Today, I want to highlight the bigger picture of what general manager Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils have to do this summer for free agency. Good questions and issues have been raised here already. From Mike arguing it would be good for the team to re-sign David Schlemko to Alex inquiring about what the team should give Devante Smith-Pelly. How Shero should approach July 1 - and any internal signings before then - will be guided by whatever the expectations are for 2016-17 for re-building this team. Regardless, he will have to work within the confines of the contract limit and the salary cap.
The salary cap is straight forward. There is a floor amount teams have to spend and there is a ceiling that teams cannot exceed. The players on the NHL roster contribute to that cap. Those called up from Albany on a NHL contract will be paid at their NHL rate and cost towards the cap. The salary cap amount may differ from the actual salary paid; the annual average value of the contract is the cap hit for a team. There are plenty of details that impact what the cap number the teams have to work with, but that's the basic long and short of it. From this past season, the floor was $52.8 million and the salary cap was $71.4 million. The Devils were comfortably within the limits at $62.6 million per CapFriendly. While the limits for 2016-17 have not yet been announced, it could be at the same or raised to $74 million (floor at around $55 million). The latter will kick in if the NHLPA agrees to use their escalator on revenue. In any case, all teams, including the Devils, will have to be within the cap floor and ceiling throughout the season. They can go over by 10% during the offseason, but I do not think New Jersey will have to worry about that.
Every NHL team has a limit on the number of contracts they can have. That number is fifty. This includes all players that have a NHL single player contract. One is needed to play in the NHL, which is why the Devils kept calling up so many forwards from Albany but did not call up Max Lorito, who ended up finishing the season as Albany's leading point scorer. Simply, Lorito did not have a NHL deal. As much deserved attention NHL players will get for the upcoming free agency period, Shero and his staff will have to consider who to keep on contracts that may end up playing most or all of next season in Albany. Given how last season went with injuries, many of them may show up in Newark for at least a little bit of last season.
There are two exceptions that allow teams to go over that number. 18 and 19 year old players that are signed but are playing in junior hockey do not count unless they play more than nine games in a NHL season. At that tenth game, those contracts count for the season. For the Devils, these players are Pavel Zacha, Mackenzie Blackwood, and John Quenneville. The other exceptions to get players in without adding to that number are amateur try out deals. That is how Nick Lappin and Joshua Jacobs got signed and are with Albany now; their contracts will kick in next season. As a result, the New Jersey Devils have 54 players but only 49 contracts on their limit by the end of the 2015-16 season.
As for next season, the field is ripe for some serious roster turnover. The Devils only have 29 contracts for 2016-17 according to General Fanager. Several players are not just off the books for New Jersey but also for Albany, including a good number of their veteran core. Arguably a reason why the Albany Devils have been so successful last season. Here's a list of the pending free agents for both unrestricted (UFA) and restricted (RFA) free agents. I'm using General Fanager's nomenclature for non-NJ (not on NJ Devils roster) and NJ (on NJ Devils roster).
Non-NJ UFA Forwards (3): Mike Sislo, Brian O'Neill, Jim O'Brien, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond
Non-NJ UFA Defensemen (3): Dan Kelly, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Brandon Burlon (Group VI)
Non-NJ UFA Goaltender (1): Yann Danis
Non-NJ RFA Defensemen (2): Raman Hrabarenka, Reece Scarlett
NJ UFA Defensemen (2): David Schlemko, David Warsofsky (Group VI)
NJ UFA Forwards (7): Patrik Elias, Tuomo Ruutu, Jiri Tlusty, Bobby Farnham, Tyler Kennedy, Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo
NJ RFA Defenseman (1): Jon Merrill
NJ RFA Forwards (5): Kyle Palmieri, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jacob Josefson, Sergey Kalinin, Reid Boucher
Note: A Group VI UFA means that a player is eligible for unrestricted free agency before turning 27 due to a lack of NHL games played.
As you can see by the list, there's not just a mass number of free agents but plenty of decisions to be made for both Albany's and New Jersey's roster. The free agents for mostly-Albany Devils include their top goal scorer (Sislo), three other solid veterans at forward (no, not Leblond), more than half of their blueline, and their more prolific goaltender (Danis). In New Jersey, twelve forwards are up for new contracts and only five are locks to get them; we could see an entirely different bottom six for 2016-17. And possibly a new third pairing given what happens with Schlemko.
