Another unthinkable trade: Devils unload Brian Rolston to Islanders for Trent Hunter

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After the Florida Panthers acquired Brian Campbell earlier this summer, I was forced to contemplate the idea that there is no such thing as an “untradeable contract” in the NHL anymore. Not after teams unloaded the likes of Campbell, Scott Gomez and so on.

One of the first “Yeah, but …” comments I remember receiving revolved around the New Jersey Devils’ and Brian Rolston’s ugly 35+ contract. As it turns out, the Devils and New York Islanders proved that even Rolston’s deal could be moved as New Jersey sent Rolston and a conditional 2012 draft pick to Long Island in exchange for Trent Hunter. Let’s break down the ins and outs of the deal now.

Huge savings for the Devils = Re-signing Zach Parise?

If you shot Devils GM Lou Lamoriello with some truth serum (as seen in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”), he would probably admit that the team would’ve bought out Rolston or buried his cap hit in the minors if they could. The four-year, $20.25 million deal the Devils handed Rolston ranks as one of the worst moves the savvy GM ever made and most figured they would need to eat the last $5.06 million in cap space from the deal this season even though Rolston’s skills have diminished in a glaring way.

Instead of wasting precious cap space on Rolston, the Devils gain about $3 million to work with (Rolston minus Hunter), putting them about $8 million under the cap ceiling. That’s convenient timing for the franchise since Zach Parise’s August 3 salary arbitration hearing looms. Don’t be shocked if they find a way to avoid that process by giving the outstanding forward a hefty contract extension – one made much easier with that intense cap relief.

Oh yeah, there’s also Trent Hunter. In the grand scheme of things, his name could have been “Bag of Pucks” and this would have been a big win for the Devils. He carries a $2 million cap hit for 2011-12 and 12-13, with at least some potential to contribute. He’s big (listed at 6-foot-3, 210 lbs.) and is a two-time 20+ goal scorer. He missed 61 games last season with a torn MCL, however, so one wonders if he might even be a candidate for the long-term injured reserve. Either way, if he contributes in a significant way – which is plausible but unlikely – then this trade is an even bigger victory for the Devils.

The Islanders’ side of the equation

It’s pretty tough to look at this as anything more than the Islanders’ attempt to reach the $48.3 million salary cap floor. They’re certainly closer now; Cap Geek lists them at about $42.35 million after the trade. With solid power forward Blake Comeau and up-and-comer Josh Bailey awaiting new restricted free agent deals, they could inch a bit closer to that ceiling (not to mention the possible addition of some unrestricted free agent named Alexei Yashin).

The saving grace is that Rolston’s cap hit mercifully expires after the 2011-12 season. The 2012 off-season could be an interesting time for the Islanders, who will only have eight of their 20 current players under contract. While John Tavares will likely get a solid raise, the Isles could have some nice flexibility if the Collective Bargaining Agreement changes the NHL’s spending climate.

As far as the on-ice gains, it’s tough to imagine the Islanders getting a whole lot from Rolston, but maybe a change of scenery would help. He’ll get the chance to get revenge on the Devils plenty of times next season and also has the motivation of a contract year/last chance to continue his NHL career dangling in front of him. If nothing else, he’ll be the Islanders’ highest paid player next season.

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Ultimately, the Devils are probably cackling at their good fortune, possibly even more than they were when they landed Adam Larsson. There was a disturbing span in which it seemed like Lamoriello was “losing it,” but it seems like he’s back to fleecing other teams. The Islanders took on a lot of salary with limited reward, but if you look hard enough, you can see at least a few reasons why they did it.

That being said, this is a huge win for the Devils and a tough pill for Islanders fans to swallow.