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A Really Early Look at the New Jersey Devils Pending Free Agents for 2018

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It may be January 2018, but with the NHL Trade Deadline in the distance and a second half of the season for players to prove themselves while dreaming for the playoffs, this post takes an early and complete look at the 2018 pending free agents for the New Jersey Devils.

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars
John Moore: Would you pay this man to stay with New Jersey?

The second half of a regular season tends to be more compelling than the first half. In the second half, the trade deadline becomes that much closer. Team management has to decide whether they’re willing to strive for the playoffs, look for that missing piece or two to become a contender, or look to sell with the intent for a better future. Last season, it was easy: the New Jersey Devils were bad and were clearly in a re-building mode. This season, there’s a real possibility that the New Jersey Devils can play some games that mean something in March and actually make the playoffs in April. Therefore, it is important that Ray Shero take a hard look at his roster to see what he should and should not do to improve it. The deals that can be made could impact the team beyond this season. Therefore, he also needs to consider who will need a new contract this summer as the deals he could make before the trade deadline at 3 PM on February 26, 2018. Today, let’s take a really early (and a long) look who’s on the salary cap and who’s contract is ending this summer.

All salaries and cap information are from CapFriendly as of January 13, 2018.

Current Situation

Currently, the New Jersey Devils have 45 standard player contracts and a projected salary cap hit of $66.6 million. This leaves the Devils with $8.3 million cap space in total. Since the salary cap needs to be compliant on a day-by-day basis until the end of the regular season, the Devils’ projected cap space for the trade deadline is a massive $38.8 million. Basically, the salary cap cost or the reserve list should not be an issue for what Shero wants to do by February 26, 2018.

There will be only 28 contracts on the books for 2018-19. So Ray Shero will be busy in this offseason, even if they are not “big” contracts. Who he does and does not trade in the coming weeks will affect it. How the team performs will definitely sway his mind as to who to re-sign and who to let go. That’s why now is a good time as any to look at what has to be done before any further moves are made.

Pending Unrestricted Free Agents on the New Jersey Devils

Shero only has five players on the books in New Jersey who are free to talk to anyone on July 1, 2018 if they are not signed before then. In reality, there’s only four unrestricted free agents (UFAs) that Shero will have to plan for in the next five months or so.

  • Forward Ryane Clowe, Cap Hit & Salary: $4.85 million
  • Forward Brian Gibbons, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way)
  • Forward Jimmy Hayes, Cap Hit & Salary: $700,000
  • Forward Drew Stafford, Cap Hit & Salary: $800,000
  • Defenseman John Moore, Cap Hit: $1.667 million, Salary: $1.95 million salary

Ryane Clowe will never play in the NHL ever again. He has not since November 6, 2014, when he suffered a concussion in a game against St. Louis. He has not been cleared to play since then and retired before the 2015-16 season. Clowe is now an assistant coach for the Devils. Clowe’s contract ending is mostly a non-factor for Shero. All it means is that will have an additional $4.85 million of cap space to work with for next summer.

The other four have not been big-money players on the team. Only John Moore made seven figures this season and only Moore was actually signed prior to this season. Arguably, only two of these players could be argued that they are worth keeping around for 2018-19.

The Devils signed Drew Stafford in August 2017 with the intent of providing some experience and a scoring touch to the right wing position. Jimmy Hayes was brought in first on a professional try out contract and was signed on October 1; he was signed primarily to add depth to the right wing position. Both Stafford and Hayes have found themselves outside of the lineup more often than not in recent weeks. The emergence of Jesper Bratt plus the performances from Stefan Noesen have played a big part of that. That Stafford and Hayes have not took advantage of opportunities to play have also played a role.

