Should the New Jersey Devils Consider Moving Sami Vatanen?

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The 2018-19 season has fallen off the rails.  While it’s likely not nearly as bad as it may seem, the New Jersey Devils are at best a bubble team that will have to claw their way back from the bottom.  Overachieving last year led to the Devils retaining John Moore  at the trade deadline, who could have potentially been flipped for a 3rd or 4th-round pick. It was made even worse by spending at the deadline to bring in Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon.

With a very rough December schedule ahead, the Devils should know whether they’re sellers or not by January 1.  There are some obvious names that should be moved, expiring UFA’s like Marcus Johansson, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Boyle, and Keith Kinkaid.  However, let’s take a look at the idea of moving Sami Vatanen ahead of the trade deadline.

Vatanen and Marcus Johansson can be looked at in similar lights.  Johansson is a good player who hasn’t met expectations (although he’s been good) in New Jersey and will likely cost more than he’s worth to re-sign.  This same logic can be applied to Sami Vatanen.

Vatanen is 27 with a contract expiring in 2020.  While the Devils could re-sign him if they view him as a core member of this team moving forward, the emergence of Damon Severson provides a better, younger, and cheaper option for this team.

Take a look at this table from the SKATR comparison too, it compares Severson and Vatanen’s season side by side over the past three years.

Severson is locked up until 2023 with a $4.16 million cap hit and is 24 years old.  If the Devils move Vatanen and Lovejoy, the oldest member of the defensive core will be Andy Greene at 36 followed by Egor Yakovlev at 27.  Yakovlev is another issue for another time, but I’d imagine he’ll see plenty of playing time as the Devils figure out what they’re going to pay him moving forward.

I understand people may be skeptical of moving Vatanen after acquiring him by trading away Adam Henrique, and Vatanen’s filled the 1st pair role well for the Devils.  However, over the last 15 Devils games Damon Severson leads all Devils in both 5v5 TOI and all situations TOI.  That’s a good sign that coaching staff now trusts him enough to utilize him as their true 1st pairing defenseman.

Severson’s 2016-19 underlying numbers reflected in the SKATR tool were certainly better than Vatanen’s, but there are other tools we can utilize as well.  Corey Sznajder’s tracking data is reflected in this Viz by CJ Turtoro.  Offensively, Severson’s overall shot contribution numbers are better, his transition numbers are similar, and his defensive numbers are actually slightly better than Vatanen’s.

You still may not be convinced that moving Vatanen is a good idea and that’s completely fair.  Let’s draw on some contract comparables to try and figure out what it might cost to re-sign Vatanen and then you can decide if you believe he’s worth it.  Using Cap Friendly’s contract comparison tool, Vatanen’s current contract is over 90% similar to Torey Kurgs current contract and Kevin Shattenkirks contract that preceded his current contract.

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Since Krug’s contract hasn’t expired yet we’ll look at Shattenkirk, who as we all know took a slight hometown discount to go the Rangers.  Shattenkirk signed a reasonable 4-year deal with a Cap Hit % of 8.87.  Knowing the cap is expanding to $83 million next year, we can guesstimate that Vatanen’s extension will fall somewhere in the $7.3 million range and he’ll likely want 5-6 years rather than 4.

The Devils certainly don’t have to make this decision now, but if they want to maximize the potential return then moving Vatanen now may be the most logical move. For reference, when the Blues moved Shattenkirk (as an expiring UFA) at the deadline to Washingotn the return was Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a 2017 1st-round pick, and a 2019 conditional second (conditions weren’t met).  Knowing the Devils could very likely get that kind of return, and probably more if they move him this season, it might be the best move for the rebuild to move Vatanen.

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After laying all this out I still haven’t 100% convinced myself what the right move here is.  If the Devils decide to retain Vatanen for at least one more year I would completely understand and if they opted to move him I’d also completely understand.  The question that they have to answer on their own is how far off they believe this team is.  If they plan on somehow becoming a contender next year retaining Vatanen is the logical move.  However, if the team is at least 2-3 years away as they currently appear then moving Vatanen might make the most sense.  Especially when you consider Reilly Walsh and Ty Smith should be competing for roster spots next year.