Tomorrow at noon, the New Jersey Devils and thirty other NHL teams will be able to officially sign unrestricted free agents. Sure, they were all talking to each other over this past week “not talking terms” (wink, wink). But the deals can be inked at noon on July 1. This is known by many names. I call it Free Agency Frenzy because a lot of money gets spent which can and does impact teams for next season and beyond.
The New Jersey Devils are still a re-building team. However, they are in a position to make some additions in the hopes of taking a step forward to where they want to be in the future. It may not be enough to get to the playoffs - especially given how strong the Metropolitan Division teams look on paper - but it may be enough to be a far cry better than last season’s dismal squad.
This is a short primer on the current situation, what to expect, and what could happen for the New Jersey Devils tomorrow and beyond in this Summer. The majority of signings do happen on July 1 so it’s important to at least have a general understanding of what could happen when the clock strikes noon tomorrow.
The Current Situation
According to CapFriendly, the New Jersey Devils have a total of $47,319,318 committed to the salary cap for next season. This is based on a roster of six forwards, five defensemen, two goaltenders, two active buy-outs, and Ilya Kovalchuk’s recapture penalty of $250,000. The salary cap ceiling for 2017-18 is $75 million. This means the Devils have $27,680,832 in cap space. This number also includes Ryane Clowe’s contract; as he’ll never play hockey again, the Devils can place Clowe on long-term injured reserve for additional relief as needed. No other NHL team as of this writing has more cap space.
Based on my count at CapFriendly, the Devils have 31 players on contracts. Three can slide into the next season provided they do not begin their entry level contracts next season. There are 18 “non-roster” players that does include likely NHLers for next season like Miles Wood and Steve Santini. They are there because they were demoted to Albany to play in their postseason. With new prospects from the 2017 NHL Entry Draft class, there will be some entry level contracts to be added to this.
Even with factoring players from Binghamton, the Devils do need to sign players to fill out their rosters at both the AHL and NHL levels.
What Have the Devils Done So Far?
The Devils have done some work already, which led them to their current situation.
First, way back in May, the Devils re-signed defenseman Viktor Loov. He’s on a two-way contract with a cap hit of $650,000.
Second, the team acquired defenseman Mirco Mueller in a trade prior to the roster freeze for the expansion draft. Mueller was set to be a restricted free agent. He was qualified by San Jose, but the Devils will have to give him a new contract.
Third, the team lost defenseman Jon Merrill in the expansion draft. This opens up a spot on defense, possibly to be filled by Mueller.
Forwards: Joseph Blandisi, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, Kevin Rooney, Blake Pietila, Ben Thomson
Defensemen: Damon Severson, Vojtech Mozik
Goalie: Scott Wedgewood
These players will likely be given new contracts by the Devils. Among them all, Severson should Any other team who wishes to sign them will have to present an offer sheet, have the player sign it, and the Devils have the right to match it or receive compensation for not matching it. Offer sheets are rare, so I wouldn’t expect one.
This also means forward Beau Bennett and defensemen Yohann Auvitu are set to become unrestricted free agents (UFA) tomorrow. Jacob Josefson was set to become one anyway.
Fifth, the Devils re-signed pending UFA goaltender Keith Kinkaid to a two-year, $2.5 million contract. This means the Devils goaltending tandem of the past three seasons will stay intact. This also means there’s a bit of a logjam between Wedgewood, MacKenzie Blackwood, and Ken Appleby in the minors.
Sixth, the Devils have bought out the contracts for forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri’s buyout results in a $1.6 million cap hit on the books for the next four seasons. Smith-Pelly’s buyout results in a a dead cap hit of $175,000 this season and $225,000 next season. The Devils clearly did not factor either player for the future. The Devils tried to trade Cammalleri, failed to do so, and so have cut ties after a very poor season for the veteran. DSP failed to impress at much after a hot start to his time in New Jersey. Their departure opens up more space at forward.
What Do the Devils Need?
Talent at both ends for the skaters; players who can possess the puck, to be fair. I mean, did you see last season?
More seriously, with Kinkaid re-signed and goaltenders in the system, the Devils really only need skaters for both New Jersey and Binghamton. The top six is currently Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique. That’s it. That’s not even six skaters. While one can pencil in Pavel Zacha, 2017 first overall draft pick Nico Hischier, and Michael McLeod into the New Jersey lineup, there is a need for more players. With Cammalleri and Smith-Pelly bought out, wingers on both sides would be ideal.