This is not to say that Stafford and Hayes have done nothing at all. Stafford has averaged at least two shots per game in the 30 games he has played prior to Saturday’s game in addition to five goals and three assists. Hayes has put up three goals and six assists from a depth role, which is about right from a production point of view. Yet, neither have done well at all from a shot attempt or a shot differential perspective. Neither really push the play forward or push it at all. Stafford has even become surplus on the power play, where the coaching staff has found nine forwards. Unless John Hynes wants to rotate some players around or someone gets hurt, both could be scratches for most of the remaining part of this season. In that sense, I do not see much value for Ray Shero to re-sign either player. That would mean the Devils still have a need at right wing just for depth purposes. But that should be OK this summer.

On the other hand, Brian Gibbons has done a whole lot to get that next contract. Who would have thought of this when the 28 year old (now 29) was signed to a two-way contract back in July 2017? He only had appeared in 66 NHL games and hundreds of AHL games after going undrafted. I did not predict he would make the New Jersey Devils out of training camp. Nobody predicted he would shoot at over 20% for a half of a season on his way to piling up twelve goals (with three shorthanded goals!). Nobody also predicted he’d help create ten goals by now too. Gibbons has made the most of his opportunity to not only be a regular in the lineup, but also a mainstay on the penalty kill. He’s one of the most positive surprises of this season. He has not scored since December 12 and so the Devils are getting to see what Gibbons is like when his stick is not hot. He’s not been particularly great in the run of play, but he has been an asset on the PK. In my view, Gibbons has done more than enough to at least be given the security of a one-way contract. I certainly would not mind him sticking around for another year in the bottom six in New Jersey. I doubt how much he can provide in the long term, but I’m confident he will be a NHL player in 2018-19.

The biggest name among the pending UFAs is John Moore. John Moore had a career year from a production standpoint in 2016-17. In 63 games (largely thanks to Tom Wilson), Moore put up twelve goals and ten assists. So far in this season, Moore has six goals and six assists; he has a chance at matching last season’s total. While the production has been nice, the actual performance as a defenseman has been less so. Despite what the points suggest, Moore has never really been an offensive player. Attempts were made to have him on a power play unit and those attempts flopped. He’s been notably good in 3-on-3; except it hasn’t been “Moore-vertime” in months.

Most of all, when he’s been on the ice, the other team tends to attack and quite a lot. Moore’s 5-on-5 SA/60 rate was the highest among Devils defensemen in 2015-16 and 2016-17. He’s not the worst in this stat in this season (he’s just behind Andy Greene and Mirco Mueller’s 13 games were sieve-like), but his rate is around the 32-34 range, like it was those two seasons. It is not a coincidence that when Moore’s on the ice, the other team is firing away more often. Even if we want to take into account whether they are scoring chances, it means that Moore is forced to play a lot of defense and the opposition is getting a lot of pucks on net in spite of it. Moore has struggled at turning that around in past seasons with New Jersey. In those two seasons, his CF% was solidly in the red. In 2017-18, his CF% has been higher than where it was in those two seasons; he’s actually right below 50% as of this writing. That’s nice to see. It is also a sign that perhaps he’s sorted it out. It’s also not a coincidence his CF% has risen with the help of his common partners of Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen this season. This season could very well be Moore’s best season in New Jersey. At the same time, he is part of the reason why the Devils defense has allowed so many shots in recent seasons.

Moore could command quite a good pay day if he keeps producing. He’s 27 and entering a free agent market that isn’t loaded with a lot of quality under-30 UFA defensemen. With few defensive prospects in the system and fewer defenders on the market, the Devils may not be able to easily make an improvement at left defense. It would not be the worst idea to hope Moore is willing to stay a little longer (and for at least $2 million) before the Devils have a proper replacement. That said, if a deal is available to get an upgrade on the left side, then Moore can go hit the market all he wants. A lot will depend on how Moore plays out the second half of this season. This could be the most difficult free agency-related decision Shero may have to make in 2018. Keep an eye on Moore throughout the next few months.

