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Sami Vatanen’s Trade to New Jersey May Raise More Questions Than It Answers

Sami Vatanen is now a New Jersey Devil, and Adam Henrique is now an Anaheim Duck. Does that make Anaheim a better team?

Anaheim Ducks v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s an article that had been written countless times. The headline: “The Anaheim Ducks should trade Young Defenseman X to Team X With Defense Need/Cap Space”. So much ink spilled over the matter in summers before, yet Bob Murray’s powder remained ever so dry, even in the face of a season threatened by an avalanche of injury.

The powder is no longer dry. Early on the west coast Thursday morning, news broke that Anaheim was officially sending defenseman Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils, in exchange for center Adam Henrique, winger Joseph Blandisi, and a 2018 third-round draft pick.

Vatanen was a lightning rod in Anaheim, the perception of him never quite fully agreed upon. A power play specialist, no doubt, but his even strength credentials routinely came under fire. The 26-year old Finn may never be elite in that regard, but it’s unquestionable that his talents were never fully optimized among Anaheim’s top-four. The pairing of him and Cam Fowler never worked out, while he was mostly left to skate with Clayton Stoner in previous years. That’ll be New Jersey’s problem to solve now. He should get plenty of opportunities to prove his former employers wrong.

As the season began to cascade on his club, Murray clearly felt the urgency to act. Even with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler’s respective returns reportedly on the horizon, it was becoming apparent that Anaheim wouldn’t be able to tread water for much longer. You can only win so many games with Derek Grant as your number one center, as the old saying goes.

Henrique is an intriguing player. He brings minor cap relief to Anaheim, saving them a year of Vatanen’s deal, while shaving off $875K off the annual average value. He’s not particularly elite, and there’s always reason to be skeptical of guys who are productive on really bad teams. Even when the Devils were good, the now 27-year old wasn’t having much of an impact on possession.

Even so, he’s at the very least a reliable NHL center, something that the Ducks desperately need right now, and could use more of even when healthy. The Antoine- Vermette-at-third-line-center experiment seems to be running its course, while its also becoming abundantly clear the neither Grant nor Chris Wagner can handle even somewhat challenging defensive minutes. Henrique addresses a current need, and makes this team better up front once it has all its bearings in order. Blandisi seems like he could have NHL potential, while the draft pick may end up being a good one, assuming New Jersey’s house of cards eventually comes crashing down.

Matt Duchene’s influence looms large over this deal. The Ducks were reportedly after the newly-minted Ottawa Senator, and one can only imagine what the asking price may have been. Looking at what both Nashville and Ottawa both had to give up, it’d be reasonable to believe that one of Jacob Larsson or Marcus Pettersson were on the table. Murray was presumably ready to pay that price, given Anaheim’s both present and future need for a young, dynamic forward. Once that fell through, Murray set his sights on Henrique.

Vatanen’s departure naturally reveals quite a bit about where the front office stands on a number of issues, while opening up even more questions. Clearly, they trust Brandon Montour to step onto the second defense pairing. We’ll see how he and Fowler fare together. Also just as clearly, they don’t see one of Wagner or Grant in this lineup full-time. Vermette’s job feels safe, purely based on his elite faceoff ability.

Does management really believe they can get by with a third pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Francois Beauchemin, or will they stagger those two on the second and third pairings? Will we see more of Korbinian Holzer back there? If that is indeed the case, then Vatanen’s departure makes the blueline effectively worse, leaving one to question if Henrique’s arrival is worth the trade-off.

Of course, there’s the possibility that head coach Randy Carlyle simply gives his top two pairings the lion’s share of the minutes. Even so, that third pairing is going to hurt them. And for as much as he seems to like both veterans, it’s hard to believe that he sees them as a sustainable pairing together.

Jaycob Megna looked good in his brief NHL stint, so perhaps he makes a return to the third pairing. Where does that leave Holzer, though? As much as Vatanen seemed superfluous on Anaheim’s roster, his presence maintained a certain order within the team’s construction. Now, that blueprint gets re-drawn.