A few weeks back, I wrote up about the pending unrestricted free agents from the New Jersey Devils for this summer. Basically, it’s Keith Kinkaid and a bunch of minor leaguers and Marc Savard’s contract. This past weekend, the New Jersey Devils won the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery and will have the first overall pick for the first time in Devils history. However exciting it is to have the #1 pick in 2017, general manager Ray Shero and his staff will have another big task in this offseason: making decisions regarding restricted free agents. Today, let’s go over these players and think about what the Devils should do with them.
Here’s a quick overview of restricted free agents (RFAs). Restricted free agency effectively puts the power in the team’s hands. All the team needs to do to keep the player is to provide them a qualifying offer. This amount of this offer depends on their base salary from the previous season; it is no more than 110% of that base salary. The offer must be a one-way contract depending on how many games they have played and if they didn’t clear waivers last season. The player can reject this offer, but the team keeps their rights. If the team does not make a qualifying offer, then the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. This qualifying offer is not the same as an actual contract; it just has to be made to keep their rights. A team can offer a new contract regardless. Some players do have arbitration rights to force a team to provide a contract or go through the arbitration process to have a third-party award one. The latter is rare though. Provided that the team makes a contract offer, this process won’t matter.
Now, here’s a list of thirteen players who are pending restricted free agents according to CapFriendly. I’m going to bold one of them:
Damon Severson, Beau Bennett, Jacob Josefson, Stefan Noesen, Yohann Auvitu, Viktor Loov, Vojtech Mozik, Blake Coleman, Blake Pietila, Joseph Blandisi, Ben Thomson, Kevin Rooney, and Scott Wedgewood.
I bolded Loov because he’s the only player in this list who did not play a single game with the New Jersey Devils under Shero’s management. Loov was acquired this season for Sergey Kalinin, who was a pending RFA himself. While it is no surprise that Severson, Bennett, and Josefson were NHL regulars; most of this group has made appearances for the Devils in this season. Only Mozik and Wedgewood didn’t suit up for New Jersey in 2016-17; but they did in 2015-16. I do not think it was an accident that Coleman, Pietila, Thomson, Blandisi and Rooney received call ups in this past season - even if it was only for a few games. In light of this, this quote by Ray Shero back when the Devils broke down for this season on April 11, 2017 is rather important. As reported by Andrew Gross for NorthJersey.com:
“Pride, tenacity, pushback,” Shero said. “We had it at times but not enough. Not close enough to where we want to be. Some guys had a chance to prove that this year. They won’t be back.”
I cannot help but think he is referring to some of the thirteen players who are up for new contracts. Sometimes a team will not qualify a player but re-sign him anyways. I think we’re going to see Shero cut a few of these players loose.
Thoughts on the 13 RFAs
First among those to be let loose would be defenseman Yohann Auvitu. The Devils signed him last year after being the top defenseman in the Finnish league (SM-Liiga) in 2015-16. Despite the display of some offensive skills, Auvitu went from regular to scratch to Albany Devil to a scratch on the A-Devs. In 25 games with the Devils, he developed a reputation for being defensively suspect, which I think would apply to more than just him on the Devils blueline. I think he got a bit of a raw deal, but the scratches suggest to me that the coaches and management don’t think it’s working out with him. I fully expect him to go back to European hockey in 2017-18. Therefore, I don’t think the Devils will qualify him.
Other players that I think may be cut loose would be defenseman Viktor Loov, forward Kevin Rooney, forward Ben Thomson, and maybe defenseman Vojtech Mozik. Loov was acquired for Kalinin and didn’t get a single call up when the Devils were seemingly calling up everyone. Rooney did get an entry level contract in 2016-17 primarily to play a few games with New Jersey. After four appearances where he did very little in the about ten to eleven minutes he received, he went back to Albany. I doubt he made any kind of impression that would result in another NHL contract. Ben Thomson played in three games, received minimal minutes, and while he certainly tried to make an impact, he didn’t really make much of one. While he could be a “tough guy,” it doesn’t mean he needs a NHL deal next season. Mozik was a standout of sorts for Albany; he ended up leading their blueline in goals (11) and shots on net (150, only bested by Quenneville on the entire team). However, like Loov, Mozik was passed over in call ups all season whereas Steve Santini, Karl Stollery, and Seth Helgeson received opportunities. To me, that’s a telling sign that they may not consider him in their future plans. I could see these players kept in the system to help out Binghamton for next season, ideally on AHL contracts. However, I don’t think they really factor into future plans for New Jersey.
