There’s no such thing as a true winner or loser the second a trade happens in hockey. The key veteran piece could struggle or get hurt. The supposedly marginal prospects going the other way could blossom into something special. So the act of trade grading is a futile one.
Still, we do it, largely because it’s fun. And the judges’ scorecards have already established Monday’s Taylor Hall trade as a clear TKO victory for the Arizona Coyotes and GM John Chayka. Hall may only be a rental as a pending UFA in 2020, but he’s at least a luxury rental, secured with more than half the regular season left on Arizona’s schedule. The Desert Dogs also only swallow half Hall’s salary and didn’t give up a top-three prospect to get him and lottery-protected the 2020 first-round pick with the condition that it becomes a 2021 pick if it’s a top-three selection.
So, yes, it’s a clear on-paper victory for the Coyotes. But is there any silver lining to explore for the New Jersey Devils and GM Ray Shero? Let’s give it a try.
We know Shero wasn’t oozing leverage. Hall calls Darren Ferris his agent and, as we’ve seen with his other high-profile clients such as Mitch Marner and Josh Anderson, Ferris likes to drag out negotiations, so it was a virtual guarantee that Hall would not sign an extension with New Jersey during the season. That meant Shero couldn’t risk losing Hall for nothing, and every Hall suitor knew that, so it likely capped the potential return. This was not a Mark Stone situation with a trade-and-sign option on the table. In the case of Stone, the Ottawa Senators were able to score an elite-tier prospect in defenseman Erik Brannstrom.
Shero, though, evidently could not land a player of Brannstrom’s ilk such as Victor Soderstrom. It’s fair to wonder if holding Hall until the trade deadline would’ve created a bigger bidding war and driven up Hall’s price, but selling him early, when he can join a team for longer, offsets that idea somewhat. It’s understandable if Devils fans are frustrated to get no sure things for Hall, but that doesn’t mean nothing good comes of this trade.
The lottery protection on the conditional 2020 first-round pick keeps it from being elite…this year. If it’s deferred to 2021, it could still be a lottery pick for the Devils. If not, it’s still a first-round pick in 2020, which gives Shero two first-rounders including New Jersey’s existing one, which is better than one first-rounder. It’s also not inconceivable that at least one of the conditions on the trade’s other pick gets triggered. Hall is a long shot to re-sign but stated yesterday that he’s “open to anything.” He may fall in love with the desert and coach Rick Tocchet, who has a great reputation among players. If that happens, the pick elevates from a third-rounder to a second-rounder. The other condition on that pick is the Coyotes winning a playoff round. Hey, they currently lead the Pacific Division standings, they have the league’s second-best goaltending so far this season, and they just added Taylor Hall, so winning a single playoff round hardly looks far-fetched. And if that happens, it probably enriches Hall’s experience as a Coyote further and increases his odds of re-signing. A playoff series win plus a Hall re-signing would turn the pick into a first-rounder for New Jersey.
Shero did land three prospects in the trade, which we’ve graded as the team’s No. 4, 7 and 8 prospects in Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr and Kevin Bahl. And not all top 10s are created equal, remember. Our Future Watch panel of active NHL scouts and executives graded the Coyotes’ farm system as the league’s 12th-best last year. So prospects 4, 7 and 8 carry more value than the equivalent on the team that finished with the 31st-ranked farm system.
Merkley is a reclamation project, no doubt. He was the final pick of 2015’s first round and brings an intriguing blend of playmaking and, particularly relevant to New Jersey, grit. Merkley is hard to play against. He’s very strong on the puck. Unfortunately, his style wears him down. He’s endured a litany of injuries, including two torn ACLs. If he’d been healthier, he’d likely be an NHL regular by now. The good news is he’s still just 22. He’s young enough to snap the streak of rotten health luck.
The Devils also get a lot bigger and stronger with the acquisitions of Schnarr and Ball. Schnarr, a center, was a prolific scorer in major junior. He possesses a big shot but hasn’t found much of a scoring touch as an AHL rookie this season. The jump from major junior to the AHL is extremely difficult. But there’s time for him at 20 years old. And Bahl, a hulking 6-foot-6 blueliner, is surprisingly mobile for his size and is improving his offense significantly. Just 19, he’s currently in the mix for Team Canada’s D-corps at the 2020 world juniors.
Is it possible that Merkley can’t shake the injury problems, that Schnarr’s offense never arrives at the pro level and that Bahl’s size slows him down too much to be a great pro? Sure. But we can’t assume that everything will break the wrong way for Shero – including the picks. He and the Devils may have lost the trade for now, but that doesn’t mean we won’t look back on it very differently in a few years. It’s over, and it can’t be reversed, so Devils fans may as well imagine a glass-half-full scenario.
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