Under the NHL's new CBA, teams and players entering unrestricted free agency are given essentially a week-long window to make pitches to one another and discuss contract terms before free agency officially opens. This means that by the time the July 1st start to free agency hits, a number of contracts may have already been hammered out behind the scenes. With that window opening today, who should the Devils be targeting to improve their team?
As you all likely know, the Devils' offense last season, particularly at even strength, was about as threatening as a basket of sleepy kittens. At evens, the Devils finished ahead of only the historically awful offense of the Buffalo Sabres in goals/60. In terms of shooting, they were also bringing up the rear at 5v5, finishing 26th overall in shots generated. They finished 27th in total goals in all situations, despite enjoying the league's second-highest power play shooting percentage. Jerry dug into the Devils' power play success a bit back in March and the Devils may have squandered a year with a hot power play, as they finished 9th in conversion rate while generating the third-least shots/60.
Simply put, the Devils need help on offense, and barring a big breakout season from Reid Boucher, help likely isn't coming from within. So will they go look to make a big splash in free agency? Lou Lamoriello's words were non-committal, as ever, as he spoke to Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice. He maintains that a compliance buyout is "unlikely" but also that "circumstances change," meaning we basically won't have any idea of his intentions until the buyout window closes on June 30th. Whether or not they use their buyout has obvious cap implications and dictates, to an extent, how aggressive they can get in free agency. He maintains that the team wants to make room for the young defensemen, so perhaps something else is in the works, but for now we have very much reached "believe it when you see it" territory for the perpetually inevitable trade. Beyond the buyout concerns, Lou had this to say about going after more offense (again via Fire & Ice):
"There’s no question you try to add offense. That’s an understatement," Lamoriello said. "But it has to be the right people. In other words, we’ll look at everything. Whether something will happen or something won’t, it’s very difficult (to tell)."
That's a pretty standard Lou "non-answer crafted to look like an answer" but he does seem to recognize (I suppose it would be hard not to) that this team needs help up front.
So how much help do the Devils need? They scored 197 goals this past season with the roster as currently constructed. That fell short of my already paltry preseason estimate from last season (though that estimate did include that Kovalchuk guy), and the urgency this summer is certainly no less than it was last year. To approach the middle of the pack in the league, they need around 20 or so more goals than that. So how do they get there? Honestly, I'm not sure any type of "depth" forward gets this team where it needs to go, offensively, so the Devils may have to go fishing at the deep end of the free agent pool.
By the Numbers
Over at Extra Skater, one of the new bells/whistles is the ability to filter results to only include pending UFAs in order to compare numbers for various free agent targets. To start off, lets take a look at the UFA leaders among regulars in goal-scoring rate:
|Top Ten In G/60 (Min. 15:00 TOI)|
The list is topped by a future Hall-of-Famer in Jarome Iginla, and while it seems like a bit of a pipe dream, the Devils did sign the last old, productive, Hall-of-Fame-type player to leave Boston after a short stint there, so who knows. Stastny, seemingly the consensus big-prize acquisition of this free agent class also sits near the top of the list, though he shot a very high 16.6% (career 12.8% shooter) so he may be due for some regression after his likely big time pay-day. Big-target wingers in Moulson and Vanek both scored at a nice pace for the season, but are two more players unlikely to come cheap.
Mike Cammalleri, rumored as a possible trade target for New Jersey at this past season's trade deadline, is a name that jumps out at me as a possibility. Cammalleri's shot percentage (13.6%) was a little high versus his career average of 11.5%, but he was over a 30-goal pace/82 games and would be a welcome addition if he could bank 25+ goals on the Devils' top line. There are some minor injury concerns as each of his last 4 full seasons have only seen him get into the mid 60s in GP, but he's a guy who can score goals and likely shouldn't come at the same premium as other top wingers like Vanek and Moulson.
Looking at shot rates for available forwards will produce many of the same players towards the top of the list (among those with significant minutes), but a couple who were a little further down in goals will top this list:
|Top Ten In SOG/60 (Min. 15:00 TOI)|
One surprise is recently bought out Rangers center Brad Richards. Richards put up over 10 shots per 60 this season for the Rangers putting him second among all UFAs. He shot only 7.7% on the season, which indicates he was a little unlucky, but perhaps not as much as one might think, given his career sh% is only 8.9 overall. Richards was bought out not because he wasn't a useful player, but because his contract was unwieldy and included tremendous risk in terms of cap benefit recapture if Richards retired. If Richards can be brought in on a contract with reasonable term and cap hit, he may not be a bad option, but you don't want the Devils dropping the kind of post-buyout contract the Flyers did on Vincent Lecavalier last offseason.
The player who tops the shot efficiency list, Radim Vrbata, is definitely an intriguing case for the Devils. Vrbata flies under the radar a bit because of where he plays, but he has been a solid player for the Coyotes for a while. He tends to be a positive possession player and he consistently piles up shots on net, something the Devils desperately need. If he could be had for similar dollars/term as his last two contracts (3 years, $9M), he could be a good acquisition for this Devils team.
You'll see Jussi Jokinen up on this list as well as he had himself a nice season in Pittsburgh. It's hard to believe Jokinen was waived by the Hurricanes two seasons ago with no takers, given the season he just put up. It's important to note that Jokinen played over half of his time alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, so there were certainly factors working in his favor. His possession WOWYs are still decent away from those two, but you can tell his production slid a bit away from them. Could he be a producer in New Jersey? I think that top line with Jagr and Zajac is a place a lot of different players could succeed, but I'm definitely weary of Jokinen's value being inflated a bit from this season in Pittsburgh.
Who to Go After?
As mentioned earlier, I think the Devils are in need of possibly another 20 goals on offense to solidify their chances of making the postseason, so I believe they will have to reach into their pockets and at least find themselves some middle-tier top-6 free agents. They don't have a ton of room under the cap, particularly if they choose not to exercise their buyout on one of their defensemen, but perhaps that trade we've all been waiting for will materialize instead. Still, there is enough room to make moves since most of the roster is filled at this point. I think the values of some of the bigger free agents like Stastny and Vanek could be a little high in this market so maybe the answer is in a player like a Vrbata or perhaps Grabovski. They could even look the way of a player like Ales Hemsky, as his time buried in Edmonton may not reflect on the his true abilities on a competent team.
There are likely some depth players out there who are being undervalued significantly, but the Devils issue is that they can't really rely on building depth to improve the offense, they need to get better at the top. This means Lou is probably going to have to spend some money one way or another if he wants an offense that can make this team a contender.
So what are your feelings on what the Devils need to do in free agency? Any players who stick out the most to you? Any players you feel could be undervaued right now? Any players you'd like to see the team shy away from? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.