As the New Jersey Devils are in their offseason, one of the areas that Ray Shero and his staff will have to spend quite a lot of time determining are the futures of his free agents. Today, I want to focus on those who will become unrestricted free agents as of July 1. If Shero does not re-sign these players, they will be . The good news for Shero and the other members of Devils management is that this year’s list of pending UFAs is a small list. And it’s a list that is basically Keith Kinkaid and some other guys.
According to CapFriendly, here are the pending UFAs for the Devils and their 2016-17 salary:
- G Keith Kinkaid – $750k
- F Luke Gazdic – Two-way: NHL: $700k / Minors: $200k
- F Shane Harper – Two-way: NHL: $650k / Minors: $150k
- F Petr Straka – Two-way: NHL: $650k / Minors: $90k
- D Seth Helgeson - $600k
- F Marc Savard – $575k
- F Carter Camper – Two-way: NHL: $575k / Minors: $200k
- D Karl Stollery – Two-way: NHL: $575k / Minors: $200k
- D Andrew MacWilliam – Two-way: NHL: $575k / Minors: $150k
Yes, the biggest name, the biggest asset, and the only guy who was in the NHL throughout 2016-17 that’s a potential UFA for this summer is Keith Kinkaid. Everyone else primarily played in Albany or is effectively retired from the league (Marc Savard). The other notable UFAs are Seth Helgeson and Petr Straka because they are Group VI UFAs. That means they’re hitting unrestricted free agency earlier than age 27 or 7 years in the league on the basis of not having played enough NHL games. From the perspective of New Jersey and only New Jersey, it’s easy to just focus solely Kinkaid. However, Shero is running an organization where New Jersey is at the top. His responsibilities due include the AHL affiliate to a degree. With Albany moving to Binghamton for next season and assuming they want to keep the AHL team competitive, then the other players will need to be considered as well.
Kinkaid: The Pending UFA of Note
Let’s focus on Kinkaid anyway since he’s the closest to being a sure-fire NHL player among this group of pending UFAs. However, his status may not matter to Shero by the end of June. Due to the upcoming expansion draft for the Las Vegas Golden Knights, NHL teams can only protect one goaltender. Cory Schneider will absolutely be protected short of something unforeseen like incredible incompetence. Las Vegas could select Kinkaid from New Jersey, which would a good part of this post moot. But even if Kinkaid isn’t picked up in the expansion draft, his pending UFA status still creates the same question: Who should be the #2 goaltender in New Jersey?
Here’s a brief summary of Kinkaid’s NHL career so far. He’s been a back-up goaltender for three seasons now. 5-on-5 numbers are from Corsica, other stats are from NHL.com. For comparison’s sake to other backups, I’ve included also what the average goaltender has done in the NHL in this past season for all goalies who played in five to thirty-five appearances. That range of games will covers 34 second and third stringers that played at least more than just a handful of games.
Kinkaid had a very promising rookie season as the #2 goalie in New Jersey. While demonstrating his solid fundamentals when it comes to squaring up for shots and his positioning, he was quite good at even strength situations. His save percentages against medium and high danger shots – assuming they are truly as dangerous as defined – remain the highest in his short career. The only downside to that season from a numbers perspective was his penalty killing save percentage. But even that pales to how good he was in the most common situation in hockey. His Goals Saved Above Average in 5-on-5 play was an excellent 7.33. For a backup, Kinkaid was as reliable as one could expect.
Unfortunately, 2015-16 was a lot rougher for the former Union Dutchman. His save percentages dropped nearly across the board. Only the PK save percentage and low danger shots saw a rise in save percentage. But those gains weren’t enough to overcome making a lower percentage of saves in 5-on-5 and even strength situations. His excellent GSAA from 2014-15 was flipped upside down in 2015-16. Instead of preventing more goals than an average goaltender, Kinkaid’s play was costing the team goals in 5-on-5 play. It was a bad year. Given that it was his second season as a backup, it was understandable to be concerned about his future as the #2 goalie. Especially with Scott Wedgewood coming in hot as the sun in four appearances.