The defense was torched many times last season. While they have the quantity, there is a distinct lack of quality. Damon Severson looks to be a solid defender for the future. But with Andy Greene not getting any younger, John Moore coming off a high-shooting percentage season while continuing to be a shot sieve, Ben Lovejoy being an anchor, and Dalton Prout being Dalton Prout, there’s a lot that can be improved. Mirco Mueller was acquired, in part, to be a member of New Jersey’s blueline and there’s a hope he can develop where he hasn’t in San Jose. Santini, Kapla, and others (Yaroslav Dablenko?) could also slide into the blueline either right away or when injuries arise. Among this group, there really isn’t any premier offensive talent or anyone who’s adept at handling and passing the puck outside of Severson. That’s the big need from a role perspective. In terms of positioning, there are fewer right-handed defenders than left-handed defenders - but improvement is really needed on both sides.
Who Would the Devils Be Interested In?
This year’s free agency class is lacking in big names and top-minute players that are not long-time veterans of the league. So a team that could use a top-pairing defenseman is going to find this year’s group wanting - with one notable exception. That exception is 28-year old right-handed defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk.
While it may be arguable whether he’s a true top-pairing defender in that he could be on anyone’s top-pairing, he absolutely would be in New Jersey. Shattenkirk brings an offensive skillset to a team’s blueline and power play that has been sorely lacking on the Devils. With the Devils having both oodles of cap space and a significant need for an offensive defenseman, the Devils can afford to give Shattenkirk a big contract without having too much of it blow up in their face or hinder their roster management against the cap. I think they should go for him in lieu of the Karl Alzner or Dmitry Kulikov, neither of which brings to the table what Shattenkirk would bring. Would Shattenkirk come to New Jersey? It depends on the offer he wants; the Devils would be able to afford it, but would they meet it? We will see on July 1.
If Shattenkirk is not available, then obtaining an offensively skilled defenseman will be very difficult. Cody Franson and Michael Del Zotto carries some of that, but not to the level of Shattenkirk. The Devils should avoid Dan Girardi and defensive-only defensemen at all costs.
At forward, the Devils would serve themselves well to be pencil in where they would place their young forwards before making some signings. Ideally, the team should retain Bennett’s services if only because he was a play driver in 5-on-5 situations on a team that sorely lacked them. He would beef up the bottom six. The Devils can certainly kick the tires on the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Nail Yakupov for such a role. Should the Devils seek to splash some cash for that top six role, they can try to spend a lot on Alexander Radulov. Alternatively, Justin Williams could be a veteran option for a stop-gap as the Devils sort out what to do with Zacha, Hischier, McLeod, Wood, Blandisi, and other young forwards.
The wildcard is that with all of this cap space, the Devils could make a deal of some sorts. Whether that is to eat another bad contract for an asset or go get Alex Galchenyuk somehow from Montreal. This is a possibility. Maybe not a strong one, but a deal could be made in lieu of a big free agent signing.
The Kovy Affair ‘17
One intriguing situation for the New Jersey Devils is the matter of Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils have his rights as he voluntary retired from the Devils. Now that Kovalchuk apparently wants to come back to the NHL, the Devils would have to sign and trade him to another team. This can finally happen tomorrow at noon at the earliest. It’s completely unknown what the return can be for a trade. It won’t likely be a lot as Shero asking for a lot could scuttle any deal that Kovalchuk would want. If a deal isn’t made and/or Kovalchuk does not receive the contract offers he wants, then he could go back to the KHL for another season - there are contract negotiations with SKA St. Petersburg ongoing - and he could come back to the NHL in 2018. Then, he’ll be 35 and the Devils won’t hold his rights anymore; which means the Devils would get nothing for Kovalchuk returning. It’s never really simple with Ilya Kovalchuk. Maybe this will be resolved tomorrow. Maybe it gets stretched out into July or beyond. Who knows.
One Last Thought
Don’t be suckered in by rumors. Look for verified people on Twitter or stick to respected sites, and take their info at face-value. It’s better to be right then to be first.
Expect plenty to happen tomorrow. The Devils have the contract and cap space and they added to it for a reason. We’ll try to stay on top of the frenzy tomorrow as best as we can. Before it happens, I want to know what you think. What do you expect Shero to do on July 1? Who would you sign to address the needs of the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils and the upcoming Free Agency Frenzy in the comments. Thank you for reading.