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Ray Shero was Reasonable During the 2016 Free Agency Frenzy: A Summary for the New Jersey Devils

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On a day where over $280 million was handed out in new contracts in the first 30 minutes of NHL free agency, Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils were reasonable in their signings today. This post summarizes who got signed, who left the Devils, and what may be next.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils
David Schlemko (middle, red, being knocked down) is out and Ben Lovejoy (left, white, doing the knocking down) is in the Devils organization after today’s start of free agency.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils made headlines earlier in the week by trading defenseman Adam Larsson for left winger Taylor Hall. The move seemingly came out of nowhere. I really liked the trade, and from my standpoint it was well received by the Devils fans. It was also the biggest move they made this week. Ahead of free agency, the Devils were expected to do some spending to get closer to the salary cap floor and fill out their roster. However, the acquisition of Marc Savard’s contract was a sign that the Devils would not go all out on their cap space on July 1. As the evening settles on this Friday, it’s clear that the Devils did not do that. And they were perhaps wiser to do so.

This year’s Free Agency Frenzy started off with a bang. The above Tweet from Sportsnet’s stats department says a lot; the first half hour saw a lot of money thrown around. The right adjective for the type of money being spent is ludicrous. After the Hall trade, it was expected that Milan Lucic would sign with Edmonton and he did for $42 million over seven years. Loui Eriksson signed with Vancouver in a deal that gives him $36 million over six years and a salary of $8 million next year. A 32-year old Frans Nielsen got $31.5 million over the next five years. A 37-year old Jason Chimera got $2.25 million for each of the next two years. David Backes will now get a flat six million per season for the next six. I could go on with the auspicious contracts - Matt Martin got ten million dollars over four years! Matt Martin! - but I think you see my point. Just a lot of large bags with dollar signs were handed out for significant terms and really quickly after noon struck today. To that end, I’m glad the Devils stayed away from the high-priced free agents. Some of those deals just have “buy out” or “dumped in a trade” written all over them.

Who Did the Devils Sign Today?

Ray Shero made two signings outside of the organization for the NHL roster today. The first was defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy is a right-handed defenseman, a position that became a greater need after Larsson was dealt for Hall. The group of right-handed defensemen was small and not particularly impressive. I was not particularly impressed that he was signed for eight million dollars over the next three seasons. From my standpoint, the 32-year old has not necessarily been bad, but he has not necessarily been all that good, if that makes some sense. The former Penguin will likely take a second pairing spot and be featured regularly on the penalty kill.

The other signing brought into the organization for the NHL roster is Vernon Fiddler. Fiddler is certainly a veteran as he’s 36 years young. He’s been a fourth-line center for his entire career and he’s been pretty good at it. He’ll kill penalties, he won’t be an anchor from a possession standpoint, and he has consistently produced 20 to 30 points per season. For one year and $1.25 million, that’s a pretty good signing. Especially if it means that Stephen Gionta will not return, which I think this signing does mean. I would pencil him in for the fourth line center position.

Shero made three more signings for the Devils that are essentially re-signings. Jon Merrill, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Beau Bennett were not qualified as pending restricted free agents this week. They became unrestricted today. However, there was no threat that either would be swooped up by another organization. There will not be as the Devils re-signed all three today. Merrill got a two-year contract worth $2.275 million; Smith-Pelly got a two-year deal worth $2.6 million; and Bennett got a one year contract worth $725,000. All three of these contracts are “show me” contracts; each player will have to show that they can contribute enough to the team to warrant another and/or longer contract. If not, they can be moved or let go when the deal ends. I think each were good deals.

The presumably final signings of the day were meant more for Albany than New Jersey. Within the last two hours, the team announced two-way contracts for three AHL players. The first is right winger Carter Camper, a 5’9” and 179 pound somewhat productive forward. The second is defenseman Andrew MacWilliam, a defensive-minded defender who certainly does not lack for size or beef at 6’2 and 223 pounds. The third is defenseman Karl Stollery, a 28-year old defender who has been productive in his AHL career. All three were signed for the league minimum; I expect both to take spots in Albany. Per Leo Scaglione Jr. on Twitter, Shero may say that Camper and MacWilliam compete for spots in the lineup along with John Quenneville and Nick Lappin. I would think Stollery would be added to that; and I also think all three will stay in the minors to start. Lastly, no, they were never members of the Penguins organization.

In total, the Devils added eight contracts and roughly $7.07 million to next season’s salary cap. They’re now about $1.5 million away from the salary cap floor and they have room for twelve more contracts. With restricted free agents Kyle Palmieri, Sergey Kalinin, Jacob Josefson, Reid Boucher, and Reece Scarlett all up for new contracts, the Devils will easily meet the cap floor for next season and still have a little room for more.

Who Left the Devils for Good Today?

As the Devils brought in Lovejoy and Fiddler to the NHL roster, one New Jersey Devil from last season would definitely not return. Defenseman David Schelmko was well rewarded for his 2015-16 performance by the San Jose Sharks. He inked a four-year contract worth $8.4 million that will pay him $2.1 million straight through each season. He wasn’t making much more than a league minimum salary, so I’m happy for him that he got paid. Similar to what Mike wrote back in April, I wished he stayed with the Devils but it is what it is in free agency.

The Devils will also not see a return from defenseman David Warsofsky. While 26, he qualified for Group VI free agency, which is for players who do not reach a certain threshold of games played. The diminutive offensive-minded defenseman signed a league-minimum contract with Pittsburgh for a season. He did not do much for New Jersey in ten games last season; I do not expect him to be more than depth in Pittsburgh.

