Utica Comets lose Johnsson, Okhotiuk as part of New Jersey Devils' blockbuster trade
The New Jersey Devils made a blockbuster splash ahead of the trade deadline.
And the Utica Comets took a direct hit in the massive deal made by the parent team Sunday night.
New Jersey included notable Comets in veteran forward Andreas Johnsson and defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk and former Utica standout Fabian Zetterlund as part of the deal with San Jose. In addition, New Jersey parted with a 2023 first-round pick, a conditional 2024 first-round pick and prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin.
In return, the Devils got standout forward Timo Meier – a top-scoring winger that the Devils have coveted – with defenseman Scott Harrington and prospects in forward Timur Ibragimov, defenseman Santeri Hatakka and goalie Zach Emond to finish the complicated deal. Much of the deal is about making the salary cap and contract math work, according to reports.
“Sometimes your American (Hockey) League teams get lost in something like this. We try to acknowledge there’s a need (in Utica) that maybe we can get something thrown in. You see some of the deals in the past that are done where you take a contract or two,” Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald said in a Zoom call with reporters Sunday. “At the end of the day, when you do these deals and you have to take certain things back, they either align or don’t. We’ll see what happens with some of these players.”
It was a deal largely focused on helping the Devils, who are in the middle of an impressive season following an extended stretch of futility.
The most direct impact from a Utica perspective is the loss of Johnsson – who has played a top-six forward role – as well as Okhotiuk, the physical defenseman.
It is two notable pieces gone for the Comets, who are in the middle of a push for the playoffs with 20 regular-season games remaining.
Johnsson — making $2.5 million at the AHL level, which is among the highest salaries — had been second on the team with 29 points (nine goals and 20 assists) as he worked his way back the NHL.
"We can't say enough about what he did for the group on and off the ice," said Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon, noting the move also made financial sense for New Jersey.
He'll be missed for a Utica team that has struggled offensively at times this season. Utica is averaging 2.98 goals this season while allowing 3.04.
Over the last two seasons, Okhotiuk played some grit for the Comets. The defensive-minded defenseman had totaled 18 points in 83 games.
"Okhotiuk is a quality prospect. In deals like this you're going to feel the pain a little bit in terms of guys like Okhotiuk and Zetterlund going the other way," MacKinnon said.
Fabian Zetterlund was with New Jersey after a breakout campaign in 2021-22 with Utica when he totaled 52 points and became a fan favorite along with friend Alex Holtz, who remains with Utica.
The plan had been for Mukhamadullin to join Utica following the end of his KHL season similar to last season. Fitzgerald noted parting with him was the "price of doing business."
On Monday, Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon said Ibragimov, who has 32 points in 53 games with ECHL Wichita this season, is expected to join Utica for Wednesday's 7 p.m. game at Belleville.
Hatakka is working his way back from an injury that's limited him to eight games this season. He's anticipated to return before the end of the regular-season, MacKinnon said.
Meanwhile, Emond is out for the rest of the season as he's having hip surgery. He is expected to be part of organizational plans next season, MacKinnon said.
Also Monday, Harrington was placed on waivers. If he successfully clears by 2 p.m. Tuesday, he can be assigned to Utica.
"He's a depth defensemen for us," New Jersey head coach Lindy Ruff told media Monday. "Like goalies, you can never have too many D-men that have NHL games."
The 29-year-old defensive-minded defensemen has appeared in 438 pro games between the NHL and AHL. Utica also has veteran defenseman in Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon.
Utica is tied with rival Syracuse in the North with 55 points near the top of the North Division. However, Syracuse has played one fewer game. Teams in spots two through seven are separated by eight points. The top five teams in the North qualify for the playoffs.
“We’re trying not only to help New Jersey with assets, but help Utica. Whether that’s today or this week or when the American (Hockey) League deadline is. I know Dan MacKinnon and (Assistant General Manager) Scott Litwack will continue to try and build out some needs. It is not that easy,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d like to help them as well as we move forward.”
The NHL trade deadline is Friday afternoon. The AHL has its own trade/loan deadline, which is Friday, March 10.
On Monday, the Devils announced goalie Mackenzie Blackwood is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. Akira Schmid is already with the Devils. He earned his first NHL shutout Saturday against Philadelphia.
That means Utica will likely roll with the tandem of Nico Daws and rookie Isaac Poulter.
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