It’s harder to figure out what the Devils may see in Coleman, Pietila, and Blandisi. Pietila made ten appearances in 2016-17 after making seven in 2015-16. In the ten games, Pietila played somewhere between 12-14 minutes. The Devils gave him a chance, but I don’t think he really did much with it. While no one expected him to be a producer, he was often getting pinned back in his own end - Corsica had him at a 44% CF. That doesn’t speak well for a future. Coleman and Blandisi had longer stays with New Jersey but also didn’t really impress. Coleman played with plenty of energy and yielded just over a shot per game, 27 PIM in 23 games, one goal, and one assist. While he was kept in the bottom six, he didn’t show that he belonged anywhere else and on some nights, not even where he was. Like Pietila, he was stuck on defense a lot (Corsica also had him at a 44% CF) - and he wasn’t particularly good at that either. Blandisi started last season in Albany on the basis of needing to recognize a few things. After correcting himself, Blandisi ended up in New Jersey for 27 games. While he wasn’t diving and he received some more prime minutes, he still finished the season below a shot per game average, only three goals and nine points, and no real sign of developing into anything more than a depth player. Blandisi does have the advantage of not getting creamed in possession with a 49% CF% and being only 22. He may be worth keeping around for a little while longer. The point is that I don’t have a lot of hopes of either these three players really contributing for the Devils in the long term. But I don’t fully expect either to be fully unqualified and allowed to walk or given AHL only deals since they were given more than just a handful of appearances over the last two seasons. It just wouldn’t surprise me either way.
It also wouldn’t surprise me if this is the last stand for Jacob Josefson. Yes, he may make for a fine fourth line center. Yes, he is good at shootouts (which was kind of a non-factor last season, NJ often won or lost in overtime) and can be a part of a power play. However, I don’t think he’s good enough to warrant yet another NHL contract. He’s not likely going to be healthy enough to be a solid contributor. Per Corsica, he was worse in 2016-17 in 5-on-5 play than he was in 2015-16 by both CF% (50.8% down to 47.7%) and xGF% (50.9% down to 47.3%). He was never a productive player; his season high for goals is six and his season high for points is 14. Qualifying Josefson would be require $1.1 million. I don’t think Josefson is worth that much. If the plan for next season is to have Pavel Zacha or the potential 2017 #1 overall pick to center the third line, then there’s no reason to pay seven figures for a fourth line center - which is more or less what he is and where he would end up. I think that can be filled in by someone else easily found on the open market. I wouldn’t be shocked if Shero didn’t qualify him and let him go free.
Those are the players I either think Shero will let go or should let go. I don’t think all of them will go; some may get NHL deals to entice them to stay in the AHL but have an option to come up or get AHL only deals entirely. I don’t think they’ll be a big part of next season’s team. Who’s left? Players that I think do still have value going forward: Severson, Bennett, Noesen, and Wedgewood.
Alex wrote at length about Severson’s next contract a few weeks ago. You should read it. Among all of the RFAs, Severson is the one with a 100%, sure-fire, guarantee to get a big raise. He’s been a positive factor for most of his teammates last season, he’s a right handed defenseman, he has an actual offensive component to his game, and he’ll only be 23 by next season. I think it’ll be a bridge contract for two seasons, but the point is the same: Severson will get a lot more than $660,000 to play next season and he will play quite a lot next season.
