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How to Handle RFA Blake Coleman?

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Now that the New Jersey Devils are officially into their offseason, one of the first tasks is to look at players with expiring contracts and try to determine who is worth keeping and who management is comfortable with letting walk. While this is a more precarious issue with unrestricted free agents, and there are a few who need to be discussed on this roster, Ray Shero and Co. also have to look at the restricted free agents coming up. Who will be worth qualifying, and who will be worth potentially a bigger contract than the qualifying offer would give? These need to be determined.

For NJ, there will be several restricted free agents, although I do not see a major name that will garner serious money. Last year, Damon Severson was a restricted free agent, and there was no doubt whatsoever that he deserved a much larger deal than his qualifying offer dictated. Shero obliged as well, because he wanted to make sure Damon remains a Devil for a while longer. He got a huge 6 year, $25 million deal, which equates to a $4.16 million cap hit per season. Considering how shallow the Devils’ blue line became this year, even with the acquisition of Sami Vatanen, it was definitely worth it, as Damon should continue to improve as well, with defenseman usually taking much longer to develop than forwards. He will now not become a UFA until after the 2022-23 season.

This year, however, there just does not seem to be someone on a similar level that Severson was last year. You have a few names that certainly need to be looked at, such as Miles Wood, Stefan Noesen, and Steven Santini, but I doubt any of those guys will be looking at huge deals above and beyond their qualifying offers, should they even receive those. I would bet that all three of those guys receive qualifying offers, and you could potentially see Noesen receive a longer deal beyond that, as he is fairly close to becoming UFA eligible. However, he is certainly not getting Severson money.

The other pending RFA that I want to look at today is Blake Coleman. Of the four RFAs I just brought up, I think his is the most interesting case, a little more so than Noesen, although I do think Noesen’s case is worth looking at. Coleman has played essentially one and a half seasons with the big club, playing in 23 games in 2016-17 before becoming a regular this year, missing only 2 games all season. And no one doubts that he was a fairly integral part of the lineup on many nights. In many ways, he defined the gritty nature that the Devils thrived on. He made himself known out on the ice even when he was not scoring, playing every shift at 110%. He is a strong forechecker, willing to get into the dirty areas, and has good top line speed. His 25 points in 79 games isn’t eye-popping at all, but for a bottom 6 forward and a strong penalty killer, he was in no way an anchor on this team.

Given that he does not have major NHL experience yet beyond this past season, generally the RFA contract would be fairly easy to discuss. This would apply to someone like Miles Wood, who is 23. A player can become a UFA when they have played 7 seasons in the league or have reached the age of 27. Wood has a lot of time before become UFA eligible, and so you can guarantee that his deal this offseason will be a fairly short one, probably a couple of years, and it will work as a bridge. Coleman, however, is in a more unique situation. Despite playing in only 102 NHL regular season games up until this point, he is already 26 years of age, and will turn 27 in November, not long after the new season starts. That means that once the 2019 offseason rolls around, even though his overall NHL experience will still be relatively low, he will be UFA eligible.

That nugget of information will force Shero to have to make some more concrete decisions about Coleman’s future in New Jersey this offseason. Whereas he can kick the can down the road with respect to someone like Miles Wood, seeing how he develops and plays over the next couple of years, he does not have that luxury with Coleman. He needs to decide if Coleman fits into NJ’s future now, given only one full season of game tape to look at, plus 23 games from the year prior. Does he give Coleman a longer deal, say 4 years or so, banking on the notion that Coleman was just a late bloomer, not realizing his true potential until after age 25? Or does he only offer Coleman a bridge deal, say only a year or two, so that he can see if what Coleman did this past season was actually legitimate? The latter is certainly the safer play, but if he does go that route, Coleman would become a UFA really soon, and could leave NJ for greener pastures if he plays out of his mind over the course of this upcoming deal. The former, longer deal gives NJ more control over his future, but also handcuffs them to him, and if it turns out he was a one year wonder like David Clarkson, then they’re stuck.

