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The New Jersey Devils should sell high on Sami Vatanen

January 16, 2020, 11:26 AM ET [40 Comments]
Todd Cordell
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The New Jersey Devils have a handful of pending unrestricted free agents on their roster, with defenseman Sami Vatanen serving as the headliner.

Normally a 27th placed team would be all but a lock to sell off any and all rentals they have. This is a different situation. Ownership seems intent on putting the pedal to the metal sooner than later – they’re sick of wasted seasons – and the interim GM, Tom Fitzgerald, is working for his job here. If ownership doesn’t want him to rip another layer off the team, he’s not going to.

Here’s where it gets tricky. He probably should. Andy Greene would draw interest but the 37-year-old isn’t going to bring back a ton (maybe a 2nd) if he’s willing to go. Wayne Simmonds, who has already expressed interest in staying put, would get the Devils even less.

Vatanen is a different story. I think he could fetch a fairly significant return and, if that’s the case, the Devils should take it.

I know, I know. Defense is an area of weakness already. Trading Vatanen makes it worse. I get it. But Vatanen is going to be expensive. He just is.

Tyler Myers, 29, landed a five-year, $30 million contract this past summer. His platform year was a 30-point campaign in which he averaged ~20 minutes a night.

Vatanen, who will be 29 in Year 1 of his new deal, is on pace for 42 points thanks to a steady dose of minutes on PP1. He’s averaging nearly 22 minutes a night.

He’s heading for a Myers-type deal at *minimum*. I think he could get more. And I don’t think the Devils should pay him that.

Simply put, he’s not worth it. I’m sure I’m going to take a ton of heat for saying this but it’s my opinion and I have plenty of evidence to back it up.

We’ll start with the production. Vatanen is not going to give you much at 5v5. At all. He has averaged just .80 points per 60 since joining the Devils back in 2017-18. That equals Matt Roy and Mike Matheson while slotting him a hair below names like Brandon Manning, Olli Maatta, Andrew MacDonald, Kevin Connauton, and Danny DeKeyser. Hardly a who’s who of competent offensive defenders.

That’s not really a coincidence. While Vatanen has a reputation as a solid offensive player, the numbers don’t bear that out. The Devils are hardly an offensive powerhouse and yet they’ve generated fewer attempts, chances, and expected goals per 60 minutes with Vatanen on the ice.

Admittedly Vatanen has fared pretty well on PP1 this season, however, it is his highest rate output since 2015-16. He was just entering his prime while playing for a stacked Ducks team that finished tied for 5th in points and 4th in power play goals so I’m not sure I’d bet on this continuing.

‘We don’t care about offense Todd, we need players who can defend.’

Well, here’s the thing.

The Devils are not exactly good defensively – you don’t need me to tell you that – and haven’t been for some time.

Vatanen is part of the reason why. While the differences are small, the Devils have given up chances, goals, and expected goals at a higher rate with Vatanen on the ice than without.

The team’s defensive personnel has left a lot to be desired since the day Vatanen arrived. Out-performing them is not exactly a high bar to clear. And Vatanen hasn’t been able to do it.

I know he *looks* like one of the more stable defenders on the team. I think so too. But at the end of the day we’re examining (large parts of) three seasons here and the team’s defensive results have been no better with Vatanen on the ice than without. Names like Steven Santini, Mirco Mueller, John Moore, and seemingly everybody’s favorite whipping boy, Damon Severson, factor into the ‘without.’ If Vatanen is as good as people want to believe, that simply wouldn’t be the case.

I’m not saying he’s a horrible player and the Devils should dump him for whatever they can get. I’m just pointing out his perceived value appears higher than his actual value and, if that’s the case, the Devils should look to capitalize on that.

Selling Vatanen for a quality package and using some of the pieces to land another defender in the off-season, or simply spending big on another free agent, would be a preferred route for me.

Alex Pietrangelo, Jake Muzzin, Torey Krug, T.J. Brodie and even Travis Hamonic headline a pretty solid group of potential UFAs.

Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement statistic suggests each has been more valuable than Vatanen since the beginning of last season.

Alex Pietrangelo is probably pipe dream but I’d rather have Jake Muzzin, for example, and a couple quality assets from a Vatanen trade than simply keeping the latter, who I deem to be a worse player.

I imagine the Devils’ analytics department, which could have more say going forward, would agree.

Now let’s see if they can convince ownership that’s the best course of action.

Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Evolving-Hockey.com.

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