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Can the Devils Balance Need and Risk in the Free Agency Minefield?

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The Devils are a team that absolutely needs to improve to be competitive in 2017-18. But in free agency, they must be careful not to damage their outlook in 2019 and beyond in order to do so.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The last big milestone of the summer, NHL free agency, is almost upon us as tomorrow’s July 1st frenzy approaches. For the majority of NHL teams, free agency offers the final opportunity to improve their roster before heading into the new season. Yes, trades are still possible after the dust settles from the signings, but those tend to be isolated occurrences. Once teams are done in free agency, they are typically content to move forward with the roster they have.

With free agency being that last big offseason milestone, teams will often feel the pressure to make moves if their roster still has holes in it. This dynamic is what drives the flurry of action each offseason once free agency begins, as teams don’t want to miss out from the best names available on the open market. On the flip side, it also drives many teams to make some risky, shortsighted, or even outright bad decisions. Free agency is usually an exciting time for hockey fans in that some of the bigger names in hockey will be landing in new cities, but it is also a minefield in which teams will often make decisions that hinder or even cripple future rosters. Players who get bought out each season didn’t just appear on rosters, they all were seen as important pieces at some point and signed to those contracts that turned into albatrosses.

That is the central conflict for teams navigating free agency in a salary cap world. I doubt GMs head into the offseason hell-bent on throwing good money after bad, but it will inevitably happen each year. Many teams still need to improve to get to where they want to be and options to do that at this point in the offseason are dwindling. This leads teams to hand out big contracts to free agent targets, even if they are an imperfect fit. In an ideal situation, a GM could avoid free agency altogether as that is where a majority of roster-building mistakes are likely to happen, but most don’t have the luxury of sitting on their hands when July 1st rolls around.

Unfortunately for Devils fans, the current roster in New Jersey is not one that allows the team to sit above the fray while mistakes are made in early free agency. If Ray Shero hopes to ice something approaching a competitive team next season, he likely has to take a few swings on the free agent market. The issue with the 2017 free agent crop is that the options are, to put it generously, somewhat limited. CJ put together a nice primer on Wednesday and came to the conclusion that there are really 11 desirable free agents out there to be had. That’s about a third of a good free agent per team. Your mileage may vary on the number of worthwhile targets, but the bottom line seems to be that not everyone will emerge from free agency satisfied and a few future buyouts will almost certainly be handed out.

The tough task for Ray Shero is now the balancing act between trying to improve the team and not flushing money just for the sake of being active. Some murmurs have the Devils going hard after free agency’s top prize, Kevin Shattenkirk. Obviously, this makes a lot of sense from the Devils’ perspective, given the state of their defensive corps, and they have plenty of cap space to do it with. The real risk lies with the Devils missing out on the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. At that point, Ray Shero would have a roster still in need of major improvement, a ton of cap space, and a wad of cash that didn’t go to Shattenkirk burning a hole in his pocket — as dangerous a free agency combo as there is.

If Shero doesn’t get the big fish in Shattenkirk, I think he has to take a step back and work on evaluating the potentially undervalued pieces elsewhere in the market (particularly on defense). Handing out a big 5+ year contract to someone like Karl Alzner or Nick Bonino likely doesn’t cure the team’s ills and also hamstrings them in the future. If the Devils can pluck a few guys from the discount aisle on 1-year deals, that might ultimately be the best route for trying to have an improved roster and something approaching a serviceable defense in 2017-18. Can a guy like Simon Despres find some of the form he showed when he first broke into the league prior to his injury woes? Could someone like Cody Franson be signed for a short term deal after toiling in Buffalo the last couple seasons? Among forwards, could a former draft bust like Nail Yakupov be a worthwhile reclamation project on a 1-year deal? Those are some of the questions Ray Shero will likely have to ask to avoid committing dollars and term to a #5 defenseman or #9 forward.

Those types of players likely aren’t going to be huge difference makers, but outside of Shattenkirk on defense and maybe an old head like Joe Thornton on offense, there’s not much in the way of major impact players out there. If you pay a role player like an impact guy, that doesn’t make him not a role player. The Devils need to be careful not to fall into that trap. If the Devils are unable to land Shattenkirk and the Ilya Kovalchuk situation does not yield a good piece coming back, the pressure on Shero to make some kind of splash to improve the team will undoubtedly be high, but he will need to keep his wits about him and not exacerbate the Devils problems down the road with ill-advised deals. It can be tough to say when you are coming off a season as lousy as the Devils 2016-17, but sometimes the best decisions in free agency are the signings you don’t make.