The answer to that question is not an easy one, but it is an interesting one nonetheless. You can bet that Shero will go over the numbers in lots of detail, so let’s look at some as well. While the stats below are in no way a full picture of his play, they might help armchair GMs like you and me make a better determination of what we want NJ to do. Info comes from Natural Stat Trick, and looks specifically at the 2017-18 regular season, and only 5 on 5 play. For his rankings among NJ forwards, that is among players with at least 200 minutes. 16 forwards qualify.

Before I go into the chart, it is also worth noting is that Coleman was a strong player on the penalty kill. He had the most PK minutes of any forward on the team, and only Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy had more PK minutes overall. And among those on the team with at least 100 PK minutes, he had the best GF/GA ratio. The Devils scored 6 goals with him on the ice during the PK, tied for the most on the team with Greene. But the Devs gave up 28 goals against when Greene was out there for the PK, but only gave up 19 when Coleman was out there. That is significantly better. 6 goals for and only 19 goals against when penalty killing is excellent. He was a staple of the team’s PK, and they would sorely miss him.

Now, to the chart. Overall, those numbers are pretty solid. He was fairly close to breaking even in possession, and having a CF over 49% has been quite good for a NJ forward over the past three seasons. This shows with a positive relative Corsi, a really good sign that he was more of a driver of play as opposed to a spectator. He also had essentially a luck neutral season, with his PDO at 0.999, basically exactly 1.000 which is luck neutral. So you can’t say those numbers should change in either direction due to luck.

Where the case is to be made in favor of Coleman, however, is his zone start percentage. Boy did John Hynes love to use Coleman when the team was in a sticky situation. His offensive zone faceoff percentage of just under 35% was the lowest among all forwards that played at least 200 minutes. 16th out of 16. Every other forward that played at least fairly significant minutes for this team this season had a better percentage of offensive zone draws than Coleman. That just speaks to his defensive prowess. For anyone who has praised Travis Zajac over the years for his defensive responsibility (I mean more people were knocking him for lack of offense, but still), Coleman is arguably even more defensively capable. He also happens to be less offensively inclined than Zajac as well, but if you temper your expectations offensively and expect someone who can hold their own as a forward in the defensive zone, Coleman is your guy.

To that end, I think it makes sense for Shero to explore a quality deal with Blake. I don’t mean quality in terms of a huge number, and that is the point. Because Coleman has so little NHL experience as compared to other players about to become UFAs, the number it will take to retain him won’t be terribly high. To use someone nearby who was in a similar situation, Patrick Maroon did not play more than 13 NHL games in a season until he was 26, when he played 62 for Anaheim and scored 29 points. He is also a gritty, positive attitude guy like Coleman. After that year, he was given a 2 year, $1.15 million deal, which equates to a $575k average annual value. Anaheim did not feel the need to lock him up, and gave him a short bridge deal to see what he could do. And he delivered with a decent 35 points the following year.

In my opinion, if I were Shero, I would definitely explore a 3 year deal with Coleman. That would eat up the last year before becoming a UFA, as well as 2 years of UFA eligibility. It is short enough where the Devils are not totally sunk if he becomes another Clarkson, yet long enough to have some control over his UFA years. And considering his history, they could probably get him for $1 million per year, if not a little less, like $900k. That may sound really inexpensive for someone who played a pretty good role on this team, and I think it would be totally worth it. Let him reprise his role as a strong penalty killer and defensive forward who brings a positive attitude and strong character to the locker room. Every team needs those guys in the bottom 6, and Coleman fits that role excellently.

That’s my opinion, however. What is yours? What should Ray Shero and the Devils to do about Coleman as a pending RFA? Should they only look to qualify him for a year before he hits free agency? Or, should they look to lock him up longer term? If so, how long would you be looking for? Overall, what level of importance do you place over the Coleman signing this offseason? Is it one of the bigger concerns for you, or are there other players you are more concerned about potentially leaving? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.