With the offseason getting into full swing for New Jersey, sights again turn from why exactly this team is broken to how Ray Shero and company might go about fixing it. This summer, the Devils will not be looking for one last piece to plug a hole in the lineup, rather trying to fill in the myriad holes which plagued the team and resulted in their distant last place finish in the Eastern Conference. Realistically, the Devils have a ways to go to get to where they need to be and will have to be creative to continue building toward that goal. When looking at the current Devils roster, they really don’t have a ton in the way of tradeable players that could bring back major assets from another team. So what do the Devils have going for them?
Two things are immediately identifiable as areas where the Devils have a potential surplus of resources. First, the Devils have 19 draft picks over the next two years to work with and second, the team has a truckload of salary cap space. Both resources shouldn’t be exhausted just for the sake of their existence but they do give the team some options. As far as the draft picks, given how much help the prospect pipeline still needs, the team should use those sparingly and strategically only if a deal can get done for an impact player. With the cap space, the Devils have a number of options in how they can use it to gather assets in both the short- and long-term.
The Devils cap situation is one of a team that will need to do some work to even get to the cap floor in the upcoming season. According to CapFriendly, the Devils are looking at about $51.6M in cap hits for next year currently. The current cap ceiling is $73M, giving the Devils about $21.4M to work with as things stand. If the cap does go up to around $75-76M, as has been rumored, then that gives the Devils up to around $24M under the ceiling to work with. The cap floor may also be somewhat of a factor for New Jersey with the current level being at $54.8M or likely increasing to between $56 and 57M if the players opt to go along with the escalator clause again. That would mean the devils need to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-6M just to get to the floor.
Now, CapFriendly’s numbers don’t currently include the players who were sent down for the Albany playoffs or the ones likely to be re-upped as RFAs, so the Devils will probably reach the floor without a great deal of effort, but the team will also likely be working with around $15-20M in surplus space under the cap ceiling (and that includes the still-present cap hit of Ryane Clowe), giving them plenty of options to maneuver as needed.
So what can they do with that space? Well the first answer is the most obvious one, which is to just spend it on improving the team. This summer’s free agent crop is, well, pretty underwhelming but the one obvious target everyone will have their eye on is Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s reported to want to come to the New York area where he is from and the Devils have the cap space to get him if they are so inclined. Given how badly the Devils need top-4 defensemen (and ones who can generate offense), one would have to assume they will be giving Shattenkirk the hard sell at free agency time. Beyond a big play for Shattenkirk though, the Devils should likely be a little more cautious as few other difference-makers are around. If someone like a Michael Del Zotto or another role-player-type can be picked up for a reasonable price (and short term), perhaps you make those moves, but with the team still likely at least a year from postseason contention the team shouldn’t be breaking the bank for anyone besides a potential long-term difference-maker.
Beyond making a free agency splash, though, the team can use that cap space to facilitate trades that will benefit the team now and in the future. We saw the team use their cap space to their advantage a summer ago when they took on Marc Savard’s dead cap hit to acquire a 2018 second round pick. They have the option to make similar moves going forward, too, whether it’s for a quasi-retired injury situation like Savard, or even for an active player who is wreaking havoc on a cap-strapped team’s roster flexibility. Perhaps a team like the Lightning would be looking to offload someone like Jason Garrison with new contracts due to Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin.
The Devils could even go aggressively down the cap-relief-as-a-trade-chip path by taking on the 3-year dead hit of someone like Nathan Horton or (gulp) David Clarkson for a substantial return in picks and/or players. Whether Devils’ ownership is willing to take on that money or if one of those teams is aching that badly to rid themselves of the cap headache is unclear, but with the Devils possessing tons of cap space going forward, they potentially have the option to get creative, especially if they fail in a bid to acquire Shattenkirk.
The Devils also have the option of combining their two biggest assets, picks and cap space, to make a trade happen. Using the Ducks as the example of a team with major cap issues, could the Devils pry a Sami Vatanen or Cam Fowler away from them with a package of picks and taking on a problem contract like Clayton Stoner? The answer to that specific question is obviously unclear but for New Jersey, combining the two areas where they are operating from a position of strength could be a way to bring in an impact player in a trade.
Ultimately, Ray Shero has a lot of work to do to get this roster where it needs to be. It will require getting creative and utilizing the areas where the Devils actually do have assets to work with. With the team still having a ways to go to get back to the playoffs and an abundance of cap room to work with, it gives the team options for using that space to improve the team where it would otherwise go completely unused. Obviously, the ability to make a play for the summer’s biggest free agent is part of that but the ability to use it on the trade market to better the team now or in the future is where it can really speed up and strengthen the team’s rebuild. Will they be able to effectively utilize it in that fashion,, though? For lack of a better answer, we will just have to wait and find out.