The New Jersey Devils took a significant step this past week in their quest to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference playoff picture by acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick.
Seemingly not content with his team’s red-hot start, Devils general manager Ray Shero jumped at the chance to improve his team, which had nothing to do with navigating the salary cap, bolstering his position in future drafts or building a future contender.
It was a pure hockey move to get better right now. Vatanen is a puck-moving, top-four defenseman who gives New Jersey depth and can play in whatever situation the Devils need. The play of Jersey's young forwards made Henrique, a very good two-way center, expendable. For a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference a season ago with just 70 points, the Devils have seemingly made a 180-degree turn quicker than if Shero was operating a jet ski.
Compared to their neutral-zone trapping Stanley Cup title days, this brand of Devils hockey is actually enjoyable to watch. While they could eventually come back to the Metropolitan Division pack, the Devils have something brewing and Shero is not willing to wait around, sit on his hands and just watch it happen.
Since taking over in the summer of 2015, the Devils' GM has made bold moves that have included the additions of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmeiri, Brian Boyle, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen. And, of course, he had the first overall pick, Nico Hischier, fall into his lap. While some hockey executives in a similar rebuild may see a light at the end of the tunnel, Shero’s road map has just about avoided the tunnel altogether.
Just down the turnpike, Ron Hextall’s turnaround has been a considerably slower process in spite of a one-year head start over Shero. In the three-plus years since taking over as the Flyers' general manager on May 7, 2014, Hextall has executed 15 trades, and almost every transaction has involved future considerations through draft picks and few, if any, difference-makers.
The Hextall era started with the lopsided deal in June of 2014 involving Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger and a 2015 fourth-round pick. All Hartnell did was score 64 goals along with 146 points with the Blue Jackets, while Umberger contributed just 11 goals and 26 points all while playing through injuries he had sustained prior to the trade. Sure, Hextall was able to shave a few years off a contract, but Umberger was simply damaged goods.
More recently, there was the 2017 draft day swap of Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for a pair of first-round picks and a possible third, to go along with forward Jori Lehtera. While Schenn has emerged as a No. 1 center for the Blues, Lehtera is now a potential buyout candidate at the end of the season, much like Umberger was after his two years back in Philadelphia.
What the Flyers have received in Hextall’s trades have been secondary pieces, hardly key contributors: Jordan Weal (from L.A. as part of the Vinny Lecavalier-Luke Schenn trade), Valtteri Filppula (from Tampa Bay in the Mark Streit deal), and Radko Gudas (from Tampa Bay as part of a Braydon Coburn swap). Once again, role players, but not the necessary moves capable of taking the franchise to the next level.
Furthermore, with Hextall's combination of trades and free-agent signings, there’s a widespread belief that the team isn’t surrounding cornerstones Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek with a supporting cast good enough to be a perennial playoff power and there's a feeling that their prime years are being wasted. And the misery of the current 10-game losing streak doesn't help a single thing.
The last time both star players won a playoff series came in 2012 when Giroux was 24 and Voracek was just 22. Since then, there have been three non-playoff seasons and a pair of first-round exits as Giroux and Voracek inch closer to 30. Giroux will turn 30 in January.
Regardless of their record, the Flyers have been able to stare down at the Devils within their division, as New Jersey has finished below Philadelphia in the standings every season since 2009-10, even though the Devils eliminated the Flyers from the playoffs in 2012 and went on to the Stanley Cup Final that year. But the order now appears to be changing.
Following the Flyers' ninth straight loss this past Tuesday vs. the Sharks, Hextall reiterated to the media that the team he’s assembled is good enough to make the playoffs, while also adding, “I try to make this team better every day if there’s something that can be done.”
Which begs the question, exactly which team is Hextall referring to? The one preparing for the Calgary Flames on Monday night or the Philadelphia Flyers of 2020?
There’s proof you can address the present and the future at the same time.
Those details are in the Devils and Shero.