At the conclusion of the preseason games for the New Jersey Devils, two junior-eligible players not only remain on the roster but played in the preseason finale. Those players are center Pavel Zacha and right wing Blake Speers. The expectations for both are different. Zacha made his NHL debut last season and was impressive in his one game, presumably and hopefully a sign of things to come. If our Top 25 Under 25 means anything, it’s that Zacha is highly regarded as he finished second to Taylor Hall. Speers, on the other hand, was a third round pick out of Sault Ste. Marie in 2015 and was developing finely with the team. He wasn’t as regarded by this summer’s survey, but his skills are such that he could be one to watch out for the future. Maybe that future is now. He certainly has impressed the coaches to last as long as he did in training camp. Whereas Zacha could have been expected to make the final cut, Speers being present for them is a surprise.
While the two may be regarded differently at this point in their young careers, they have plenty of relevant things in common. Both came from the Devils’ 2015 draft class and both were in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Also, both players are 19 and they have been signed to entry level contracts. Because of all this, there is an important number for both. Call it a magic number, if you will. That number is nine. Knowing whether they’ll play nine or more games matters. Why is that? Let’s take a step back and look at entry level contracts for players picked out of junior.
Under the current Contract Bargaining Agreement, an entry level contract is three years long at a maximum but for players who are 18 or 19 when they sign them, they are allowed to “slide” until they turn twenty. At that point, the contract counts on the reserve list, it will count on the salary cap if the player is in the NHL, and contract length begins. The requirement for a contract to slide is that the player plays nine or fewer NHL games (regular season and playoffs) in that season. Once that player steps onto the ice for that tenth game, the contract properly begins. To put it another way, for an 18 year old player, a three-year contract can become a five-year contract provided he doesn’t play much or at all in the NHL.
Additionally, there is an agreement between the American Hockey League and the Canadian Hockey League (the organization that oversees the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL) that prevents players from appearing in the AHL until they are 20 while their junior season is ongoing. Once the season is over, they can join the AHL team. But for the most part, this agreement prevents the AHL from being filled with recent draft picks and maintains the strength of the junior leagues. There are also no plans of this agreement changing.
Most under-20 players aren’t ready for the NHL so it’s usually not a big deal. They need to go play somewhere where they can play significant minutes to continue to develop their game. Because most aren’t fully ready for the NHL, it is a good practice to have the contracts slide as much as they can. It provides for cap flexibility in that a player doesn’t become a free agent sooner than they have to. The top teams tend to have multiple players play significant roles while on these relatively cheaper entry level deals, which allows teams to spend on other parts of the roster. Plus, a junior player can sign these deals so they can be locked up as early as they are picked and, should they be good enough, play in the NHL whenever they can. That’s why players like Michael McLeod get these deals now even if there is no plan where they’re in New Jersey for a few years.
Now let’s go back to Speers and Zacha and recall their situation. Zacha was signed after he was drafted. While he appeared in one NHL game, the first year of his entry level contract slid into this year. It can slide into next season if he plays no more than nine NHL games in 2016-17. Speers signed with the team back in September. Since he’s 19, his entry level contract can slide into next season if he also plays no more than nine NHL games. Since both Zacha and Speers are not 20, they can’t go play in the AHL now. It’s either the OHL or the NHL for them at this juncture. (Aside: There’s a loophole for Zacha if he was loaned to Sarnia. That would mean he’s technically a European player and could go to the AHL. It’s what happened with Julius Honka. However, if that was a possibility, one would’ve thought the Devils would do it already.) Given that both Speers and Zacha are still on the team as of this writing (1 PM on Sunday, October 9), how many games they’ll play matters.
The Devils have experienced this in the past few seasons. The Devils effectively burned the slide years off of Adam Larsson’s and Stefan Matteau’s entry level contracts. The justification for both was that both were ready for the NHL level of play in their respective roles. In the case of Larsson, he was. While he wasn’t always used as one would have wanted/hoped for, he did average over twenty minutes of ice time in 65 games. He would go on to become a top pairing defenseman for the Devils and eventually moved for Taylor Hall. Matteau, on the other hand, served an “energy” role for 17 games in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. The hope was that he would at least be a solid bottom six player, but he never really stuck with New Jersey and was dumped for Devante Smith-Pelly. In retrospect, he was rushed into the NHL and while retaining him was never costly, it wasn’t the right move then. So it’s important that should Speers and Zacha play that they are at least good enough to stick in the NHL.
That ultimately goes back to that magic number: nine. How many games should each play?
In the case of Speers, while he’s stuck around in camp, I’m not quite sure he should play for the full season. If he does, it’ll likely be in a lesser role among the forwards. It’s not like Speers was dominant in New Jersey’s preseason. I’d argue that Miles Wood - who also lasted until the final cuts - stood out more and was utilized in an 8-10 minute role more on the right side. If Speers does play, that’s likely where he’d be. I’m not sure if there’s much he can do from there, much less for multiple games. I think the best place for him would be Sault Ste. Marie where he can be one of their top forwards, play prime minutes, and then come into camp next year and really make a case for a role on the NHL roster. There’s not much value to keep someone who can only go to juniors or the NHL and keep them as a eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, or fourteenth forward. Therefore, I think he should be sent back to juniors - assuming he isn’t already by the time this post is up.
As for Zacha, I think the writing on the wall has been clear in preseason. The team sees him as a NHL player. He has been used primarily with other NHL players in preseason games. Zacha has been used on both special teams, due in part to see whether he’ll be used in some capacity on either one. He was slated to play in the final preseason game from the start, whereas Speers only played because Adam Henrique was sick. I don’t know how much value there would be for him to go back to Sarnia and dominate teenagers. Ideally, I’d like to see him in Albany, but that is not an option. The Devils believe he can be a center right now, he’s been used in such a role in preseason, and he hasn’t been out of place with or against NHL players in preseason. All signs point to Zacha being a New Jersey Devil for 2016-17. Therefore, I do expect the first year of his entry level contract to be used up.
So to answer the headline question: I don’t think Speers should or will. He may still end up going back to the Greyhounds by the time this post is up. As for Zacha, I think he will play more than nine games. Should he be able to contribute on a regular basis, then it’s a justifiable decision. It does mean Zacha will have to be re-signed in 2019-20 - a year earlier than possible. That alone shouldn’t be too much of an issue. I don’t anticipate a lot of big free agency decisions coming up by then based on what I see of the Devils’ salary cap at CapFriendly. I don’t think the Devils should make a habit of it, but I don’t think it’ll be a long-term issue.
One more thing: The Devils have to meet the 23-man roster and salary cap requirements by 5 PM on Tuesday. It’s not much time, but they have a little and, who knows, they may use it.
Do you think Speers and/or Zacha will play more than nine NHL games in 2016-17? Do you think it would be the right move in either case? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.