July 1 is a crucial day in the NHL offseason. It is the day where teams can sign unrestricted free agents. While the NHL Entry Draft was the week before, that was a two-day event where prospects for a team’s future were selected. The moves made today can and are expected to make an impact right away. Per CapFriendly, 121 players were signed on this July 1 - the majority of the signings take place on the first day. It’s a big deal. The New Jersey Devils went into July 1 with more cap space - roughly $27.6 million - than any other team in the league, less than 30 non-sliding contracts, and plenty of roster space. All of which were “boosted” by the team buying out Michael Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly. Ray Shero put the team in a situation where they could do a lot. After the first day of free agency, Shero has done very, very little. And it can only be described as a disappointment.
The sum total of their signings today: They signed center Brian Boyle to a two-year, $5.1 million contract. The Devils also re-signed forward Brian Gibbons to a NHL contract as well as inking defensemen Brian Strait and forward Brendan Kearns. Those three are on two-way contracts and are primarily AHL players. They’ll likely stay with Binghamton unless injuries require their presence.
That’s it. The team opened up additional cap and roster space and ended up with one (1) NHL signing and three (3) AHL signings.
It is true by Boyle fits a need of sorts. The bottom six forwards were constantly changing for one reason or another, but few players really handled the role well. Vernon Fiddler (traded last season), Jacob Josefson (now a Sabre), and Sergey Kalinin (now in the KHL) among others never really did. Given that Boyle has had a whole career of being a solid hand deeper in the depth chart for center on top of penalty killing and winning draws, he’ll be useful. And most of the readers who voted in the poll about the signing did like the signing. The signings of Strait, Kearns, and Gibbons will strengthen Binghamton as the former Albany Devils lost some players already and they needed bodies. So it is not as if what happened today was entirely unnecessary.
It is also true that this is not the only day for free agency. This continues throughout July, August, and even into September. There will be some kind of movement around training camp and even during preseason to put together the touches on
It is also true that this year’s free agency class was rather weak. There weren’t a lot of premier names. Sure, there were some names in terms of players who were big deals for most of their careers but most of those are in an advanced age and likely are not the same players they once were. If a team needed a top winger or a top defenseman, the pickings were slim on the open market. The risk of overpaying someone to fill a role they may not be able to handle is real with free agency. It’s a bigger risk given the lack of appealing options.
It is additionally true that the Devils have a youth movement going on. Plenty of players were given their first taste of the NHL last season to see what they can do. There’s a real chance that we could see Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, Michael McLeod, Blake Speers, John Quenneville, Steve Santini, and Miles Wood in the New Jersey lineup for at least some point in the season. Ditto for Joseph Blandisi, Michael Kapla, Yaroslav Dablenko, and Nick Lappin. Some of these players may be penciled in and the plan may be to just let them play it out and see where it goes.
It is even more true that the Devils would very likely be outside of the playoffs even if they were able to get the players they wanted. Most of the Metropolitan Division either got better in the last two weeks or remained in place. The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins saw players leave but given that the core of their respective successes are in place, they’re not likely going to be that much worse in 2017-18. Carolina may finally have the answer to their goaltending problems and made a nice addition in Justin Williams. The Islanders may have moved Travis Hamonic, but they did obtain Jordan Eberle, who can jolt an burgeoning offense. Our Hated Rivals made some big trades and despite the LOL-worthy signing of Ondrej Pavelec, they freed themselves of Dan Girardi and signed the best defenseman on the marker this Summer to an amazingly friendly contract. The Flyers, well, I’m not sure how to think about what they did so far but they have a talented team. The Devils could have made the splash they wanted to make and still end up in eighth next season. So there’s value to not blow money fast on July 1, 2017 since that wouldn’t likely be enough to get the Devils to where they want to be.
Those are all true. However, all of that does not mean this day was a disappointment for the Devils.
Ray Shero is indeed re-building the Devils. A big part of that is indeed tearing down what was in place. Shero has definitely done that, even as recently as this Friday. The other big part of that is to replace what was torn down with something better. The buy-outs of Cammalleri and Smith-Pelly meant there was a larger need for wingers. None were acquired. Shero did not qualify Beau Bennett - one of the few bottom-six forwards that could say had a good season of sorts - presumably to sign him to a contract. Instead of doing that, Bennett signed a one-year, $650,000 deal with St. Louis. So the Devils lose one of their few play drivers from last season, furthering that massive need, and they are even thinner at right wing again. Shero let Bennett walk and he signed with another team for the NHL minimum - something Shero absolutely could afford (and given that the team just dropped $5.1 million on Boyle, a qualifying offer for Bennett shouldn’t have been that expensive). And, again, no right wingers were acquired. (Sure, some other Devils have moved on like Seth Helgeson and Jacob Josefson, but neither were all that useful last season.)