Fortunately for Kinkaid and the Devils, he rebounded in 2016-17. There was never a serious challenge from Wedgewood to take Kinkaid’s spot. The goaltender was waived in October to demote him to Albany and he cleared waivers. Worse, his missed most of this season due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder and the subsequent surgery to repair it. Regardless, Kinkaid’s play was better in 2016-17 and even comparable or better than Schneider’s performance in the season by some metrics. Kinkaid posted the best total save percentage of his burgeoning career with an improved even strength save percentage to go with a very good penalty kill save percentage. His medium and high danger save percentages improved with only a slight decrease to his low danger save percentage. Kinkaid’s GSAA went back to being positive. While not as much as it was in his rookie season, it’s further evidence that Kinkaid’s performance was at least above average. In short, Kinkaid re-justified his #2 position on the roster.
I don’t anticipate that Kinkaid will become a starting goaltender; but he could be a backup for other teams as he successfully did for New Jersey in two of three NHL seasons. Among the average stats of the selected group of goalies for comparison’s sake, Kinkaid’s most recent season stands out against the average. He posted a superior even strength, penalty kill, and 5-on-5 save percentage against this average; Kinkaid was better by at least a percent in each category. Kinkaid was far better than the average against low danger shots and high danger shots. He was only a touch below the average for mid-danger shots; but that’s not a big deal. While a straight average of the goalies who played may not be the best comparison, it does provide further support that Kinkaid was a good backup goaltender last season compared to most other backups.
How much is that worth? Kinkaid made $750k last season and his performance may justify a raise. But establishing his value is the tricky part in all of this. There’s a plethora of goaltending talent that could fill the role is a backup goaltender. The role requires someone who can come into a game without having played a lot and be at least decent in the crease. 34 goalies played between five to thirty-five games last season; there are goalies available who just did it and even some other goalies who may be able to do it if they get a chance at it. Because there are so many goalies, it is not usually costly to get a replacement. Should Kinkaid get picked up by Las Vegas or decide to test the marker, the Devils could find someone easily to take the spot. In fact, CapFriendly lists 23 goaltenders who made at least one appearance last season that are becoming UFAs in this summer and fifteen of them (including Kinkaid) were backups or third-stringers with their respective team. Salaries for those fifteen goaltenders mostly range from $600,000 to $1.55 million (Ondrej Pavelec is an outlier among this at $4.75 million). That’s within the range that Kinkaid made last season. That’s the range he would still be in if re-signed or signed elsewhere. Again, since there very well could be more goalies than spots, that alone will limit his earning power. This also means that Kinkaid, while quite good last season, is effectively replaceable.
My thinking is that if Shero brings back Kinkaid for another year or two with the intent of keeping him as the #2 goalie until Wedgewood or MacKenzie Blackwood prove themselves, then that would be fine. I would accept it and depending on the contract details, I would likely praise it. I’d like to think that most Devils fans would be fine with it too. The Devils have oodles of cap space as it is. If it takes a raise, then even bumping Kinkaid up to the $1 million range to keep him (assuming it’ll cost that much) wouldn’t be that costly. Provided that he can replicate what Kinkaid did in 2014-15 and 2016-17, then the salary would be justified. That said, if Shero decides he wants to move on and let him go to free agency or if Las Vegas does pick him in June, I don’t think it’ll be that big of a loss. Again, there are other goalies who can play the #2 role and probably do so for about the same amount of money Kinkaid earned last season with comparable results. That does seem wishy-washy, but it’s the nature of filling this role.
Personally, I’d lean on keeping him just because he’s a known quantity, he knows what to expect, and he can fill the role for another year or so as other goalies get time in Binghamton next season. With that all said, let’s look at the other UFAs.
Some Guys - The Other Pending UFAs
Marc Savard presents an opportunity for the Devils. The Devils picked up Savard for his cap hit and that cap hit ends on July 1. The Devils paid him minimal salary to have his $4.021 million cap hit on the books so the Devils could reach the cap floor more easily. That will be gone for 2017-18. The projected cap floor for next season is $54 million. With $51.7 million already committed for next season as per CapFriendly, Shero could just re-sign his restricted free agents – they’ll deserve a separate post or posts – to reach the floor. But this is a re-building team and in order to re-build it, Shero needs to identify some more players to build around. With Savard’s cap hit going away, Shero will have some more leeway to sign other UFAs that may fit that need either in the short term or the long-term. Alternatively, Shero could try to take on another big cap hit with a small salary – and pick up another asset in the process - if the plan isn’t to spend more into the cap. While he could do that, I would rather see Shero make moves for players who can contribute more than their cap number. Again, re-building requires actual building and so the time to spend more of the cap could be this summer. Particularly for a certain defender on Washington; but we’ll discuss that later. Non-Devils UFAs will get their own posts anyway.
