percentage (SV% ). Over the past two seasons, he hasn’t looked like the number one goaltender the Devils hoped for.
None of the six goaltenders who have played this year – Wedgewood is no longer with the Devils – inspires confidence. Blackwood is supposed to be the keeper they can rely on, but there are concerns about his inconsistent play and durability issues. Fitzgerald needs to rethink his position and find another goalie the team can rely on. The team’s defense hasn’t always played well in front of him, but Blackwood hasn’t been sharp enough in goal regularly for the Devils.
Earlier in April, Elliotte Friedman reported on an episode of 32 thoughts: the podcast that Blackwood and the Devils had their share of problems. The organization was not happy with the goalkeeper decision not to get vaccinated for COVID-19 initially, and there was a difference of opinion between him and the club over the treatment of his heel injury. Disagreements between him and the Devils may mean it’s time for both sides to part ways.
Related: Devils News & Rumors: Blackwood, Bratt & More
Blackwood has one more year left on his current contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $2.8 million before becoming RFA. If he stays with the team for 2022-23, he must have a great season to appease fans and management that he can be the Devils’ number one goaltender for the next few years. After seven goaltenders lined up between the posts for the Devils in 2021-22, they need to find a number one keeper to improve their chances of competing in the Metropolitan Division next season. In the 2022 NHL Draft, he could be traded for a draft pick — a second-round pick or maybe a first-round pick.
Pavel Zacha had a third straight season with 30+ points and was inconsistent for the Devils in 2021-22. His production in his sixth year with the team has raised questions about whether they should accept offers for him this summer if that’s his cap. This kind of offense is replaceable either in free agency or within the organization, as the Devils’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Utica Comets, has plenty of young talent with the success of the team in the AHL regular season this year.
Zacha is an RFA this offseason and there was speculation the Devils were looking to deal him at the trade deadline. Considering the other RFAs on the roster this season, next season, and the other additions from free agency and trades, he has a good chance of being elsewhere in 2022-23.
Jesper Bratt is one of the Devils’ RFAs this offseason and he was their best offensive player in 2021-22, which will net him a multi-year deal between $4 million and $5 million a year for the next several years. Zacha looks like a player who will be a regular bottom-six player for the Devils if he stays with the franchise beyond this offseason. As such, they should be able to find other options to replace the 25-year-old. It looks like he could be treated to a draft pick or a prospect with top-six potential if a team thinks the Devils forward can succeed elsewhere with a fresh start.
Based on his numbers from the last two seasons, Janne Kuokkanen is a striker in the last six who didn’t have as many good of a season as it should be in order to have a better chance of staying with the Devils after next year. He is expected to become RFA after next season and it is debatable whether he will stay with the team beyond 2022-23. Given the plethora of young players on the roster and with the Comets, the 23-year-old striker could be elsewhere early next year as it looks like he’s not a player who won’t contribute regularly to the Devils offense, whether it’s through injury or a healthy scratch. He has played in 57 of 82 games in 2021-22, down from last season when he played 50 of 56 games in the shortened 2020-21 year.
The Devils could receive a draft pick or a depth player for Kuokkanen if they decide to trade him in the offseason. He’s in a similar position to Zacha in that he’s reached his potential with the organization, especially if he misses games due to a healthy scratch. If he stays with the team next year, he could be traded during the season or the next off-season when he is in Germany.
The Devils are in another transitional season as they attempt to make improvements to the roster and potentially the coaching staff to compete for a playoff spot in 2022-23. They need to improve their goalkeeping and power play, as their poor performance in these areas has hampered the young organization’s progress. If they can find a reliable goaltender through trade or free agency, it will give a boost to a franchise looking to make the playoffs consistently.
The Devils also need to improve their overall defensive play, especially from forwards who have returned the puck to their end zone or to center ice leading to goals or chances against them. Fitzgerald has a significant offseason ahead of him, as the team’s regular season performances have become tedious to the fanbase in terms of continuing to finish bottom of the division. Frustration mounts, as doubt begins to arise over whether the Devils will make the right personnel changes to improve the team’s fortunes going forward.
Matt covers the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils and has previously contributed content on the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. For interview and podcast requests, follow Matt on Twitter which appears at the end of his articles.