Pending Restricted Free Agents on the New Jersey Devils

Restricted free agents (RFA) are the free agents that can have their rights retained by the team just by qualifying them. Those players tend to be younger and it is not uncommon for bridge deals or “show me” deals to be made before any big contracts are made. You can expect the Devils to keep pretty much all of these players. For how much and how long will be the challenge as the idea is to give them a worthy contract without tying up too much cap space. New Jersey has four of these players who are pending RFA’s.

  • Forward Blake Coleman, Cap Hit & Salary: $660,000 (Two-way)
  • Forward Stefan Noesen, Cap Hit & Salary: $660,000 (Two-way)
  • Forward Miles Wood, Cap Hit & Salary: $925,000 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Defenseman Steve Santini, Cap Hit & Salary: $925,000 (Entry Level Contract)

With salaries this low, qualifying each of these players will not be that costly. The actual contracts may be larger, but Shero could probably use the $4.85 million that Clowe’s contract will free up to spend on these four players. Let’s discuss them a little more.

I like Blake Coleman a lot this season. You can the read the link as to how much of an asset he has been on the penalty kill and how decent he has been in 5-on-5 play. Stefan Noesen has been a solid bottom-six winger. His performances have kept Stafford and/or Hayes out of the lineup in past weeks and he’s been one of New Jersey’s better CF% players. Both have been good role players on a Devils team that has thrived so far this season because of them. Both players also have arbitration rights, which could force a deal to happen if it’s not immediately done. The Devils haven’t been actually taken to an arbitration hearing in years and I’d be surprised if either even goes that route. I could see the Devils giving both Noesen and Coleman one-way deals with increases in pay for a year or two. The two aren’t such exceptional bottom-six players that they have to be locked up; but they have certainly earned more time in New Jersey.

Miles Wood is an example of an improving player who is up for a new deal. He’s no longer a solely speedy winger who just chases down pucks and doesn’t have a clue what defense is. While Wood could stand to make gains, he has backchecked more frequently. While Wood needs to take fewer minor penalties (he leads the team right now with 16), he has stepped back from being a fighter as he only has one major penalty this season after six last season. While Wood’s shot has never been the best, he has used it more often. Last season, Wood took 105 shots in 60 games for an average of 1.75 per game. This season, Wood is third on the team in shots on net prior to Saturday’s game. His 81 in 40 games averages out to just over two per game. While Wood may not be a great driver of play, his CF% has jumped from an abysmal 41.4% CF% last season to a more respectable (but still in the red) 48.1% this season. Wood has benefited from some more breaks; but he has already surpassed last season’s scoring totals with eleven goals and and eight assists. Wood has made gains from his rookie season. The big question is how much more can/will Wood improve? As it stands, Wood is a solid bottom-six winger. More improvements would yield more value - and could result in Wood looking not out of place on a second line for a bit of time. Wood is 22 so he’s not going to make massive gains, but further refinements and coaching could make him even better in the next couple years. As it stands, I think Wood is a perfect candidate for a bridge deal. Something like a two-year, $4-ish million deal would allow the Devils to get a better idea of what Wood will become while also respecting what Wood has done given how he has been used.

Steve Santini is a more interesting case. Last season, Santini jumped into pro hockey with Albany and ended up playing 38 games with New Jersey. This season, Santini has appeared in 36 games and most of them have been with Andy Greene on the team’s top pairing. It’s to the point where Santini has not even played fifty minutes with any other defender in 5-on-5 situations. John Hynes and his staff threw Santini into the deep end this season with an offensive zone start percentage of just 28.19%, plenty of shifts against the other team’s best players, and loads of penalty killing time (second to Greene in PK TOI). The penalty killing performance hasn’t been that bad. The 5-on-5 play has been rough. The good news is that the goaltenders have stopped about 93.5% of all of the shots against them when Santini’s been on the ice. The bad news is that the ice has been heavy tilted against the Devils when Santini’s on the ice. The Greene-Santini pairing has yielded a CF% of 39%. That’s terrible. Worse, population size aside, Santini has been even worse without Greene (37% CF%!) than Greene has been without Santini (48% CF%). What this means is that Santini has been given difficult situations and has been drowning in them. The coaches really needed to help him out and I hope one day they do recognize that if only so Santini is not a totally overwhelmed defenseman on most nights.