The defensemen, as a unit, were wrecked last season by opposing players. Outside of the work of Damon Severson and others having good games here and there, good zone exits and passes to forwards were sparse. The power play was abysmal at times, too. There was one defenseman who could address those needs: Kevin Shattenkirk. While there’s an argument to be made about re-building teams trying to avoid huge deals or just avoiding them in general in free agency, the market had an under-30 defenseman that would directly help some of the biggest issues on the Devils. And the Devils have the cap space and the roster space to make it work without hindering any other plans. The stars were seemingly aligned for this. Unfortunately, they aligned over Manhattan. Shattenkirk ended up signing for a less than $7 million cap hit for four years with the Rangers. It is likely that Shattenkirk left money and term on the table to play for a team he wanted to play on and there’s nothing Shero can do about that. But Shero didn’t even make a substantial offer. The one defenseman that could at least alleviate several issues on the Devils is on the market and Shero didn’t put in a full effort. Maybe he knew the Rangers were a mortal lock to get him, but that’s sad to see a GM have a rare opportunity like this and not really go for it.
Furthermore, you’ll notice that the response to that was nothing for New Jersey. Perhaps “Plan B” is in process, but what would that be? Signing defenseman Cody Franson and hoping he can provide some help for the blueline’s distinct lack of offense and puck skills? Signing a veteran winger or two instead of just throwing the young players into the squad and hoping they come out better for it? Making a trade with...something the Devils could trade for? The Devils bought out two players the day before free agency began on top of having a lot of cap space. Presumably there was a plan to use some of it to make the squad better, right?
Unfortunately, I fear that in of itself may be a bad assumption - and this would be the most disappointing part of all of this. It’s entirely possible the plan was not to make Devils better for 2017-18. As I wrote in a free agency primer, my hope and expectation was not that the Devils would make the postseason next season, but that they’ll take a step forward. Last season was an abysmal season, what with how it ended with 21 losses out of their last 24 games. I don’t want a repeat of that. I want to see an improved roster - a roster that’s building towards success. With the lack of action today, even with Boyle signed and the real possibility of prospects becoming pros, I’m not really seeing how the Devils are taking a step forward unless a lot goes right in 2017-18.
Sure, it’s easy to say, “Be bad, get a good draft pick, and keep on re-building.” Sure, it’s true that the free agency class wasn’t good. Sure, it’s true that the Metropolitan Division looks like it will be really tough for a team like the Devils to make a move up in the standings. Yet, there’s not going to be a perfect time where there’s a great free agency class and one such that the right signings will propel the Devils into the wild card picture and beyond. Good general managers and good front offices will recognize the challenges and figure out ways to improve their team. Take Arizona for example. They were bold in making deals and while not every one was an unqualified success, they absolutely improved themselves to where they were back in mid-April. Here’s another example. Vancouver’s signings may not be the ones to propel them to where they want to be, but at least they made reasonable ones to maintain at least a competitive team as they reload their roster as well. Two of the teams that finished just worse than the Devils last year in the standings have reason to think 2017-18 will at least be a little better. They can tell their fans that they’re looking to improve and there’s reason to think that’s true. Shero and the Devils can’t say that; the only needs that were met were relatively minor compared to the larger ones on defense and at wing.
Given that the Devils are seriously looking at six straight playoff-less years, being able to tell the fans that progress is being made the seems rather important to me. If the young guys aren’t successful, it’s going to be really hard for the Devils to sell people on caring about another lost season. I can be as patient as anyone but it’s really hard to be without at least some progress. Not meeting glaring needs isn’t good enough.
Again, the concept of re-building is to actually build towards something. At the end of today, I cannot say the Devils are doing that. Of course, that can change as early as tomorrow. Maybe they’ll get the wingers they need somehow. Maybe they’ll get Franson or make some kind of deal for some sorely needed defensive help. Maybe there will be a big trade. Maybe Nico Hischier, Michael McLeod, Zacha, and other young players will be so successful right away that they’ll present a brighter tomorrow. Plenty of things can happen and they could make the offseason better. But today is a disappointment for its lack of action and realizing that Sherman Abrams may have to come back for 2017-18.
One last loose end: What about Ilya Kovalchuk? Where’s the trade? Well, Kovalchuk’s agent says Monday at the earliest, per Slava Malamud. As usual, it’s never simple with Ilya Kovalchuk.