By Steve Lichtenstein
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I wouldn’t want to play poker against Ray Shero.
While making the media rounds over the past few weeks in advance of Monday’s NHL trade deadline, the Devils general manager pretty much made it clear he had zero inclination to use his ample pile of assets for a quick fix to a club that is battling for its first playoff berth in six years.
Shero noted that he was satisfied with where the club was at this stage of the rebuilding process and felt no urge to unload draft picks or prospects, especially for a pending free agent rental.
He sounded quite sincere.
Lo and behold, the Devils made an announcement following Thursday’s 4-2 home loss to Minnesota that Shero dealt his 2018 second-round draft pick and 20-year-old Russian defense prospect Yegor Rykov to acquire speedy winger Michael Grabner from the Rangers.
It was the first trade between the two organizations since the infamous Barry Beck blockbuster in November 1979, when the Devils were called the Colorado Rockies. Grabner will become the 12th player to don all three metropolitan area team uniforms.
Shero did not speak to the media after Thursday’s game, but no explanation would be required for this move. With winger Marcus Johansson out indefinitely recovering from his second concussion of the season and Brian Gibbons slowly working his way back onto the ice after suffering a broken thumb Jan. 20, the Devils needed a turbo boost.
Shero got Grabner, 30, without giving up a rostered player. The nine-year pro not only rediscovered his scoring touch in his two seasons in Manhattan — he netted 25 goals in 59 games this season (24 at even strength, fourth best in the league) after a 27-goal output in 2016-17 — he was second among Rangers forwards in short-handed ice time per game. He was plus-11 on a team that has been outscored by 24 goals at even strength.
He’ll fit in well on a team that already boasts fleet wingers Taylor Hall and Miles Wood, making me wish this year’s Stanley Cup was decided by a speed skating relay race.
As for what the Devils surrendered, the pick could be somewhere around the 45th to 50th overall, which has not yielded a bevy of proven players in the last 10 years. The best player taken in that range over that span was probably Kings center Tyler Toffoli. Rykov played well in the 2017 World Junior Championship tournament, but he is at least a few years away from even being allowed to bolt the KHL, as he is signed through the 2018-19 season.
The bigger picture is that Shero was indeed unsatisfied and was willing to go after one of the most sought-after pieces on the market. Though Grabner will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, his $1.65 million contract would have put minimal strain on any team’s salary cap.
Even if Grabner opts to field offers on July 1, the Devils will be well-positioned to counter. Per CapFriendly.com, New Jersey projects to be about $19 million under the cap next season before re-signing any of its own free agents, none of whom is expected to break the bank.
Whether or not this trade produces the desired effect this season, it was important for Shero to at least try to help his club move the needle. After back-to-back home defeats, the Devils sit in the first wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference, five points up on the ninth-place Islanders with 21 games remaining. As I noted previously, even though preseason expectations were merely hoping the Devils climbed out of last place, a playoff berth is now theirs for the taking. Failure will have more devastating consequences than early tee times.
With that in mind, I still feel Shero has another trick up his sleeve, maybe one to shore up the defense corps. If the prognosis for Cory Schneider’s injured groin took a turn for the worse after a couple of hard practices, then maybe Shero should go after a goaltender. Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack did not exactly endear themselves to coach John Hynes this week.
Shero seems to have mastered this trade game. I can’t wait to see what he does when he eventually goes all in.
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