It has helped that Santini is not just a man who is thought to do only one thing. While he’ll never been an offensive threat, Santini has averaged over a shot per game and has put up ten points already. Santini is fairly mobile. He isn’t a penalty machine despite the significant minutes he has played. There really is no evidence that Santini is a top pairing defenseman now and not much to suggest that he would be. But he is at least a NHL-quality right-side defenseman and I like his future more than, say, previous second-round defenseman-prospect hopefuls like Jon Merrill or Eric Gelinas. Again, Santini is a RFA so it is not a question of whether he’ll get a new deal - just how much will it be. I could see a bridge deal being made. I could also see Shero trying for a longer deal to lock up the right side of the defense (Severson, Vatanen, Santini, Lovejoy, and Mueller for next season). It could go either way. I would not anticipate a very expensive deal though. While Santini has played quite a lot, he has not done something notable numbers-wise to command a lot of money. If he plays in a smaller role for most of this half of this season (like he should), then that hurts a bit. He’ll get a raise for sure, but he’s not going to get an excessive amount.

Again, all told, $4.85 million from Clowe could take care of all four of these RFAs and leave some room for the many contracts who are in Binghamton right now.

The Free Agents in Binghamton

In order for a player to be called up from the minors, they have to have a NHL contract. Like any contract, they also expire and they require attention. The Devils have been fortunate that they have not had to have make many call-ups. I can only recall two from the first half of this season and only Nick Lappin actually played in a game. While there’s a good chance most of these players will remain in the AHL next season, Shero will have to decide if it worth keeping any of these ten free agents on the reserve list for a potential call-up in the future.

UFAs

  • Forward Bracken Kearns, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $225,000 salary in AHL)
  • Forward Michael Latta, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $100,000 salary in AHL)
  • Defenseman Brian Strait, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $235,000 salary in AHL)
  • Goaltender Eddie Lack, Cap Hit: $2,750,000, Salary: $3,000,000 (Carolina deferred money in a previous transaction, so it shows up less on NJ’s cap)

RFAs

  • Forward Nick Lappin: Cap Hit: $842,500 & Salary: $750,000 (Two-way, $70,000 salary in AHL; Entry Level Contract)
  • Forward Kevin Rooney: Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $70,000 salary in AHL)
  • Forward Ben Thomson: Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $70,000 salary in AHL)
  • Defenseman Michael Kapla: Cap Hit: $925,000, Salary: $832,500 (Two-way, $70,000 salary in AHL; Entry Level Contract)
  • Defenseman Viktor Loov: Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $150,000 salary in AHL)
  • Goaltender Ken Appleby: Cap Hit: Cap Hit: $635,000, Salary: $650,000 (Two-way, $55,000 salary in AHL; Entry Level Contract)

Since these players have performed almost entirely in Binghamton, it would be worthwhile to check up on what Jeff has been writing about the B-Devils. He will have his 2nd Quarter grades up soon, so check that out.

Anyway, from a New Jersey perspective, there isn’t a ton of reason to keep most of these players around. The pending UFAs are all veterans of the system. Strait and Kearns were signed back in July with the intent of beefing up the minor league team. Strait is an veteran with some NHL experience, but as I understand it, he hasn’t been exceptional with Binghamton. Kearns is Binghamton’s sole AHL All-Star representative, which is good. He’s also 36 so I do not see a lot of longetivity there. The team acquired Michael Latta in a trade; like Shane Prince last season, unless he thrives in Binghamton, I don’t see much of a reason to keep him around. Eddie Lack is the interesting one. He has NHL experience and he’s back in the organization with the same goaltender coach where he broke through into the NHL. The Devils acquired him in part because both Ken Appleby and Mackenzie Blackwood have been rather poor this season. With Keith Kinkaid signed for another year, Lack isn’t going to seriously challenge for the #2 spot. I don’t know how much of a pay cut Lack is willing to take to be the #3 man in New Jersey for at least season. If his goal is to get back into the NHL, then he would have to look elsewhere. I could see all four of these players being free and being replaced in some regard for next season.

