Devils Make Dandy Deal for Vatanen


Just like that, the New Jersey Devils have established themselves as serious playoff contenders.

And if there’s any doubt about that, well, forget about it. The trade General Manager Ray Shero pulled off, obtaining ace defenseman Sami Vatanen, 26, seals the deal.

[Official Press Release: Devils Acquire Vatanen From Ducks]

As one scout told me when he heard about the move, “The Devils now have a top-10 defense in the league.”


Exaggeration? Perhaps, but New Jersey is a mere point behind first-place Columbus — Devils have a game in hand — because of its surprising defense corps, starring rookie power-play quarterback Will Butcher.

Granted, you don’t get a battleship for a rowboat in this parity-filled National Hockey League. And that explains why Shero had to dispatch fan favorite and 2012 Rangers playoff-killer Adam Henrique, 27, to Anaheim.

Vatanen will make his Devils debut on Friday when New Jersey begins its three-game road trip against the Avalanche in Denver.

[Watch Devils-Avalanche Friday on MSG+2 & Download Free on MSG GO]

In addition to Henrique, Shero unloaded forward Joseph Blandisi, 23, who never secured a varsity spot, and New Jersey’s 2018 third-round Draft pick. However, there are “conditions,” which I’ll get to later. As for the boss, Shero is tickled pink.

“Sami gives us a right-shot, top-four defenseman who can play in all situations,” Shero explained. “It also gives us contract certainty on defense for the next two-plus years.”

Superficially, the disposing of Henrique is a shocker since he’s been a fan favorite and quasi-legend since his overtime goal on May 25, 2012 against the rival Rangers, which gave the Devils a 4-2 series triumph in the Eastern Conference Final.

Realistically, the trade was a natural for New Jersey because the Devils had become fortified on offense, especially at center. That made Henrique expendable.

The return of Travis Zajac has been a major asset at pivot, along with top 2017 Draft pick Nico Hischier, 2015 first-rounder (sixth overall) Pavel Zacha and ultra-dependable Brian Boyle.

“Acquiring Vatanen meant I had to give Anaheim quality assets,” asserted Shero, “and we know he’s been a key member of our organization. We appreciated his contributions on and off the ice.”

Ever-hustling, Blandisi always seemed on the cusp of contending for a regular role but was never able to cement a permanent spot on the varsity.

“Going to the Ducks gives Joe a great opportunity with a quality organization and I, personally, am happy for him,” Shero said.

More reason for the high command’s happiness is the fact that once-unknowns such as Brian Gibbons, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Blake Coleman and Hischier have delivered much more offense than anyone anticipated.

Likewise, the emergence of Butcher as a Calder Trophy candidate was totally unexpected after a slow start to training camp. The freshman is averaging 16:04 of ice time and that figures to soar based on his assets.

Once the season began, Butcher stratospherically rose to the top as power-play prodigy. After 24 games, he has two goals and 16 assists for 18 points. He’s also plus-seven in the plus-minus ratings.

What makes the Devils’ virtually instant transformation from supposed preseason haplessness to one of the League’s best clubs is that defense was supposed to be the clubs Achilles’ heel.

In its preseason preview, The Game’s bible, The Hockey News noted that “depth” on defense “is a crisis in the back end.”

But with captain Andy Greene, New Jersey’s balance wheel on the back line, and the maturation of Damon Severson, Steve Santini and John Moore, the Devils feel confident about their defense.


Getting back to the trade, here are the “conditions” of the Devils’ third-round pick:

-If Anaheim signs Henrique to a new Standard Player Contract for 2019-20 prior to their own third-round pick of the 2019 Draft, Anaheim will transfer their own third-round pick in the 2019 Draft to New Jersey.

-If Anaheim signs Henrique to a new Standard Player Contract for 2019-20 after their own third-round pick of the 2019 Draft, Anaheim will transfer their own third-round pick in the 2020 Draft to New Jersey.

-If Henrique does not re-sign with Anaheim, no pick will be exchanged.

It’s worth noting that the Vatanen acquisition gives coach John Hynes a formidable blue line power-play combo with Sami on one side and Butcher on the other.

A native of Jyvaskyla, Finland, Vatanen was Anaheim’s fifth pick (106 overall) in the 2009 Entry Draft.

He made his North American debut in the 2012-13 AHL season with the Norfolk Admirals.

That same year he moved up to the Ducks, playing eight games.

The following year he played 48 games and his most productive campaign was in 2014-15 when in 67 games he got 12 goals, 25 assists and 37 points. That year he was a plus-five in the plus-minus ratings.

Can he propel the Garden Staters into the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign?

That would be nice since New Jersey went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final — thanks in part to Henrique!

[Watch Devils-Avalanche Friday on MSG+2 & Download Free on MSG GO]