By Steve Lichtenstein
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As a Devils fan, it can be frustrating watching general manager Ray Shero scrimp on free agents every summer.
But boy does Shero make up for it with his flair for executing offseason trades.
On Sunday night, the Devils acquired forward Marcus Johansson from Washington in exchange for second- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft.
Now in his third offseason running the show in New Jersey, Shero again refused to dip into his club’s ample salary-cap space (approximately $25 million prior to the trade, per CapFriendly.com) to do whatever it took to land the league’s biggest free-agent prize, Kevin Shattenkirk, who would have filled the Devils’ biggest hole, right-handed defenseman. Even worse, Shattenkirk signed with the rival Rangers on Saturday, taking a significant discount to play for his childhood favorite.
Shero told the media in a conference call Sunday that he was never going to offer anyone, let alone the 28-year old Shattenkirk, a much longer term than the four years he received from the Rangers. Shattenkirk may have indicated that he was willing to leave some bucks on the table to play in Manhattan, but Shero said he never really gave him that option.
Which meant Shero was left to spin his signing of 32-year-old center Brian Boyle as something more than a consolation prize. Shero claimed Boyle, who will earn $5.5 million over the next two seasons, was as much a top target as Shattenkirk.
It’s true that Shero bemoaned the Devils’ lack of grit on the ice last season, but the 6-foot-7 Boyle, at this stage of his career, is a fourth-liner who plays about 13 minutes per game. Like when Shero inked defenseman Ben Lovejoy a year ago for similar dollars (though Lovejoy’s deal was for three years), Boyle was brought in to be a respected leader.
Just don’t expect much production. Even his reputation as a beast in the faceoff circle is a bit overwrought — Boyle’s 52.2 percent win percentage placed 35th among the 110 NHL players who took at least 500 draws last season after ranking in the middle of the pack the previous two seasons.
Boyle was a typical Devils move, a bargain-basement purchase along the lines of past free agents such as Vern Fiddler and David Schlemko when the situation screamed for extravagance. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2012 and finished with the Eastern Conference’s worst record last season
Ah, but while Shero continued to treat the free-agent marketplace like it has the SARS virus, for the third consecutive offseason he found a way to add a scorer to the league’s third-most feeble attack through shrewd dealmaking.
Both selections sent to the Capitals for Johansson were originally conveyed to New Jersey through prior transactions. The second-rounder was consideration for the Devils simply taking long-term injured Marc Savard off Florida’s salary cap while the third-rounder was Toronto’s compensation for hiring Lou Lamoriello, Shero’s predecessor.
In effect, Shero was able to pick up a core piece at no historical cost.
While Shero did have to surrender top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson to get the dynamic left wing Taylor Hall from Edmonton a year ago, the Johansson trade was reminiscent of the Devils’ swindle for Kyle Palmieri in 2015. Shero then dealt two draft picks, both of which were subsequently traded by Anaheim and utilized on players who have not yet reached the NHL, to obtain New Jersey’s goal-scoring leader the past two seasons.
The 26-year-old Johansson, who recorded career highs with 24 goals and 58 points for the NHL’s best regular-season team last season, will fit seamlessly within the Devils’ top-six forward group. Smart and the highly skilled, Johansson can play both left wing and center. His play without the puck has also improved with seven years of NHL experience.
Why was he available?
With the Capitals in salary-cap hell from simply extending their own free agents with big-money contracts, Johansson, who has a $4.58 million AAV over the next two seasons, became collateral damage.
Shero made sure Washington’s loss became New Jersey’s gain.
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