It may appear to be too soon to look ahead to next season. However, it is the interest of any general manager and any organization to look ahead beyond just the upcoming season. While the salary cap may go up, roster and contract limits remain the same and who is on the books today can impact what can be done in the future. Therefore, let’s take a look at what the Devils may be facing ahead of July 1, 2018.
I do know it is the middle of August 2017. That’s almost a whole year away. However, the New Jersey Devils are almost done with their offseason. All that is really left to do is to re-sign Damon Severson, hope for Will Butcher, perhaps bring in a couple players on a professional try out for camp, and then have training camp in September. Yes, there could be some signed players in the interim and certainly some trades that lead to some changes. For the most part, the players who can and will make up 2017-18 Devils roster are in the organization right now. By next Summer, decisions will have to be made.
While you and I may think the Devils aren’t ready to push for the playoffs just yet, there is good reason for many on this roster to push for a good season regardless. There are a number of players in the organization who are up for new contracts in addition players looking to secure a regular spot. A good 2017-18 season for them will be crucial for their future with the Devils or in the NHL - regardless of how the Devils perform overall.
The Pending New Jersey Free Agents or A Chance to Re-Do the D
Restricted: RW Stefan Noesen, LW Miles Wood, D Steve Santini, D Michael Kapla, RW Nick Lappin
I’m stretching by calling Lappin a NHL player, but he did play in 43 games last season. It is not out of the realm of possibility he’s in New Jersey for at significant part of the coming season. I’m also stretching by including Michael Kapla, who the Devils signed out of UMass-Lowell and appeared in five games for New Jersey. It is not guaranteed that he makes the New Jersey roster among Santini, Mirco Mueller, Yaroslav Dablenko, and others. But if both Kapla and Lappin stick around in New Jersey and contribute, then it’s a safe bet you’ll see them get new contracts in July.
The more interesting names are Noesen, Wood, and Santini. Noesen showed to be a competent bottom-six winger and he plays a position of need on the Devils: right wing. As he’s 24, he makes a little over the league minimum at $660,000, he’ll be one year shy of becoming arbitration eligible, and so the Devils can do as they wish with him. I think if Noesen plays well enough, he could be retained and at a fairly low value. If not, then the Devils can simply not qualify him and move on. With Wood and Santini, both showed various levels of promise in 2016-17. Wood had flashes of being a speedy winger who can threaten off the rush and provide some physical play. He has a lot to improve from his off the puck play, his defensive game, when to use that speed, and when to get nasty. I do think the 21-year old can make those improvements. If he does, he’ll get a more substantial second contract. As for Santini, while his offensive game will be limited, he has shown to be a fairly agile defender. He does not handle and pass pucks like their grenades or relies entirely on chipping the puck up and off the glass. I’d like to see more from him and I’d like to think the Devils will give him the opportunity to do so. Should he rise to the challenge, then Santini stands to get a pretty nice raise. I can see Wood and Santini being kept even if 2017-18 goes poorly for them. How they perform will determine whether it’s a more lucrative bridge contract or a slight raise or similar-paying “show me” contract.
Unrestricted: D John Moore, D Dalton Prout, RW Ryane Clowe
Let’s look at Clowe first. He’s not playing hockey. He’s an assistant coach. He’s on the team’s staff. 2017-18 is the last year of his contract, which carried a cap hit of $4.85 million. The Devils will have that space freed up. The Devils can use that money almost entirely to re-sign the aforementioned RFAs. Should the salary cap rise for 2018, then the Devils have even more leeway to sign players to improve the roster.
Adding to that leeway is that the Devils can just let Moore and Prout go. The Devils can free up two spots on their blueline for potentially better players, whether they are prospective players or free agent signings in 2018. Prout was picked up in exchange for Kyle Quincey in 2017 with the intent that he could be bait for the Las Vegas expansion draft. Prout wasn’t picked in that draft and now the Devils have a right-handed defenseman that adds very little to the team with a $1.575 million cap hit. The Devils can let him go for nothing in July 2018. Moore has done, well, more than Prout. He had a pleasantly-surprising 12-goal, 10-assist 2016-17 campaign. However, he has never shot as high as 11.8% before that season, he’s never been a prolific attacker or shooter as he’s not come close to averaging 1.5 shots per game, and when he steps on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the offense tended to go against the Devils - and quite a lot per Natural Stat Trick. Really, he had the worst SF% among the Devils defenders per Natural Stat Trick, beating Ben Lovejoy by quite a bit. Moore is in this odd spot where his play is like a third-pairing defender but in New Jersey, he has to do more because no one else has really been able to take those minutes. For a cap hit of $1.667 million, Moore is not costly. But I don’t see much of a reason for the Devils to keep the 26-year old around. They should aim for a left-handed defender who can handle top-four quality minutes or at least put up a SF% closer 50% than 40% to take his spot.
