New Jersey Devils: A Jon Marchessault-Nikita Gusev trade makes sense

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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The New Jersey Devils may have the perfect package to land Marchessault.

Well, well, well, the NHL season has only officially been ‘on’ for less than a week, and the New Jersey Devils are already being linked to a very intriguing potential trade to ‘weaponize’ their cap – what a surprise.

Now to be fair, the Devils haven’t exactly been sitting on their hands post-Hanukkah, as the team has since gone on to sign RFA MacKenzie Blackwood to arguably the best value contract in the NHL (more on that here) and locked up the 18th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Dawson Mercer, to a three-year entry-level contract. Still, with teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Arizona Coyotes all looking to shed money to get under the league’s flat cap, it’s only logical for the NHL’s most physically responsible team to get approached about getting a deal done.

And if your friends over at The Hockey Writer/The Fourth Period are right on, the player the Devils have identified as a fit is a darn good one.

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That’s right; now firmly over the 2020-21 salary cap after signing away All-Star defensemen/ex-captain Alex Pietrangelo from the St. Louis Blues, the Golden Knights have reportedly made a few of their ‘core’ players available for trade. Though the team would obviously like to retain as much talent as possible to stick as close as possible to their championship-caliber form, Vegas has reportedly made Max Pacioretty, Marc-Andre Fleury, most intriguingly of all, Jonathan Marchessault available via trade.

While some understandably may see a pure, dynamic shooter like Pacioretty on the block and instantly push the Devils’ chips onto the table to go all-in on acquiring his services, it’s hard to really identify a path where that makes sense in New Jersey. At 32, Pacioretty is a full decade older than his potential linemate Nico Hischier and would be 34 when he becomes eligible for a contract extension in 2023. As fun as it would be to see the Connecticut native return to the East Coast to play out the remainder of his prime, that move doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Marchessault, by contrast, makes a ton more sense – especially at the right price.

For those out of the loop, Marchessault is a center in a wing’s body who is equally comfortable playing on the left and right wing. He’s scored 20-plus goals and 45-plus points in each of the last four seasons and has the rare distinction of leading the Golden Knights in shot attempts during their inaugural season. Over his tenure with Vegas, Marchessault has been one of the most efficient five-on-five scorers in the league, averaging 2.10 points per 60 minutes. He’s also become one of the more reliable wing passers in the NHL today, averaging 32 assists a season as the Golden Knights’ premier do-it-all top-line offensive option.

Fun fact: The Devils haven’t had a skater record 32 assists in a season since the 2017-18 season, when Taylor Hall, Will Butcher, and a rookie Nico Hischier all accomplished the feat.

With Marchessault in the fray as a playmaking winger, the soon-to-be-30-year-old could help to revolutionize the offensive games of both Hischier and Jack Hughes while providing the team with extra offensive firepower desperately needed in the top-six. His ability to play either wing position could also allow the Devils to shuffle around their top-six wing combinations to optimize their shooting, scoring, and playmaking, as Andreas Johnsson is also a versatile wing who can successfully play on either side.

A long-term top-six featuring Marchessault and Johnsson could look really, really good, especially if the team can find a lethal sharpshooter to fill out the depth chart – I’m looking at you, Alexander Holtz.

But what would the Devils have to give up to acquire Marchessault from the Golden Knights? According to The Fourth Period, Vegas is desperately trying to facilitate some sort of trade without retaining any money on their books and may even be willing to attach a pick to get Marchessault or Fleury off their books. If the Devils could land the final four years of Marchessault’s contract for a mid-round pick, you’d have to think the team would do it in a heartbeat, right?

Sure, I imagine so. Then again, plenty of other teams, specifically the Nashville Predators, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Florida Panthers have expressed interest in Marchessault’s services, so that situation could rapidly turn into an unnecessary bidding war. What the Devils do have, that none of their competitors in the Marchessault-sweepstakes do, is a trade chip that could instantly push them to the front of the pack: Nikita Gusev.

In theory, the swap makes perfect sense for all parties involved. Gusev is also a versatile, playmaking wing who can play on their side and put up 30-plus assists with ease. Clearly, the Golden Knights like Gusev at least a little bit, as they initially acquired his rights from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017 alongside a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick, and the contract of Jason Garrison. Sure, they ultimately traded his rights to Jersey before he so much as recorded an NHL stat, but that had more to do with straddling the insane beast that is the Golden Knights’ cap situation than a total disdain for what Gusev brings to the table. If anything, Vegas could have really used a player like ‘Goose’ in the 2020 playoffs, as they simply couldn’t overtake the Dallas Stars in a 2-3 series.

Flipping Gusev for Marchessault would all but surely make the Devils a better team, as it’d give the team a second 20-plus goal scorer, another veteran presence in the locker room, and a playmaking force who could surely help to further the offensive potential of both Hirschier and Hughes, but it wouldn’t make the Golden Knights that much worse in the process, which trading the Cap-Rouge, Quebec for a draft pick surely would. The Devils get a long-term building block with four-more years under contract, and the Golden Knights get a similar soon-to-be RFA forward who could seamlessly slide into Marchessault’s role and be retained on a new contract if things go well.

And the best part? The Devils can retain as much a $2 million of Gusev’s cap hit for the 2020-21 season, which would give the Golden Knights even more cap flexibility… and New Jersey enough money to still go after Mike Hoffman in free agency. Sorry, I had to do it (more on that here).

The New Jersey Devils should weaponize the cap by signing Mike Hoffman. dark. Next

In an ideal world, the New Jersey Devils would be able to (virtually) walk right up to the
T-Mobile Arena center, hand the Vegas Golden Knights a mid-round pick and bring a moderately used Jonathan Marchessault back to the Garden State for the next four years. Unfortunately, with actual fringe playoff teams also in the market for his services, that may not be as easy as some may assume. No, to guarantee a player like Marchessault, who subjectively speaking is a perfect fit in Lindy Ruff’s top-six and the Devils’ rebuilding timeline, they’ll all but surely have to give up a player to make the deal work. While it’d be tough to see Nikita Gusev go, especially after he just added a young goose to his flock, a one-for-one swap makes a ton of sense for all parties involved and could be the key to both teams achieving their goals in 2020-21.