26-Year-Old Defenseman Fills A Big Need As He Can Play In All Situations And Is Signed For 2 More Years At Fair Rate

By Steve Lichtenstein
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When Devils general manager Ray Shero dealt defenseman Adam Larsson to Edmonton for left wing Taylor Hall in the summer of 2016, my main worry was that he was patching one wound by opening another.

Top-flight right-handed defensemen trade at a premium in the NHL marketplace in this era, which is why Shero was able to secure a superstar in Hall. It also meant that replacing Larsson for last season turned out to be a lot harder than the Devils thought. New Jersey resorted to the equivalent of wet Band-Aids, like the not-yet-developed Damon Severson and the immobile Ben Lovejoy. For all the benefits to the Devils in added firepower, it was more than offset by the void it created on the back line.

Though the Devils have raced out to a surprising 14-6-4 mark this season, defensive deficiencies were still an issue that needed to be addressed.

So when Shero announced on Thursday that the Devils overpaid — and yes, I think the consideration of Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft was a bit extravagant — for Anaheim’s 26-year-old Sami Vatanen to shore up their besieged back line, I was relieved that at least it was done from a position of strength.

Sami Vatanen

Former Anaheim Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen, left, skates against the Predators during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on May 16, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In a little more than two years, Shero has turned over the forward depth chart, through the draft, free agency and trades. The uptick just this season in speed, skill and energy from the likes of rookies Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman, plus 29-year-old career minor leaguer Brian Gibbons (New Jersey’s goals leader with 11), went a long way toward making Henrique expendable. Marcus Johansson’s imminent return from a concussion — he is on track to play at some point during the Devils’ three-game road trip starting on Friday in Colorado — may have sealed the deal.

Henrique can play both center and left wing, but the Devils have good depth at those spots (not so much on right wing).

On defense, however, the Devils are fairly fragile. The loss of Mirco Mueller to a fractured clavicle on Nov. 12 in Chicago has turned out to be a lot more damaging than, say, Travis Zajac’s absence from the first 17 games of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle.

It forced Lovejoy back into the lineup because the only other option was Dalton Prout, a waste of a precious roster space.

Shero is getting high marks for going after and obtaining Vatanen, who had been a steady force on the Ducks’ second pairing. Vatanen isn’t big (he’s listed at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds), but he is well-regarded for his puck-moving abilities. New Jersey coach John Hynes told the media on Thursday that he expects Vatanen to step in right away in all situations, including the power play.

I’m not among those who think this deal automatically elevates New Jersey to any great length this season. The Metropolitan Division is ridiculously intense, with the Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Blue Jackets, Penguins, and Caps all gunning for three automatic playoff berths and two Eastern Conference wild cards.

And the Devils will miss Henrique for more than just sentimental reasons. Tuesday night’s host of “Rico’s Soiree,” a nicely-attended benefit in Hoboken for men’s health, Henrique will go down in franchise lore for his overtime goals that knocked out Florida and the Rangers in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

He still has game.

Few players have better hand-eye coordination when it comes to tracking pucks than Henrique, who is only a year older than Vatanen. It makes Henrique one of the league’s best penalty killers (he tallied 13 shorthanded goals in his first six full seasons). He’s durable, having played at least 74 games in all but one season. He was never a pure goal scorer, but he did notch 30 in 2015-16. You can play him in front or along the wall on the power play.

In addition, Blandisi just might be more than a throw-in in this trade. He’s a 23-year-old forward with observable skill with the puck. He’s had issues with Hynes related to defense and compete level, but he appeared to be on a mission in the preseason.

Unfortunately, Blandisi was a numbers’ game victim and got sent to the AHL. It seemed a bit unfair — I don’t know how anyone could have evaluated him as inferior to Jimmy Hayes, for example — but the organizational reasoning was that Blandisi would benefit from regular ice time in Albany as opposed to being a nightly healthy-scratch candidate in New Jersey. In any event, I wouldn’t be shocked if he broke out in a new home.

The money side of this trade pretty much matches if Blandisi is on the NHL payroll, but in Shero’s meeting with the media on Thursday, he addressed concerns about being able to re-sign Henrique when his contract expires after next season. Shero probably anticipated that Henrique will want a raise from his current $4 million AAV. Vatanen, meanwhile, has two more seasons at a reasonable $4.875 AAV on his deal. If Anaheim at any point is able to extend Henrique, then the Devils will receive the Ducks’ third-round pick in the following draft.

Shero said he believes Vatanen will be a core piece now and in the future. The stakes for this trade aren’t on the same level as Hall-for-Larsson, but it’s still a pretty large bet. At least this time Shero was playing from a winning hand.

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