Two days before the official beginning of free agency, Devils GM Ray Shero dropped the first of what would be a series of bombs to significantly alter the NHL landscape this afternoon by trading former #4 overall pick (2011) defenseman Adam Larsson for former #1 overall (2010) left wing Taylor Hall. In a sense this trade seemed like a natural fit for both sides with the Devils’ surplus of prospect/young defensemen and the Oilers’ surplus of forwards – which only got more pronounced after the alleged agreement with UFA forward Milan Lucic as well as drafting Jesse Puljujärvi last Friday after the Blue Jackets passed on a consensus top three pick.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. These blockbuster one-on-ones rarely happen in hockey, and Larsson had signed a long-term team friendly extension last offseason (with still five years left on that deal, at just over $4 million per) before continuing his late-season breakout in 2014-2015 with a real solid 2015-16 campaign. Plus on paper the Devils needed a right wing more than a left wing, given the fact they have Mike Cammalleri, 2015 #6 overall Pavel Zacha, Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi all already candidates to play on the left side next year, while at RW they have Kyle Palmeri, and two guys they didn’t qualify or re-sign yet in Devante Smith-Pelly and recent acquisition Beau Bennett.
And while I’m not quite as gaga over Taylor Hall as most of the hockey world (he’s never topped thirty goals in a season, for one thing and his production hasn’t been quite as scintillating the last two years as it was in his best season of 2013-14), he instantly becomes a first-line forward for us, having averaged around 70 points a season in his nearly five years in the league. And Hall’s still going to be just 24 when next season opens, signed long-term himself, under team control for the next four years at $6 million per year. Perhaps the best thing about Hall is the instant chemistry he has with former Windsor teammate Adam Henrique – see photo above. Clearly an offense that has been among the worst in the league the last three years needed a jolt up front and Hall certainly provides that.
What kind of cost it came at remains to be seen. While I do agree that the Devils got a player better at his position than Larsson is at his, I don’t think this is quite the slam dunk it’s being portrayed as in the media. True, Larsson was never a big point-getter though perhaps he can develop more of an offensive game in Edmonton playing a more two-dimensional role than he did here. And his skating was still a problem at times despite dilligent work to improve it. Still he’ll bring elements the Oilers need – a good first pass on offense and solid defensive work, especially on the penalty kill. Even though he’s not our player anymore I’m still mystifed if not annoyed over just how lopsided this trade’s being portrayed in the Canadian media and among our fans.
A bigger concern even than giving up Larsson is how the Devils’ defense will look come September. Clearly with UFA yet to start and a boatload of cap space, Devils GM Ray Shero should be far from done making moves. Granted, the UFA market is a bit questionable with leading options Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski off the market along with the rumors of Jason Demers agreeing in principle with the Oilers. As of now our top six includes captain Andy Greene and third-year man Damon Severson, who likely inherits Larsson’s role on the top pairing alongside the captain. Despite Severson’s meh sophomore year last year you figure he should be okay with Greene while he learns and gets better at the pro game.
Our real concern is 3-6, where our leading options are Jon Merrill – coming off a down third season, injured until the start of camp and still unsigned after not being qualified, John Moore who followed a decent first half with an awful second half, and prospect Steve Santini who has a lot of potential to eventually replace Larsson as a shutdown D with even more physical bite, but in the here and now he’s only played one NHL game. Merrill, David Schlemko and David Warsofsky are all currently UFA’s. Resigning any and all is a possibility but resigning all would leave our defense a huge question mark going into next season. Also going into free agency our forward situation is far from settled with a now stacked left side and a bunch of question marks aside from Palmieri on the right side. And if Pavel Zacha doesn’t stick with the Devils this year they also need a top nine center.
It’ll be interesting to see where all the chips fall by camp…but don’t go anywhere now. With the way things are going around the NHL we should get more of a picture of what Shero envisions for the 2016-17 Devils by the end of the weekend.