So this is kind of exciting. The Devils just have to endure another season of Moore, Prout will likely bounce in and out of the lineup, and then they can move on. They’ll have to spend or acquire defenders to replace them. But change is coming and change for this aspect of the team would be good.
In general, the Devils do not have any potentially expensive contracts to hand out among their own free agents. Unless they really want to lock up Santini and Wood (or retain Moore for some reason), the Devils will not have to spend too much internally. They can really use the cap space they will have on the open market in July 2018 to strengthen the roster.
The Pending Binghamton Free Agents or The Usual Business
Restricted: C/LW Blake Coleman, C Kevin Rooney, RW Ryan Kujawinski, LW Ben Thomson, D Viktor Loov, G Scott Wedgewood, G Ken Appleby
With all due respect to Jeff, Alicia, and those who follow the AHL closely, these players will have the incentive to really show that deserve to belong in the organization. Players like Kujawinski and Appleby may truly be on the outs; a healthy Wedgewood and a potential goalie-of-the-future in MacKenzie Blackwood will certainly make the situation tough for Appleby. With Evan Cormier going professional after 2017-18 and Gilles Senn in the distance, the Devils could really revamp their professional goaltending depth if they wanted to. Wedgewood may be safer if he returns to form with the B-Devils. Appleby, well, he’s going to really have to prove he belongs. Kujawinski, on the other hand, will have to show that he’s at least an AHL regular to stick around. Even then, it may be on an AHL deal instead of a NHL deal.
New Jersey gave some games to Coleman, Rooney, and Thomson last season. Based on their short time with the NHL team combined with their lack of impressive numbers with Albany last season, I do not really have a lot of hope for them as being future NHL players. They could serve a purpose in the AHL and they each will have the incentive to that in Binghamton. It may require re-signing one or all three to another NHL contract to keep them with Binghamton beyond this season, but it may be worth it if they provide the structure the B-Devils need to succeed. We’ll see.
The name that sticks out to me Loov. You’d think that with the state of the team and especially their defense, that as many people should get at least a shot at the NHL roster. And the 2016-17 Devils did that. Loov, who the Devils acquired during last season, did not get that opportunity. I’m curious to see if he can play well enough to get on the depth chart to get some games in. He’s only played in four games with Toronto in 2015-16 and I can’t really speak to how he did then. So he’s a question mark. Maybe he’s someone the Devils could use for the future? Maybe he’s just depth fodder like Seth Helgeson and Karl Stollery were last season? I don’t know. If he doesn’t get a chance for even a little time in New Jersey, then I can see the Devils cutting him loose short of being a great defender in Binghamton.
Unrestricted: D Brian Strait, C Bracken Kearns, C Brian Gibbons
These three are AHL veterans that were signed back on July 1 with the intent of strengthening the Binghamton roster. I presume they were given NHL contracts in part to entice them to sign. There’s an outside chance we could see Strait and Gibbons in New Jersey. Gibbons was a former Penguin and Blue Jacket; the 29-year old forward did play in 66 NHL games between 2013-14 and 2014-15. The defenseman, Strait, has 187 games in his career and appeared in 47, 52, and 52 games in three seasons with the Islanders from 2013-14 to 2015-16. He didn’t get nearly as many opportunities with Winnipeg last season. Kearns has made some spot appearances in the last two seasons with the Isles and has a total of 35 games of experience. I would not expect much of anything outside of just being fill-ins as needed. How they do with the B-Devils will help determine whether they can get a second contract here or another AHL/NHL deal elsewhere. Still, these are minor moves at the end of the day from New Jersey’s perspective.