The other pending UFAs either largely played in Albany last season or played entirely in Albany last season. For years under Lou, the AHL affiliate’s main task was to develop players as opposed to putting together a competitive team in the AHL. Since Shero has taken over, the A-Devils have been more competitive. I believe that’s not a coincidence. From my perspective, it appears that management sees value s the AHL franchise to at least be good. With moving to Binghamton next season, there’s further incentive to make a good first impression. So I would not be surprised if the Devils do retain a few of these players primarily for AHL purposes. They may receive NHL deals to entice them to stay as well as to keep them as potential call-ups for injuries. There’s a fine line to walk with these kinds of players. Too few results in squads where they may struggle in the AHL. Too many would take spots from younger, developing players.
To that end, I think Shero should be a bit more judicious with NHL deals and try to limit them to players that will at least be regulars in the AHL and could be used in spot duty. Karl Stollery, for example, did play 58 games in addition to eleven games with New Jersey. At a minimum, he was utilized by the team. He is a veteran AHLer and his usage appears to be enough to be worth keeping around. I would prefer that over, for example, Luke Gazdic, who made only 36 appearances for Albany on top of ten games with the Devils with his limited skillset that doesn’t include playing hockey well at all. I would prefer that if the AHL staff would prefer keeping any of Seth Helgeson, Andrew MacWillian, Carter Camper, or Shane Harper, then the push should be for AHL deals for those players or to cut bait entirely, replacing them with other AHL veterans they may be interested in. I don’t think Helgeson, for example, adds much to the organization. At this point, we know who he is and he has been given chances at the NHL level and he has not performed at that level. I do not think there is value to give him another NHL deal to keep him around. Ditto for the others that never received a chance on a team that gave out a lot of opportunties like Harper or Camper.
From my New Jersey-centric perspective, I think the Devils should cut loose any player that has little future as a call-up, isn’t an regular already for Albany, or adds very little value. That would be pretty much the entire group of skaters cited in this post save for Stollery and possibly Harper. If they are retained on AHL deals, then that’s fine. But the Devils can find comparable replacements for NHL deals. But I don’t follow the AHL nearly enough to know whether they have contributed well at that level. And even NHL deals would likely be two-way deals that really won’t affect the cap all that much. So feel free to take my thinking for the minor leaguers with a grain of salt. The decisions for most of the team’s pending UFAs this summer will be driven by what the expectations are by Shero and by the AHL staff. With Albany making their final stand in the playoffs, a number of these players will get an opportunity to make a final case to get another contract for this summer. We’ll see if any of them take advantage.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The good news is that for this offseason, Shero will not have too many difficult decisions regarding the pending UFA’s from the New Jersey organization. Kinkaid is the only one that would affect the NHL team. And it may not even be up to Shero if Kinkaid is claimed in the expansion draft. While Savard’s cap hit coming off the books, re-signing the pending restricted free agents for this summer alone would make up the lost cap hit to have the Devils reach the cap floor. The minor leaguers are, well, are mostly minor leaguers that are taking up space on the reserve list. If it were up to me and me alone, I’d try to retain Kinkaid for another year for around $850-950k, and be guided by the Albany staff to determine if any of those players need NHL deals to stay or if they can be replaced by other AHL veterans.
That’s what I would do from my own armchair. What would you do with the pending Devils UFAs? Would you keep Kinkaid? If so, for how long and how much? If not, would you want the Devils to find another backup from free agency or promote one of the goaltenders within the system? Do you think any of the AHLers should be kept around on NHL deals? If so, who? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about pending UFAs in the comments. Thank you for reading. The pending RFAs – which will be more of a concern for the Shero and his staff – will get their own posts.