New Jersey Devils Can Upgrade Scoring Without Moving 2nd Overall Pick

At his end-of-season media availability a week and a half ago, New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald spoke about being open to potentially trading the team’s first-round pick to acquire an impact player. A couple of days afterward, Jeff Marek reported that the team has interest in Minnesota Wild winger Kevin Fiala.

That, however, was before the NHL Draft Lottery. As it turns out, the Devils’ luck continues to roll on when the draft lottery comes around. Instead of having the fifth overall pick based on their place in the standings, they’ll now have the second overall pick after moving up three spots in the lottery. 

First-round picks get dealt often enough, but it’s rare to see a top-five choice traded, let alone top two. While it’s not impossible, it’s more likely the Devils will hang on to the pick and draft either Juraj Slafkovsky or Logan Cooley. But just because it’s a near lock that the Devils make the pick at the draft doesn’t mean they can’t find an upgrade on the wing through the trade market. 

Devils Could Re-Visit Talks for Garland

For the Devils to move the second overall pick, it would take an elite talent like Matthew Tkachuk becoming available. Unfortunately for them, there’s about a 0.0 percent chance of that happening. Everyone knows the Devils need a goalie, but no goalie available this offseason will be worth trading the second overall pick. Otherwise, you won’t get equal value for a top-two pick in the draft. That’s why it’s more likely that the Devils will make the pick during the first round on July 7. So who could they consider in a trade? 

One player to target is Conor Garland, who Elliotte Friedman connected to the Devils in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. After a slow start, Garland finished the 2021-22 campaign with 19 goals and 52 points in 77 games. He’s been one of the most-efficient scoring forwards over the last three seasons, averaging 2.36 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He’s also had a strong positive two-way impact at that game state. 

Vancouver Canucks winger Conor Garland (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the Vancouver Canucks move Garland this summer, the Devils will undoubtedly give it another run. And they can probably pull off the move without giving up a first-round pick. A package built around a 2022 second-rounder, Pavel Zacha, and Ty Smith could get close to securing a deal. 

Garland may only be 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, but he plays bigger than his size. He has a very manageable cap hit of $4.95 million through the 2025-26 season, which the Devils could use with plenty of new contracts to hand out over the next year. He’d provide an upgrade to their top-six on a great deal, so there’s clearly a fit. But if the two sides can’t agree to something, there are other places to look to weaponize their cap space. 

Fitzgerald Can Seek Middle-Six Depth Instead of Top-Six Scorer

Another option the Devils have is to upgrade their depth scoring by heading to trade the market for a middle-six winger and saving free agency for taking a big swing at someone like Filip Forsberg or even an underrated top-six winger like Andre Burakovsky. If that’s the route Fitzgerald and the Devils take, there are a couple of players to consider. 

Though the Bruins re-signed Jake DeBrusk to a contract extension before the trade deadline, Elliotte Friedman reported DeBrusk had not rescinded his trade request. By re-signing him to a contract with a $4 million cap hit, the Bruins got rid of the uncertainty of his qualifying offer, which would’ve been $4.4 million. Now teams looking to trade for him know what they’re getting contract-wise. 

After a down 2020-21 campaign, DeBrusk rebounded this season and finished with 25 goals and 42 points in 77 games. He’s a high-end finisher, which the Devils could use anywhere in their top-nine. It’d likely take a second-round pick, Zacha, and another asset (either a B-prospect or another draft pick) to get a deal done. He’d upgrade the Devils’ scoring while being on an affordable contract that allows Fitzgerald to pursue free-agent wingers. 

Jake DeBrusk, Boston Bruins
Boston Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If not DeBrusk, another player to keep an eye on is Kailer Yamamoto of the Edmonton Oilers. He and Jesse Puljujärvi are restricted free agents this offseason. Evander Kane has played very well for the Oilers, finishing with 22 goals and 39 points in 43 regular-season games. Despite the off-ice concerns, it’d be a surprise if they didn’t bring him back for next season. The Oilers have only $7,198,538 in cap space to get all three players re-signed. And that doesn’t take into trying to upgrade their forward and defensive depth.

If the Oilers keep Puljujärvi and Kane, that could leave Yamamoto as the odd-man out if that’s a decision they need to make. He finished the season with 20 goals and 41 points in 81 games. He isn’t a game-breaker, but he is a solid middle-six winger who’s averaged 1.72 points/60 since the start of 2019-20. And that’s with him only totaling 21 points in 52 games a season ago.

Related: 5 Prospects Devils Should Target With Second Overall Pick

Yamamoto’s collected an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 15.4 over the last three seasons, placing him ahead of names such as Teuvo Teravainen, Zach Hyman, and Alex Tuch. That’s not to say he’s better than those wingers, but the 23-year-old can play. A trade for him would likely be futures-based — a second-round and third-round pick and/or a prospect since it’d be a cap dump. As for an extension, he’d probably come in a bit under $4 million on a bridge deal, which the Devils can afford no problem. 

What About Puljujärvi?

Let’s say the Oilers decide to re-sign Kane and Yamamoto instead. Their depth up front and on defense is in need of some improvements, and they don’t have the cap space to make those upgrades at the moment. Could that mean Puljujärvi becomes available on the trade market? With the way some Edmonton media members criticize his game (From ‘Why the Jesse Puljujarvi criticism in Edmonton misses the mark’, The Athletic – 4/14/2022), you’d think he doesn’t have much value. However, that’s not the case.

Puljujärvi finished this season with 14 goals and 36 points in 65 games — an 18-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games. Based on his counting totals, it’s easy to see why he might get some criticism. But as is the case with some players, counting totals don’t always tell the whole picture. 

While he may not be scoring much, Puljujärvi is one of the Oilers’ best players outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Since returning from a stint with Kärpät in the Finnish Liiga, Puljujärvi has a Corsi-for percentage of 56.14 percent and an expected goals percentage of 58.25 percent over the last two seasons. Both of those rank first on the Oilers, and overall, he’s had a strong positive two-way impact at even strength:

Jesse Puljujarvi
Jesse Puljujarvi’s impact at even strength and on the power play, 2019-22

Puljujärvi just turned 24 years old a week ago. It might be past the point where he becomes a big-time scorer, but there’s clearly value in a player like him. He’s strong on the forecheck and winning puck retrievals along the boards. At 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, that’s the type of game you’d expect him to play. He’d be something different than what the Devils have up front, something Fitzgerald hinted he’s looking for when adding wingers this offseason. 

What would it take to acquire Puljujarvi? His counting totals are not all that different than any of the players mentioned here. If the Oilers don’t retain him, it’d be because they can’t afford him, so a trade probably wouldn’t look too different than acquiring someone like Yamamoto. I’d still bet on the Oilers retaining Puljujärvi. He’s a former top-five pick of theirs that has come along in his development. But if they re-sign Kane, it might be tough to keep all three of him, Yamamoto and Puljujärvi, plus make improvements to the roster. That makes their cap situation something to watch as the offseason unfolds. 

Devils Luck Out With 2nd Overall Pick

It’s unlikely the Devils give up the second overall pick, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to upgrade through a trade. They’ll have to get creative, but it can get done. It helps that, as of now, the free-agent market for wingers looks quite impressive. Fitzgerald can acquire a middle-six option through a trade and add a top-six forward like Burakovsky or Forsberg in free agency while still adding a blue-chip prospect with the second overall pick. That’s a good spot to be in and should help the Devils make noticeable improvements to their roster this summer. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey



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