On Friday morning, the New Jersey Devils announced that they have signed Drew Stafford to a one-year, one-way, $800,000 contract. The Devils added to their right wing depth by bringing the 31-year old (he’ll be 32 on Halloween) on-board for 2017-18. While training camp and preseason are a few weeks away, it should be expected that Stafford at least starts in New Jersey in this season since they did sign him to a one-way contract. How does he fit into the roster? Let’s break it down.
First and foremost, Stafford is a right winger. Prior to his signing, the Devils’ right wing depth appeared to be Kyle Palmieri, Stefan Noesen, and a bunch of hopefuls and position changes. Marcus Johansson has the ability to play in all three forward positions; I figured he would be used on his off-wing. Blake Speers made the team last season out of training camp and played in a few games at right wing before going back to junior. Nick Lappin has played right wing for most of his 43 games with the Devils last season. Michael McLeod was a center with Mississauga, but with his right handed shot, I do not think it would be unreasonable to think he could be used on the right side. And there are other off-wing possibilities such as John Quenneville. Last and not least, the team did invite Jimmy Hayes to camp on a PTO. Hayes is a right winger and has primarily played on the third and fourth lines in his career. In other words, the depth was: Palmieri, possibly Johansson, Noesen, possibly Speers if he’s good enough in camp, possibly Lappin if he’s good enough in camp, possibly McLeod if the Devils want him at RW and is good enough in camp, possibly Quenneville or other players playing off-wing, and possibly Hayes if he impresses as a PTO. That’s a lot of possibilities. It isn’t a possibility Stafford can be a RW in the NHL. The team’s depth at that position is now more solid. If nothing else, I think this was a big reason why he was signed at all.
Second, Stafford can play on a power play unit. Per NHL.com, Stafford has been a member of his team’s power play units throughout his entire career. He’s averaged at least minute per game on the man advantage. Until this past season, Stafford averaged at least two minutes of power play time per game for eight straight seasons. Per Natural Stat Trick, Stafford has been able to contribute shots, attempts, and chances in power play situations. Not to the level of where he was in 2013-14, but it was not nothing either. With Travis Zajac out for several months and Jacob Josefson signed elsewhere, the team could use a forward to be on the power play. Stafford addresses that gap.
Third, Stafford came cheaply and with an incentive of sorts. The 2017-18 Devils are a long shot at best to contend for a playoffs. Their chances took hit with Zajac’s injury. Even if it is not a full-on, Sherman Abrams-approved tank job, it makes sense for the Devils to avoid pricey free agents for short-term deals. I can agree that, say, Jaromir Jagr would provide more value. But why spend millions - which is what Jagr wants - for a non-first line winger for a year when you can have one-year at $800,000 to fill in a gap as the team tries to progress? Additionally, it is easier to move such a contract at a trade deadline.
What’s the incentive? For Stafford to get his career back on track. He has every reason to put in a great effort with New Jersey and not just because he’ll be a free agent again next year. To understand that, let’s go into what he has done as a player.
What Has Stafford Done?
Prior to the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Stafford was a legitimate secondary scoring forward for Buffalo. For whatever reason, the production never returned to the level he displayed in 2010-11 and 2011-12. While his in-season trade to Winnipeg was successful in 2013-14 and his 21-goal 2014-15 was not too bad, the scoring just dropped last season. He was dealt for a conditional sixth-rounder to Boston and proceeded to put up four goals, four assists, and 41 shots in 18 games. That wouldn’t be too bad except in 40 games with Winnipeg last season, he put up only four goals, nine assists, and 68 shots. Stafford was primarily kept in the bottom six for both teams; PuckIQ lists his competition as largely being against the middle and lowest (gritensity) levels. He did well enough in the run of play against the lowest tier, but he did not against that middle tier. Hardly support for the notion of being a second-liner winger.
In fact, Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz tweeted out this three-season summary of Stafford’s career when the Devils announced his signing. (Note: You’d have to normally be a supporter of HockeyViz to get access as he has them for every player, but Dr. McCurdy likes to give away his stuff so, thanks, Micah!)
Drew Stafford (signed with NJ) has put up 3rd line results in fairly generous usage. pic.twitter.com/UTlze8GhpN— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) August 25, 2017
There’s a lot to digest in this Tweet, but it points to Dr. McCurdy’s conclusion: Stafford is a third-line caliber player. His ice time is consistent with most third liners; he only rose above the threshold due to PK time that he may or may not get in New Jersey. His even strength scoring is on the level of a third liner player. His power play scoring rates are enough to be with the average second-unit power player (and based on New Jersey’s power play last season, that alone may make him qualified for the Devils’ first unit). His competition and teammates are typically within the middle of lineups: second and third lines. He really does belong in the middle of a set of forward lines.