Bennett is player I would like the Devils to retain. While nineteen points in 65 games isn’t exactly great, this past season was arguably the best in his career. Because he was not injured as much as in previous seasons, he hit season highs in games played, goals (8), points (19), and shots on net (101). Most importantly, he was the Devils’ top player in terms of Corsi For percentage among regulars. That’s not something to take likely. According to Corsica, Bennett was at 53.24% CF% on a team that finished fourth from last in the NHL in CF% at 47.8. There were many nights where the Devils were housed in 5-on-5 and this needs to turn around for the Devils to get back on track to respectability. Getting on that track means keeping guys who were successful in that regard despite his teammates at times. Bennett may not be a big scorer, but that he was not getting pinned back like most of the other forwards on the bottom two lines speaks to how much he can contribute. I’d rather have the Devils have a player like Bennett as a right winger on their bottom two lines than a “energy” guy who other teams love playing hockey against or a specialist who isn’t good in 5-on-5 play. I would want the Devils to keep him, at least for another season or two.
Stefan Noesen was picked up off waivers in this past season and, like Bennett, played mostly on the team’s bottom two lines. Like Bennett, Noesen was actually positive in possession on a team full of players getting beat in 5-on-5 play. While he wasn’t excelling, 50.1% CF% isn’t shabby on a sub-50% team. Noesen also found his shot a bit more with 51 shots in 36 appearances with New Jersey last season. A 1.4 shot per game average from a depth player isn’t too bad. The six goals and two assists won’t wow anyone and
the eleven minor penalties in 36 games wasn’t smart either. (Correction: I wasn’t smart about his penalties. He really had six minors last season plus a misconduct to drive up his PIMs. That’s better for Noesen. Thanks to MedicSBK for pointing out my error in the comments.) Given that he’s 24, I don’t know if he’ll really develop anymore - although his time in New Jersey was the most he’s ever played in the NHL in his career so far. But the Devils could do worse than have Noesen as a fourth line right winger for another season at least. I would not at all be opposed for a one-year deal for that.
Wedgewood is a wild card of sorts. He was sensational in a four-game call up in 2015-16 and had some Devil fans wonder if he would unseat Keith Kinkaid for the #2 goaltender role. That did not happen. Kinkaid went on to have a bounce back season. Wedgewood missed most of 2016-17 due a torn labrum in his right shoulder, the surgery to repair it, and the subsequent recovery. It’s an open question as to what Wedgewood could be. Those four games were the best possible impression he could have made. However, they were just four games and Wedgewood has only surpassed a 92% save percentage once in the minor leagues: in 2015-16 but only in 22 games with Albany. With the possibility of Kinkaid going in either expansion draft or hitting free agency as an unrestricted free agent, a spot may open up for Wedgewood and he could be retained for that possibility alone. He may end up being in Binghamton with Mackenzie Blackwood or Ken Appleby, though. At this juncture though, I don’t think he’ll be let loose. Not after some 90-ish save percentage seasons by Blackwood or Appleby.
Taking a step back, it’s impressive to think of how many options Ray Shero has for this offseason. For the draft, he has the #1 overall pick and nine others, with six in the second, third, and fourth rounds. The pending UFAs among the Devils do not include any significant players beyond Keith Kinkaid. The coaches and managament has plenty of idea of what his pending RFAs can do in the NHL. There’s a Russian winger who could be coming back for a signing or a sign-and-trade, which would garner even more assets. There’s plenty of cap space to go out and spend, say, a lot on a certain defenseman, and still have space left over. Shero can do a lot to re-shape the Devils over the next few months.
These thirteen decisions for the thirteen pending RFAs will be a big part of that. Severson is the only one that I’m fully confident will get a big raise of sorts. The rest can go in a bunch of different directions. I think Bennett, Noesen, and Wedgewood are likely safe bets to be qualified and re-signed. I think Blandisi, Coleman, and Pietila are not as safe but in a better spot than the rest. Josefson could be among them too, although I’m not sure it’s worth it at this point. I think some players like Auvitu are going to go elsewhere regardless, so Shero will likely let them go and not qualify them. I foresee plenty of changes coming among out of what Shero decides to do.
In the meantime, I want to know what you think. What pending RFAs do you want Shero to qualify and/or re-sign? How much would you want those players to be re-signed? (Note: CapFriendly has a qualifying offer calculator, which is really useful to determine what the minimum would be for a new deal after qualification.) Who do you expect to not be qualified at all? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the pending RFAs (not draft picks, not Ilya, but pending free agents) in the comments. Thank you for reading.