While he wasn’t signed away from the Devils, Lee Stempniak was definitely a bright spot of last season’s team. I really thought he would return given he has had one of his best seasons in a while in New Jersey and could receive significant minutes again. He did not. Stempniak signed with Carolina for five million dollars over the next two seasons. That’s a pretty sweet contract, particularly for someone who was only brought to New Jersey on a professional try-out last Fall.

Albany took bigger losses on this day than New Jersey. Matt Lorito, who was on an AHL contract, certainly played well with the A-Devils. He did enough to earn a two-year, two-way contract with Detroit. He could have made for some nice depth in New Jersey, but I’m happy for him in that he got a NHL contract. Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond was signed by Tampa Bay, so he’s gone. Colorado signed both Mike Sislo and Jim O’Brien to one-year contracts. O’Brien only got a little time with New Jersey whereas Sislo has been a decent call-up as a winger in past seasons. Both will now be in the Avalanche system. Lorito, O’Brien, and Sislo were key parts of that A-Devs squad. They’ll have to re-load their team a bit at forward beyond just bringing in the young players like Quenneville.

Who’s Still Available from New Jersey?

The Devils still have plenty of players awaiting contracts, whether it is from the Devils or otherwise.

Again, the team’s five qualified restricted free agents will get new contracts. They are Kyle Palmieri, Jacob Josefson, Reid Boucher, Sergey Kalinin, and Reece Scarlett. Don’t be surprised if a couple of them file for arbitration to force a deal getting done sooner rather than later. Only Boucher and Scarlett are ineligible to file for it. These five getting signed will bring the reserve list up to forty-three and will safely put the Devils over the salary cap floor.

The following are still free agents from New Jersey as of this writing: Patrik Elias, Tuomo Ruutu, Jiri Tlusty, Stephen Gionta, Bobby Farnham, Jordin Tootoo, and Tyler Kennedy. The Albany UFAs remaining are Yann Danis, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Brandon Burlon, Dan Kelly, and Raman Hrabarenka. Elias will wait until later in the Summer before making a decision. I do not expect most of this crew to return to New Jersey or Albany as the situation currently stands.

What Does the Team Look Like Now? / What’s Next?

David Sarch mentioned this on a recent episode of Talking Red and I think it’s a neat tool. CapFriendly has an Armchair GM feature where you can make up your own rosters and visually set up their lines. You can even save it and share it with people you know. After playing around with it for a bit and assuming the team’s five RFAs get signed (pay no attention to the salaries I gave them), here’s what I have for a roster:

From CapFriendly

The Devils can technically ice a full lineup after today’s events once they take care of their business with four of the five RFAs to sign. The Devils may be wise to look at some more depth at wing. Cammalleri, Bennett, and Josefson aren’t known for being all that durable and injuries will happen at some point or another during the season. Camper, Lappin, Miles Wood, Quenneville, and Blake Pietila may be able to fit that need for depth and/or as call-up players. Another veteran will help embolden the group as well as help Albany out.

The defense remains real questionable. I just threw Damon Severson next to Andy Greene in the hopes that Greene-Severson will help Severson get back to glory. This keeps Lovejoy with Moore for a second pairing and Merrill can stay on a third pairing. I’ve got Vojtech Mozik in there with Merrill if only because he’s got a right-handed shot. Auvitu - like Mozik, only one year left on his contract - and Santini are extras. I look at the Devils’ potential top six and think the Devils could really use another defenseman signed instead of hoping Severson gets real good, real fast and throwing in Mozik, Auvitu, and/or Santini into the proverbial pool right away.

Note that I only listed who I put in for New Jersey’s roster. Albany will need some strengthening beyond Camper, MacWilliam, and Stollery if the organization wants to try and repeat last season’s success. With only seven contracts still open, I would only expect a few NHL deals to be handed out and some AHL-only contracts to fill in any gaps.

There’s one other concern for next season. The Devils are now committed to $46.3 million for twenty one contracts for 2017-18. Regardless of how the expansion draft goes, this may hamper some desire to splash more cash for next year’s free agents (e.g. Jamie Benn) and to “go for it” with respect to the playoffs. That can be alleviated through moves made through the season, though.

Are the Devils Better Now than they were Yesterday?

Technically, yes, they can now ice a full roster. More appropriate to the question, I think so. I don’t expect the Devils to be very good next season and Shero appropriately didn’t spend a lot of money on players to make it look like they could be. There remain holes in the system that will take some time and luck to fill before making that push. That being said, Shero did what he needed to do. While I’m not a huge fan of his game, Lovejoy addresses an immediate need on defense. Fiddler will strengthen the bottom six. Merrill, Smith-Pelly, and Bennett were re-signed for reasonable contracts with the intention of giving them every reason to put up something for next season.

In general, I liked how Ray Shero handled today’s craziness among free agents. Yes, he did not do anything flashy or get a “name” player for a contract that will be regretted in a few seasons. The plan was clearly to just fill need some needs, spend enough to eliminate any challenge at reaching the floor, and allow some flexibility for the season. Done, done, and done. While I still think they need another defensemen and the RFA signings remain as an open issue, there’s the rest of the Summer to take care of that.

Now that you know how I saw this year’s Free Agency Frenzy for Shero and the Devils, I want to know what you think. Would you agree he did a good job today? Did he accomplish what you expected him to do before the Frenzy began at noon? What would you have liked him to do if you did not like one or more of these signings? What do you think Shero still needs to do for 2016-17? Lastly, if you have a CapFriendly Armchair-GM roster to share, why not share it with us to see how you would organize the team as of now? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the Devils did today as well as free agency in general in the comments. Thank you for following along all day and thank you for reading.