Let’s look at the RFAs. The Devils have been loaded with defensemen this season and even with a few injuries, would Kapla or Loov even be among the first choices for a call up? Kevin Rooney and Ben Thomson had a few chances in 2016-17 and shown very little reason to suggest they belong in the NHL. Nick Lappin did get a call up but as he’s 25, he is who he is at this point. The goaltending in Binghamton has been so rough that the team traded for Eddie Lack. I don’t have a lot of confidence in a future for Ken Appleby. As they’re RFAs and they may be at least useful in the AHL, I could see the purpose of giving a number of them a NHL deal just to keep them around as further depth in the organization and in the A. How many? It depends on what the needs would be.

Another variable is who could be coming in with a NHL deal. As I understand it, the only junior players that I would think would go pro next year at a minimum are forward Michael McLeod and defenseman Colby Sissons. That’s two and I would think New Jersey would want to ensure there is a spot for each in the AHL next season. Defenseman Jacob MacDonald has also broken out this season with the B-Devils; it may be enough to warrant giving him a NHL contract just to see if he progresses further. Those are three additional adds to the list, which could drive three departures.

So What Does This All Mean for the Trade Deadline and the Rest of This Season?

It means that the Devils do not have much in the way of dealing away an expiring contract for a major deal. Minor league deals, sure. Shero has done a couple of those this season and could do a few more. But there isn’t a “name” player in New Jersey where Shero has to decide whether to deal in the near future for not much, or risk losing them for nothing later. The Devils are short on left side defensemen on the depth chart so I don’t see them dealing Moore away. Especially if the Devils are aiming to go for the playoffs.

I would also caution against going after making big additions. To get Marcus Johansson, the team moved a Florida’s second round pick and Toronto’s third round pick in 2018. The Devils sent their own 2018 third round pick in the Henrique/Vatanen trade. The 2018 draft class should be a good one. I’m not so sure that the 2018-19 Devils can do what the 2017-18 Devils have done so far. I would rather them use their own 2018 first and second round picks to keep growing their prospect system.

With Moore on an expiring deal, the Devils would need to address left defense. They should do so anyway because Andy Greene is not getting any younger and there is no real replacement for him yet. The Devils may also need to add a right winger or two to replace what Stafford/Hayes has been as depth on top of any other need in Binghamton. Between the cap space they have now and that their RFAs will not likely command a ton of money together, the Devils are in a position to make a big splash in free agency. They could be in the John Carlson sweepstakes. Whether they should be is a different question, but it is at least possible. As for right wingers, there are more options for bottom-six caliber players to fill out a roster that should have Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt in the top six.

The good news is that Shero will have plenty of decisions but the core that has formed this season will remain in place for next season. Cory Schneider is still your #1 goalie. Taylor Hall will still lead the Devils up front. Kyle Palmieri and Damon Severson are locked up for a while. Nico Hischier, Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Will Butcher are still on ELC contracts. There will be more to decide after 2018-19, but a lot can and will happen before those decisions will come.

Your Take

I know it’s January 14 and I’m talking about things for the summer. With the NHL Trade Deadline coming ever closer and a second half of the season beginning, Ray Shero and his staff are surely considering how to approach their upcoming group of free agents. As such, it is a good time as any to consider it ourselves. So what do you think of the team’s impending free agents? Who do you want the Devils to keep among their UFAs? How much would you give the impending RFAs? What do you do with the players in Binghamton? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team’s pending free agents for 2018 in the comments. Thank you for reading.

By the way, the most important free agent isn’t in this post as he’s not a player. We’ll discuss him soon enough.