Now well into week number three of free agency, the New Jersey Devils have been anything but active on the open market. Some fans are beginning to get restless at the thought of a status quo roster heading into next season, given how far the Devils were from the playoffs in 2014-15. Without a significant overhaul of the lineup, particularly at forward, the Devils are looking at an uphill battle to break back into the playoff picture. Despite this, the Devils have been near silent since the opening of free agency, opting only to make a few minor depth signings for the NHL and AHL teams.
They made a bit of a splash on draft day with they traded a couple picks to the Ducks for Kyle Palmieri, but other additions have mostly been minor. John Moore could prove to be a serviceable piece on defense, but beyond him, the Devils have done little to improve via free agency. By not doing much to bolster a lineup that was seriously anemic last season, the Devils seem to be headed toward the season with a roster that will struggle to score in a big way and could have long odds of making a return to the playoffs. In spite of this somewhat unfortunate reality, there are a lot of reasons why the approach the Devils have employed does make sense.
Weak FA Class
This year's free agent class featured very little in the way of top talent available to sign. The UFA class was particularly thin at forward, as the players available have been mostly second/third line types and retreads of bought-out players. Forwards like Justin Williams, Antoine Vermette, or Matt Beleskey could be valuable role players on teams that figure to be contenders, but when a team lacks top forwards that can be built around, paying a premium in free agency for supporting cast types makes quite a bit less sense (though few really outrageous deals have been signed this summer). The Devils need top-line players and paying middle-six/third-line guys to try to fill those roles isn't likely to get them much closer to being a contender. Add in the fact that, with their roster, the Devils likely aren't the most attractive free agent destination at the moment and they may have needed to pay some of the free agents that landed elsewhere more to come to Newark.
No Trade Ammo
The lack of high-end free agents did not mean there wasn't some serious intrigue this offseason. A number of teams in cap crunches, plus the increased risk of offer sheets due to the weak free agent class led to some big names swapping teams in the last few months, even without them heading to free agency. We saw big names Ryan O'Reilly and Dougie Hamilton move at the draft, and after free agency opened, we saw blockbusters in the form of the Phil Kessel and Brandon Saad trades. Some of those players, particularly a young impact player like Saad, would make a good deal of sense for the Devils to acquire, but the price would be high and the Devils have limited ammunition to swing a deal like that. At a minimum, you are probably talking one of their top young defenders and a high draft pick. Add in the fact that they are unlikely to contend, and New Jersey could be giving up a top-10 pick if they decide to float a first-rounder, so they are painted into a corner for any attempts at a trade. Ultimately, the Devils will have to accomplish much of their long term improvement through the draft, and with a thin group of prospects, they just likely did not have the horses to pull off a big time trade that stands to benefit them in the long run.
Over the past several years, the Devils have been icing one of the oldest rosters in the league. This in itself is not necessarily a problem, as long as a team is still contending. But the most aged roster in the league -- which the Devils have been each of the past 3 seasons -- continuously missing the playoffs is indicative of a much deeper organizational issue. It is clear that years of lackluster drafting at forward and a reliance on signing veteran free agents to plug holes have finally taken their toll on the Devils. So with this in mind, now is as good a time as ever to clear out the rot and take stock of what pieces could be part of a future contender in New Jersey.
Of the forward prospects the Devils do have, many of them are approaching the sink-or-swim moment in their career at this point. This year will of course be a big test for their young defense, as five of the ostensible top-six on defense are under age 25, but with their approach to free agency, there will also be some questions answered about the forward group as well. Ray Shero has already targeted Jacob Josefson for a bigger role in his comments about not re-signing Scott Gomez. Other departures including Steve Bernier, Michael Ryder, and Martin Havlat, combined with the lack of acquisitions beyond the Kyle Palmieri trade means there should be ample opportunity for forwards Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau to prove their worth on an NHL roster. Young skaters like Joseph Blandisi, Blake Coleman, Blake Pietila, and others -- not to mention first round pick Pavel Zacha -- will have a shot as well. If nothing else, the Devils will have the room to focus on development and evaluate the long term outlook for a lot of their prospects this season.
Ultimately, turning a team around takes a while to do in today's NHL, particularly with some of the big departures the Devils had a few years ago. Some of the foundation is in place for New Jersey in the form of their young defense and top goaltender, but the forwards are a problem that was going to require more than one offseason to fix, even if this had been a particularly strong UFA class. When you took a look at the Devils roster heading into this offseason, the list of forwards who you could count on to meaningfully contribute on a contender two or three years down the road consisted of Adam Henrique, maybe Travis Zajac, and, if you're generous, Mike Cammalleri. Perhaps a Jacob Josefson pans out along with another bottom-six contributor or two, but if that assessment doesn't point to a system that needs replenishing, I'm not sure what does.
And it's certainly not that teams can't improve in free agency, it's that the Devils have so much to repair up front that they need to be patient. This summer should have been about making smart moves that won't hamstring them in the future and I'd say to this point, Shero and the Devils have largely stuck to that. The unfortunate side effect of said patience is a high probability, at least in this writer's opinion, of this team languishing in the bottom 10 of the NHL once again in 2015-16. This is a tough pill to swallow for a fanbase now 3 seasons removed from a playoff appearance, but it may be what they need to have a chance at contending in the seasons beyond the one that's upcoming.
There are arguments to be made that the Devils should be picking up a few guys on short term deals to plug holes on the roster, and as long as those deals are limited to one or two years in term, it wouldn't necessarily be an awful idea. Players like Jiri Tlusty or Brad Boyes are semi-productive forwards who will likely be had for a relative pittance when the dust settles on this offseason, but what do they ultimately gain for New Jersey? Is finishing 10th instead of 12th in the East worth blocking roster spots in a season that may ultimately be about evaluating with an eye toward the future? The one benefit could be picking up another mid-round pick or two at the deadline by flipping said players, but ultimately the reward will likely be limited on any free agent signing the Devils go through with at this point.
A bit ironic that the most "status quo" free agency period that the Devils have had in quite a while could be the one just after Lou Lamoriello steps back from his GM post, but that seems to be where we are at with this team. After stepping back and looking over the situation, I think laying low was probably the right move for this franchise this offseason. I'm not advocating for a tank job in New Jersey, but I think it's okay for the team to punt on a crummy free agent class while they try to figure out the organization's direction over the next few years. If everything breaks right with the defense congealing into a strong unit and Cory Schneider standing on his head, maybe you even have a team that can fight for the last wild card sport. Realistically, though, there are going to be some growing pains in the 2015-16 season, but even if the team struggles, another top-ten draft selection is an asset this franchise could definitely use.