Two years ago, the Devils were in the unambiguous position of being a seller as the trade deadline approached. The club under GM Tom Fitzgerald would finish 37 points out of the playoffs, and it is not as if a late slide took New Jersey out of contention.
Jimmy Vesey seemed one of the prime commodities on the market after having established himself as a valuable fourth-line penalty killer on a one-year deal for $800,000 he’d earned off a training camp tryout, and why does that sound so familiar?
“That was the only deadline where I really thought I might be traded,” said Vesey, who was then on his fourth team after serving an initial three-season tenure with the Rangers that ended in 2018-19. “I thought that solely because of my penalty killing that year, and I thought I could help a team in the playoffs.
“It was consuming me in that time period so much so that I actually went into Fitzy’s office to try and find out the lay of the land. I asked him if I [was] going to be traded and if teams were calling about me.
“He was great. He was honest with me. I think there were a couple of teams that had interest in me. But nothing wound up happening.”
Nothing wound up happening with Vesey, and nothing but nothing wound up happening with the Devils, who traded no one at the deadline in a bizarre spate of inactivity.
It is believed that the Rangers were one of the parties who’d inquired about Vesey in 2022. But when they acquired Tyler Motte (the first time) from Vancouver a week ahead of the deadline, GM Chris Drury had his fourth-line penalty killer. Once Vesey joined the Blueshirts last season after making the team of a training camp tryout, worlds collided when the club reacquired Motte at the 2023 deadline to play alongside No. 26.
“It’s an interesting time,” Vesey said after the Rangers’ morning skate ahead of Monday’s restart at the Garden against the Avalanche following an eight-day break. “There’s always so much focus on the deadline, whether your team is going to be a buyer or a seller, and players react to it differently depending on their circumstances.
“When you’re on a good team, you’re always interested in how management is going to improve it.”
The Blueshirts will have 12 games before the March 8 deadline, following Monday’s match in which Jonathan Quick got the nod following Igor Shesterkin’s participation in the three-day All-Star extravaganza in Toronto. There will be another 20 to the finish line after the meat market closes.
There is no ambiguity in the Rangers’ or Drury’s perspective; they are going to buy. To what extent, however, is unknown. The club has a glaring hole in the middle of the third line; an opening on right wing on the Mika Zibanejad-Chris Kreider line currently being filled by Blake Wheeler; and the need for a physical defenseman on the left side of the third pair, though the hierarchy may not see it that way.
Drury has been aggressive at each of the last two deadlines, acquiring four players in both 2022 and 2023. And every one of the eight players — seven individuals, actually, with Motte added twice — were rental properties. Justin Braun, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Motte came in 2022 with Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola, Motte and Patrick Kane acquired in 2023.
In acquiring these rentals, Drury sacrificed only one player off the varsity lineup. That was Sammy Blais, who went back to St. Louis as part of the package in the deal for Tarasenko and Mikkola. Morgan Barron, who was part of the 2022 package that went to Winnipeg for Copp, was in Hartford when he was dealt.
There may be high anxiety among scores of athletes just four-plus weeks ahead of the deadline, but not among those with no-move clauses in their contracts. That pool would include Zibanejad, Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and Jacob Trouba.
It is, therefore, almost impossible to fundamentally transform the club over the next month and upend the equation with blockbuster deals. You’re not going to have a 1991-type Pittsburgh-Hartford deadline trade in which John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski went to the Whalers for Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson.
After Calgary’s Elias Lindholm went to Vancouver and Montreal’s Sean Monahan went to Winnipeg last week, Anaheim’s Adam Henrique became next on the list of available rental centers who would fit that Blueshirts’ particular need on the third line.
It would seem highly unlikely that Drury would trade a first-rounder — or, say, Kaapo Kakko — for a mere rental. If Vatrano, who has one more year on his contract, becomes part of the equation, that would become a more nuanced conversation.
“This period can have such a major impact,” Vesey said. “It’s probably on everyone’s minds. I know the way I’m wired, it creeps in a little bit.”