Typically, restricted free agents will be kept. They only need to be qualified to avoid unrestricted status and the qualifying offer is relatively cheap. The big money will come in the actual contracts that will be offered. For the Devils' case, most of that significant money will go to Palmieri. However, handing out seven figure deals to the other five RFAs (Merrill included) will add up to take up a good amount of the projected $34 million in cap space the team will have for next season. It will also mean more contracts on the list; specifically, eight more to bring the Devils up to 37 contracts. Therefore, how much Shero plans to spend on them will impact how much he can use this summer.
The big changes will involve the UFAs. There are more of them in Albany and New Jersey than pending RFAs. They typically have two questions associated with them. The first is the common one: should the team bring that player back or let them go? Mike's recent post on Schlemko is a good example of that. The second is not so common: would the player even want to stay in New Jersey if the opportunity is there? This gets forgotten about, particularly for higher-profile players (a man with the initials 'Z.P.' come to mind). In the case of Schlemko, I'd be surprised if he would prefer to test the market if Shero talks about a new deal with his agent. But he has that right should he want it.
For the Devils' UFAs, I don't think many will want to leave if there's a deal to be had. It is not likely that general managers will be running to their cell phones at noon on July 1 to get these players. Maybe their minor league team affiliates might. That first question will be the crucial one for all of them. With a projected 37 contract spaces taken up, that would leave the Devils with 14 contracts they can hand out. Thirteen from the list and a fourteenth assuming Blackwood stays in juniors next season. With 16 pending UFAs, at least two are definitely not coming back regardless of where they are in the organization.
Without going into any significant analysis, I would think that there would be more than two players not coming back. Here are some gut reactions. I'm thinking this is probably it for Elias. As much as I loved watching him play, if I learned anything from Martin Brodeur's post-40 year old seasons, then it's that I don't want to see him fade if I don't have to. I would be more than fine with Tyler Kennedy, Jiri Tlusty, and Tuomo Ruutu playing elsewhere, be it in the NHL or in another league. I would accept a brand new fourth line in New Jersey. As much as I agree the team should try to bring back Schlemko, I have no strong opinion on Warsofsky. I haven't even looked at the Albany names - that will depend on whether New Jersey wants to keep Albany strong, if so then expect most of them to come back - and that's already eight players not brought back.
Granted, the net gain in spots will not be that many because Shero will have to fill in those spots on the roster. After all, the 2016-17 team will still need defensive depth, a fourth line as well as forwards for the bottom six, and forward depth beyond that. That's just based on the outgoing players; the team would still benefit in the long term from getting skaters that are good at passing, a top six forward (I'm looking at you, Kyle Okposo), and a viable second pairing defenseman (maybe even a right-handed one, too). Prospects alone cannot fill them all; it would not necessarily be the best for the player's development as well as the team.
All the same, Shero has the advantage of flexibility with this roster as the offseason continues. The roster limit should not be a limiting factor. There will be plenty of spots on New Jersey's lineup open after the RFAs are dealt with. Most of the pending UFA players are not significant enough to be kept for the future or even for now in some cases. So I could see the team entering this Fall's training camp around 45 contracts, allowing for some try outs and other wiggle room during the season itself. Reaching the cap floor should be easy; the Devils will likely be close after re-signing all of the pending RFA players. Getting the UFA players needed to fill out the roster should put them well over the salary floor. I do not know whether ownership will allow Shero to spend up to the salary cap limit but I don't think Shero should need to us up $34 million (or close to it) to fill out the roster. I think that should come into play when the team is a solid, playoff-caliber squad. The team is still rebuilding, so taking up all of the cap space would not be a wise move. Nor do I expect it to happen.
As July 1 gets closer, there will be deeper looks at this site regarding the Devils RFAs that will be re-signed in all likelihood and which UFAs are available that could come in and replace those that are going out of the organization. The season may have been over for a few weeks, but there is a lot of work to do in the offices at Newark. While Albany is hopefully going deep for the Calder, a lot of tough decisions will have to be made. There will be a lot of hope from the fans as this summer will go a long way in determining how long this rebuild will take and what overall plan Shero has for the Devils.
What do you think the Devils should do given this overview of their free agents? Who do you want them to bring back among the UFAs? Should the Devils keep the pending UFAs on Albany on NHL deals or look elsewhere? While I think the team will be safely below the roster limit and salary cap, where do you think the Devils will end up with respect to both? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils and free agency in the comments. Thank you for reading.