It’s been more than two months since the Devils season ended and approximately four since their last meaningful game of 2021, waiting for the playoffs to end has felt like just another interminable delay in a year and a half full of them as a hockey fan. However with expansion protection lists due in less than two hours and a trading freeze currently underway, the offseason finally feels like it’s beginning in earnest. Things are starting to happen fast and furious now with the expansion draft itself, the NHL schedule release and the NHL Draft all in the next week and then the beginning of free agency after that.
For the Devils, their first big move of this offseason took place two nights ago when they traded prospect Mikhail Maltsev and a 2nd-round pick (previously an Islanders pick) for defenseman Ryan Graves from Colorado. I was uptown with friends when a buddy texted me about the deal, thankfully he filled me in on who Graves was since I had literally never heard his name before, and had no time to really look anything up. While the value of plus/minus in a player is debatable – personally I think it’s still somewhat valuable, but only in comparing players on the same team – what’s not debatable is that Graves has the highest plus/minus of any player in the NHL since the start of the 2019-20 season. Tom Fitzgerald admitted after the trade that Graves had been a target of his since shortly after taking over the GM job last January. Why not, given Graves is still just 26 and signed through next season? Graves seems like a fine add to me given he was good enough to play a top four role for a contending team, and provides sorely-needed size, physicality and defensive aptitude on our blueline.
Presumably Graves will now be one of the players the Devils will protect on their expansion list, which will likely consist of seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. At least nine of those positions seem to be set assuming the Devils protect Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen up front, Mackenzie Blackwood in goal and Graves with Damon Severson on the blueline. As with most teams it’ll be the last spot(s) that are the most debateable.
Up front do the Devils protect Andreas Johnsson, coming off a poor year (though for some reason he’s a target to bounce back in the analytics community) with two seasons to go on a quasi-expensive deal or use their last slot on one of their young guns on the fourth line – center Mike McLeod or banging winger Nathan Bastian? McLeod seems marginally more valuable than his young gun counterpart Bastian given his position and chipping in a few more goals, plus his higher draft position probably still gives him more value. Just ask the Flyers, who just traded Nolan Patrick (former #2 overall) in a great deal for Ryan Ellis from Nashville. While not fully tipping his hand on a protection list, the GM actually compared McLeod to himself the other day, admitting he – Fitzgerald – was a first-rounder that didn’t live up to his draft position and had to find another way to carve out a long-term career in the league as a role player. I would probably protect McLeod over Bastian and Johnsson but it’s not a no-brainer considering the GM also acquired Johnsson last year and presumably won’t want to give up on him after one disjointed year.
On the blueline the choice for protection seemed cut and dry until the Graves trade. Now instead of protecting both PK Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler, the Devils will likely expose one to the expansion draft. On talent it’s a no-brainer choice, even with Subban’s meh tenure as a Devil he’s still a clear top four defenseman who’s one of our few vet leaders. Of course the fact Subban’s only signed through this season for $9 million has to factor in too, while again Sigenthaler is a player this GM acquired and just gave a two-year extension to. While I wasn’t impressed with his brief audition last year, it was a tough spot for the young Swiss defenseman after being benched in Washington for much of the season, then getting COVID shortly after coming here to play with a new team and new system, only getting in eight total games in NJ. I get the argument for rolling the dice and exposing Subban but it’s not going to help nearly as much in the short-term just trading off Subban for Graves if the Kraken decide to take him as a face of the new franchise/vet leader. It’s not as if the Devils need the cap space either, they’re not gonna come close to the celing this offseason and Subban’s contract is expiring after that.
My prediction is I’ll be annoyed when Johnsson and Siegenthaler are the last ones protected, and have a mixed reaction when McLeod winds up being taken. Obviously McLeod’s only a fourth-line center at most barring some huge later-career breakout but currently we don’t even have a third-line center, so we’ll probably need to fill those holes in the back six on free agency if that’s the way it plays out. If Subban winds up getting taken that’s a whole new kettle of fish though a big trade or FA signing could alleviate that. With the lists due at 5 PM you would think word would leak out tonight though the actual lists don’t have to be made public until tomorrow morning.