Where Do New Jersey Devils Go From Here With Sami Vatanen?

Sami Vatanen #45 of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Sami Vatanen #45 of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

After the New Jersey Devils traded for Sami Vatanen in November 2017, the team will have a big decision to make before his contract expires.

On the morning of November 30th, 2017, New Jersey Devils fans saw one of their most talented and well-loved centers, Adam Henrique, get traded to the Anaheim Ducks along with Joseph Blandisi and a 2018 3rd-round pick. The return was a 3rd-round pick conditional upon Henrique receiving an extension from Anaheim and right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen.

In Sami Vatanen’s first two seasons with New Jersey, he has played 107 games and recorded 45 points. He is currently entering a contract year, ending after the 2019-2020 season, and will likely be looking for a raise from his current $4.875M AAV.

The issues currently surrounding Sami Vatanen and his contract status begin with facing their lack of extra cap space after next season. The Devils will have Wayne Simmonds, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Andy Greene, Taylor Hall, Mackenzie Blackwood, and along with Vatanen due for new contracts in 2020.

Following the acquisition of P.K. Subban, it seems that Sami Vatanen may not have a place come next season. There are only two situations that seem plausible. The Devils pursuing a possible a trade, whether it being in the middle of the season or at the deadline, or re-signing the defenseman. Shero is not the kind of general manager to let players walk for no return. This is important to prevent the Devils from losing Henrique for nothing.

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The trade market for a defenseman who is in his late 20’s should be fairly active, looking at the buzz surrounding defenseman Jake Gardiner when it came to free agency and the return the Avalanche received after sending Tyson Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The market may be desperate for defensemen right now, which can be seen following the Vancouver Canucks paying 29-year-old Tyler Myers $6M AAV for the next five years.

The Devils have also lost a lot of valuable future picks this offseason in moves to acquire additional talent to keep Taylor Hall around, trading their 2nd and 3rd-round picks for this season as well as their 2nd-round pick next season in the trades for Subban and Nikita Gusev.

Should Shero find a suitor for Sami Vatanen before the start of the season it will provide the Devils with the most return, likely a higher-round pick and a roster player/defensive prospect. If he is unable to find a team looking for added defensive depth, he may turn his gaze to the trade deadline as teams are usually more relaxed with their picks at that point in the season.

The Devils may receive a 1st-round pick for the defenseman if he is healthy and playing well. Teams pay a lot for defensive depth down the stretch. If he is not playing that well, I expect the Devils to receive a 2nd and 3rd-round pick, recovering the picks lost in the Gusev trade.

Re-signing Sami Vatanen shouldn’t be much more expensive than his current contract. Following two partial seasons due to injuries and his lackluster performance on the ice, sitting at -18 plus/minus through his time in New Jersey. However as with all players entering their 30’s, their main priority shifts towards term, finding job security after they pass their prime.

If Sami Vatanen were to receive an extension it would be in the ballpark of $5.5 million for three years, paying a little more than he is worth in order to shorten the term. The term is something that can become an issue for the Devils especially with talented defensive prospects Reilly Walsh and Ty Smith. Smith is expected to be on the third pairing of the opening night roster and Walsh is entering his third year at Harvard. Harvard lost two of their top right-handed defensemen this offseason, with both Adam Fox and John Marino receiving entry-level contracts, leaving Walsh as the top option at the right side.

With these two emerging defensemen in the Devils system signing Sami Vatanen to any contract over $5M AAV could become a costly mistake. On top of Smith and Walsh, Jake Gardiner has yet to be signed in free agency. Gardiner provides a major upgrade on the left side and would effectively require Vatanen to be moved before the Devils could take on his asking price. This being said I find it highly unlikely the Devils sign any more free agents this summer, the only way they would find someone to replace Vatanen this season will be from within or via trade.

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Don’t expect to see Sami Vatanen in the red and black at the start of the 2020-21 season. The Devils defensive corps has received a major upgrade with P.K. Subban and will no doubt benefit from having Sami Vatanen on the left side this season, but with his contract looming overhead it might be more realistic to move him to a team searching for more defensive depth.

This can replenish the picks the Devils traded earlier this offseason and potentially add another depth defensive piece. With Ray Shero’s wizardry this offseason there is no doubt he will find a way to avoid losing Vatanen for nothing. With his masterful trading and a hot defensive market, once Jake Gardiner finds his team for next season look for Sami Vatanen to move shortly after.