The New Jersey Devils have been one of the NHL's most pleasant surprises this season.
After finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17 by going 28-40-14 with 70 points and failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, they are 14-6-4 through their first 24 games and one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Having helped transform the Devils from an older, slower team to a younger, faster team over the past three seasons, general manager Ray Shero had plenty to be happy about, but was far from satisfied. That was the message the Devils sent Thursday when they traded longtime center, and fan favorite, Adam Henrique, forward prospect Joe Blandisi and a third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional third-round draft pick.
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Despite their strong start, the Devils had a glaring need for a top-four defenseman, particularly one with a right-handed shot. Acquiring Vatanen, 26, who is expected to make his Devils debut at the Colorado Avalanche on Friday (9 p.m. ET; ALT, MSG+2, NHL.TV), addressed that need.
"Sami is a guy we've looked at for a long time and we know him well as a player," Shero said. "And for us, to me, at 26 years old, he's been a top 3-4 guy on a team that's really good and very competitive and can play in all situations. So that's something we were looking to add."
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm2: Vatanen blisters a slapper for PPG
As well as the Devils have played, Shero no doubt recognized their weakness on defense.
Offensively, they're much improved. Averaging 3.17 goals per game, they're 10th in the League. That's almost a full goal more than last season, when they averaged 2.20 per game and were 28th.
But their goals-against average has risen from 2.94 last season to 3.00 this season. Scoring is up across the League, so the Devils have improved in the GAA rankings from 24th to 18th despite allowing more goals per game.
Their goals against would probably be even higher if not for a rebound season from goaltender Cory Schneider, who has increased his save percentage from .908 last season to .918.
The red flag for the Devils is they've allowed 34.4 shots per game. Only the Ducks (36.6) and the Florida Panthers (35.5) have given up more.
That brings us back to Vatanen, whose puck-moving skill and experience should alleviate some of the pressure in their end.
"With Sami we felt as a group he really fit the criteria of what we're looking for particularly with some defensemen," Devils coach John Hynes said. "We feel his identity on and off the ice is a really good fit for our culture and we're excited to have him on our team."
When Shero took over for Lou Lamoriello as GM on May 4, 2015, the Devils' biggest need was offensive skill and speed at forward. So much of the focus the past three summers has been on that.
On June 26, 2015, the Devils acquired right wing Kyle Palmieri in a trade with the Ducks for a second-round pick in 2015 and a third-round pick in 2016.
On June 29, 2016, the Devils acquired left wing Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson.
Then on July 2, they acquired right wing Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals for the Panthers' second-round pick in 2018 and the Toronto Maple Leafs' third-round pick in 2018, which the Devils had previously acquired.
The Devils also got a little lucky by winning the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery, which allowed them to select center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick. With Hischier, fellow rookie Jesper Bratt (a 2016 sixth-round draft pick), 2015 first-round pick Pavel Zacha (No. 6) and the surprising Brian Gibbons (the 29-year-old unrestricted free agent signing leads New Jersey with 11 goals), the Devils suddenly had a depth of speed and skill at forward.
That made trading Henrique and Blandisi, a 23-year-old forward who was unable to crack the roster in training camp, much easier.
"I think if Jesper, Nico, Pavel, some of those guys didn't show what they've shown to this point, then maybe we won't make that deal and we hang on to a known commodity and sure thing in Adam," Schneider said. "But it's great that those guys have enabled us to make a bold move that we're hoping will complete our team a little better."
Video: OTT@ANA: Vatanen buries rebound for PPG to pad lead
Shero made it clear that this trade wasn't simply about improving the Devils' chances to make the playoffs this season. His intention from the start was to rebuild them for long-term success so they are set up to contend for the Stanley Cup for several seasons.
"I want to be a competitive team this year, but also I want to be a competitive team in the future," Shero said.
Vatanen, who has two more seasons left on his contract after this one, fits well with that plan, but the Devils have more work to do, whether it be during this season or after. They probably need to add another top-four defenseman to be a Stanley Cup contender.
They moved another step closer to that, though, with this trade.