Potential Buyouts & Extensions
There are a number of players who will be entering the last year of their contract after the 2017-18 season. As of July 1, the Devils can sign any player entering the final year of his contract to a new contract provided the original deal was a not year deal. The Devils do have a number of non-ELC players who fit this category. On the flip side, there is one player the Devils may want to consider buying out prior to next July:
Potential Buyouts: D Ben Lovejoy
Ben Lovejoy was bad for the Devils last season. At 32 years old, Lovejoy has demonstrated that he isn’t fast, he certainly doesn’t add to much that resembles attacking, and it’s questionable how supportive he has been. A decade or so ago, a defender like Lovejoy would be more of an asset. But I think his style of play is on the outs and it doesn’t really mesh with what the Devils are trying to build - and what I think the Devils should be building for. After 2017-18, he’ll have one year left on his contract. With a $2.667 million cap hit, the Devils could save about $916,666 over the two-year penalty and free up another spot on defense. They would have to replace him; I think it’s worth considering if someone more suitable is available.
Potential Extensions: C/LW Adam Henrique, C/LW/RW Marcus Johansson, C Brian Boyle, G Keith Kinkaid, C/LW Pavel Zacha, D Mirco Mueller
The earliest the Devils can sign these players to extensions would be July 1. It may not be worthwhile to try to re-sign Johansson, Boyle, and Mueller right away. They would be coming off their first seasons with the Devils. Even if it was a great season, the last thing Shero would want to do is to lock them up after an excessively good season that they can’t live up to again. That said, if there’s any of the three I’d like to see the Devils lock up for a longer term, then it would be Johansson. It would solidify the top six for a little longer provided he plays like he did with the Caps in New Jersey.
Kinkaid and Henrique are more or less known quantities. The Devils re-signed Kinkaid to secure goaltending tandem for another two seasons. I don’t really see any value in extending Kinkaid unless the Devils really want to keep him around. I’d like to hope that by next Summer, there’s an understanding of whether Blackwood or someone else should be given a chance. As it stands, I think Kinkaid will play through his contract and the Devils will make a decision then. Henrique is a more interesting question. I think he’s increasingly expendable. He could be 29 and hitting the open market in 2019 where he could really cash in; it might take quite a bit to convince him to stay anyway. However, a really good 2017-18 season from him and an improving roster could give the both parties reasons to keep him in New Jersey beyond the following season. It might be an awkward fit depending on how Nico Hischier, Michael McLeod, Johansson, and Zacha fare; but it’s better to keep good players than to let them go. It’s up in the air at this moment; this upcoming season may be a bit more important for Henrique’s future than one may initially think.
I’m not going to go through every entry level contract that is ending after 2018-19, but there is one important extension: Zacha. Zacha was thrown into the fire that is the NHL in 2016-17 and the hope is that he has grown from it. With Hischier, McLeod, and other prospects coming up to New Jersey, it’s tempting to think Zacha could just be making up the numbers. I think he has a lot of potential, but the next two seasons will be about whether he starts meeting that potential. Like with Wood and Santini for next Summer, a second contract is all but guaranteed. How he plays will determine what it would be. Should Zacha break out and establish himself as one of the team’s better forwards even in this coming season, I could see the Devils re-upping his deal earlier than next July.
A Final Observation
The main players that will be signed beyond 2018 who won’t be having expiring contracts for 2019 are pretty much the core of the team: Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Andy Greene, and Cory Schneider. While I don’t want to rule out any other shake ups, this the group that Shero is building around for better or worse. There are plenty of prospects in the mix as Hischier, McLeod, Blake Speers, Brandon Gignac, Nathan Bastian, Colton White, Jesper Bratt, Blackwood, and Colby Sissons all have ELCs ending in 2020. As intriguing and as important some of these prospective players are, there really is a lot of room for Shero to play around with. The team is re-building and should things not go according to play over the next season or even 2018-19, Shero will have the flexibility to make further changes. That’s an additional bonus in addition to all of the cap and roster space the Devils established now and will likely have by next July.
Everyone else - and it’s a large group - will really have to prove their worth in this coming season to either get a shot for the following season or even get a contract of sorts at all. That is a reason, in a way, to get excited for 2017-18. If nothing else, there’s plenty of incentive to have a better product on the ice from several players even if it is only based out of self-interest.
While it is August 2017 and a whole season ahead, it is worth looking ahead to the following season to get an idea of what decisions have to be made in the not-so-distant future. What do you think the Devils need to look for with the following offseason in mind? Who do you think has the most to prove for their next contract, whether it is in 2018 or an extension to go beyond 2019? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the future in the comments. Thank you for reading.