Unfortunately for Stafford, there are plenty of players who could handle that role. As Stafford is now in his thirties and he does not have a lot going from a production standpoint, he’s not the sort of player that draws a lot of interest. His salad days of being a 20-goal scorer and a solid winger are in the past. The league knows this. Again, he was traded for a conditional sixth round pick earlier this year. He was a free agent as of August 24, 2017. A poor 2017-18 could mean the end of his time in the NHL.
Fortunately, he’ll get a chance to show that he has something left in the tank with the Devils in 2017-18. Primarily on the team’s third line.
That All Said, Where Do You Place Stafford?
Without getting into drafting an entire 23-man roster ahead of training camp, this is how I see the team’s depth at right wing. Kyle Palmieri will remain as the team’s top RW. I think Marcus Johansson will be used on his off-wing as filling in the second line left wing spot may be easier than the right wing spot. Stafford can fit in right below Johansson among the RW’s to be the team’s third line right winger. Noesen will likely join Brian Boyle as the team’s fourth line right wing spot. Palmieri, Johansson, Stafford, Noesen. In my opinion, that’s your top four.
As for the power play, with Zajac out, the Devils could put together a four-forward unit of Adam Henrique at center, Kyle Palmieri, Stafford, Taylor Hall, and Damon Severson. Henrique would take the draws and then swing out to the half-boards. Palmieri can be a point-man to utilize his slapshot. Hall and Severson can distribute. Stafford can be in the middle to clean things up like Zajac did. This is pretty much putting all of the eggs in one basket, but it is at least an idea for the Devils to consider during preseason.
What About the Those Young, Potential Right Wingers?
I don’t think this signing really blocks them out. For starters, there will be injuries and needs for call-ups. A player starting in Binghamton doesn’t mean a player will stay there. I expect Speers, Lappin, and McLeod to get plenty of attention in camp. However, it was only a possibility that either make New Jersey’s squad out of camp. For Speers, he’s coming off an injury-shortened season and while he got a few games last year, it does not necessairly mean he’ll get them now. He’s twenty now and will turn twenty-one in January. So unless I’m missing something, he’s eligible to begin his career in pro hockey with Binghamton where he’ll likely receive more ice time to grow as a player. For McLeod, I only guessed he could be a right winger based on his shooting hand. For all I know, the Devils see him as a future center. If he does break into the NHL - which isn’t a lock, he could very well go back to the OHL - it may not be at the wing position. And it’s an open question whether McLeod will go back to major junior hockey; I see him as being in this Zacha-like area where he may be too good for juniors but too raw yet for the NHL. With Zacha, the Devils kept him in the NHL. We’ll see if they’ll do it again for McLeod. All the same, rather than rely on a hope that either is ready for the best league in the world out of this Fall’s training camp, the Devils can have Speers and McLeod develop a bit more. When they’re closer to being ready, then the Devils can make the space needed or use them when the opportunity arises.
As for Lappin, he did play in 43 games with New Jersey last season. I think the Devils know what they have in him. Given that Lappin is already twenty-four and will turn twenty-five at the start of November, I doubt he really is going to improve all that much as a player. Last season, he put up four goals, three assists, averaged 1.32 shots per game (57 shots in 43 games), and put up poor on-ice numbers in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. There is not much to get hyped for Lappin, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s seen as only a depth winger. That’s what he did when he received over a half-season’s worth of games in the NHL. I think we’ll see him at some point in 2017-18, to be called up as needed.
I will agree that if Speers, Lappin, and/or McLeod impress in camp or during 2017-18, then I could see them getting a shot regardless of Stafford. They could even move Johansson back to left wing if they need space that badly, even if it means a less-than-ideal fit for Stafford or someone else. Of course, if/when players get banged up, then the next man up will come up and it could be them.
One Last Question: Couldn’t Beau Bennett Do All This?
Yeah. Beau Bennett would have cost the Devils about the same (or less) and do it while already knowing what John Hynes wants. He also has the added bonus of not getting killed in the run of play if his CF% was to go by last season, he’s not over thirty, and he was a part of New Jersey’s power play last season too. Alas, they let him walk.
How do you see Stafford on the Devils? Do you think he’ll be the third line right winger and play on the power play? How would you construct the lines knowing that? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Stafford in the comments. Thank you for reading.