With just four days remaining until the NHL trade deadline, teams are taking stock of what they'll need to do. Some teams will be buyers, acquiring rental players for a playoff run. Other teams will be sellers, trading away veterans and pending free agents to build for the future. Still, others will just stand pat, confident that they have the pieces needed to win the Stanley Cup.
The New Jersey Devils find themselves in a very tricky situation. They have one more game before the trade deadline, Monday night against the ninth-place New York Islanders, and will have to decide once that game has passed whether they will be looking to add players or dump salaries before Wednesday afternoon.
The Devils are holding on to a slim, four-point lead over the Islanders and Rangers and are coming off of a couple of bad losses: On back-to-back nights, the Devils blew leads in the last 30 seconds of a game before losing after regulation. First, they blew two two-goal leads against the 13th-ranked Tampa Bay Lightning before losing in shootout. Next, they gave up a late goal to the last-in-the-East Florida Panthers before giving up another goal just a few minutes later, in overtime.
So where does that leave the team? Coming off of a weekend where they fell short against two of the worst Eastern teams, do the Devils truly believe they can compete in a postseason picture?
The game against the Islanders will be decisive to some extent. A loss would mean giving up two points in a must-win game, dropping the team's lead to just two in the standings. But even if they drop that game, they will be in the playoff picture, and that usually means that a team won't be selling off too many pieces.
But does that make sense? It all comes down to whether the Devils believe they have a real chance at making a deep playoff run. Here's what the argument looks like:
The Devils should be Buyers
The Devils have had some personnel turnaround lately, but a few major players have stuck around. The team still has the all-time winningest goalie, Martin Brodeur, between the pipes most nights. They still have Patrik Elias leading the attack, assisted by Travis Zajac and David Clarkson. And once he's healthy again, they'll add Ilya Kovalchuk into that mix as well.
It would make sense in this context that the Devils be buyers. They have an old, experienced team that isn't gonna be around for too long, but who can still compete at a top level. In last year's playoffs, the team showed they're fundamentally capable of winning multiple playoff series. Is a repeat out of the question?
It would be tempting to say that no, it's not out of the question. Marty can still play like the Marty of old; the offense, while lacking luster, is still deep and capable; the defense is made up of role-players who are able to do their respective jobs well.
The team has already made some mid-season additions—they've picked up Alexei Ponikarovsky, Andrei Loktionov, Tom Kostopoulos and most recently Matt D'Agostini to bolster the offense, without giving up any roster players. They're far off from the flashy additions divisional rivals the Penguins have made, but they've had an effect. Loktionov in particular has flourished with the Devils, working his way up to the team's top line.
Meanwhile, the Devils still have the materials for more trades. Young players like Jacob Josefson or Mattias Tedenby could be swapped for some more developed talent, as could defensemen like Henrik Tallinder.
The fact is, Brodeur gives the Devils a real playoff chance, and the window on his career is closing rapidly. He's back for this season and there's no reason to think he won't honor his contract and play next season too. After that, though, the team will have to start succeeding without someone that consistent to back them up. Like Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, Brodeur alone gives his team a chance of winning, but not for too much longer.
In short, the team should buy now while they still have a chance at something. They could be in the same position in a couple of seasons, but without Elias or Brodeur, it would be much harder to believe the team could advance to the conference finals or beyond. Now is the time for the Devils to succeed, and adding to the roster just increases the chances they're successful.
The Devils should be Sellers
If the Devils were just a couple of spots lower in the standings, this would be an easy decision. The Devils are on the playoff bubble, but no one really expects them to have much of an impact. The team's run to the Finals last season served as Brodeur's farewell tour, and now it's time for the team to move on.
It would make sense, after all, that a team struggling to beat even the worst teams would be prepared to sell off valuable assets. And the Devils have a lot of people who could be moved: Most often, the players moved at the deadline will be free agents at season's end, and the Devils have many players who could benefit another team and fetch a decent return as well.
Much of the team will be free agents next season, and that includes Elias, Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Ponikarovsky, Marek Zidlicky and Peter Harrold will all be unrestricted free agents, and that's just the people on the professional team. In the Devils' system, Jay Leach, Tim Sestito, Steven Zalewski, Matt Corrente, Chad Wiseman, Matt Anderson and Cam Janssen will be UFAs as well.
On top of that large pile of tradeable players are also a bunch of restricted free agents who could be moved: Josefson, D'Agostini, Loktionov, Adam Henrique, Tedenby, Harri Pesonen and goalies Jeff Frazee and Keith Kinkaid will all be RFAs.
Some of those players will hopefully return to the team. Henrique has been one of the team's brightest young stars since last season, and Loktionov has fit in perfectly. Others could be lost without damaging the Devils organization significantly, and that's who they should consider selling.
After all, these Devils are not real contenders. They could probably win a first round matchup against the Southeast Division winner or the No. 4 or No. 5 seed, but they would almost certainly fall to an elite team like the Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins. Becoming sellers would just be a way of maximizing return: trade the players for picks and prospects now before the team loses them for nothing during the offseason.
In all likelihood, the Devils will either refrain from making any significant moves, or will buy a little. Lou Lamoriello is a brilliant general manager, and he most likely believes the team has a chance this offseason. After all, look what they did last year!
What should the Devils do at the trade deadline?
Don't expect the Devils to make any huge splashes in the next few days, but don't be surprised if they pick up a good role-player. The team is currently in playoff position and they'll proceed with that knowledge.
Brodeur and Elias have combined for nine Stanley Cup finals, and while they're still wearing Devils jerseys, the Devils still have a chance at succeeding in the postseason.