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An Updated 2018 Free Agency Primer for the New Jersey Devils

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The offseason is now here for the New Jersey Devils. As such, the focus turns to free agency. With new pending free agents acquired and word about how much Ray Shero can spend (a lot), this is a primer for what the Devils may face in free agency this year.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
“Paid? I’d like to get paid real well.”
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It is now the offseason. As such, attention is going to be paid to what the New Jersey Devils will do with their roster to become a better team for 2018-19 and seasons beyond it. As CJ wrote last Wednesday, the Devils, rightly or wrongly, will have a new set of expectations for next season after making the playoffs in 2017-18. A whole lot had to go right for the Devils for the Devils to get in; they clinched in Game #81 of 82 and beat out Florida by a point. It is imperative that Ray Shero and his staff do not stay complacent. As such, there will be a lot of attention paid to how Shero handles free agency this summer.

It is weird. When I wrote a really-early look at the free agent market back in January, it did not seem like it would be a notable summer since the biggest pending free agent the team had was John Moore. Since January 14, Shero has added players that are all up for new contracts. In the minors, Christoph Bertschy and Mario Lucia were acquired for Viktor Loov. In New Jersey, the Devils made two rental deals to get Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon. I’ve reviewed those transactions - and the others from 2017-18 - last week. Still, these are additional decisions that the team will have to make.

Moreover, it appears to me that the mood has shifted regarding the team’s spending. On the day of the final press conference of the season with John Hynes and Ray Shero, the salary cap was a public topic of discussion. In this NHL.com article by Mike Morreale, these quotes by owner Josh Harris really stuck out:

“If we want to be Stanley Cup champions, we need to add to the nucleus for sure,” Harris said. “In order to win, you need great players. But in a cap system, you only have a certain amount of dollars to spend, so the key is to spend it on the right players. The most reliable way to add to the nucleus, although it takes longer, is to draft and develop.”

...

“If Ray wants to sign a big contract, we go through a process of learning what other players are being signed for, the player’s health, where does he rank analytically and what our scouts are saying,” Harris said. “It’s all the things you would do in making a large investment.

”Ray is great at identifying talent, along with [Fitzgerald and Hynes], so for the right player, we’re in. It’s not a matter of the money but a matter of finding the right player.”

Harris is correct that drafting and developing players is a more reliable - and more efficient way - to bolster a team. There is nothing out of the ordinary on the surface of this quote. However, that this is being said to the media at all and that it happened as the team was breaking down after they were eliminated by Tampa Bay implies strongly that Shero has been given the go-ahead to use that cap space.

And the Devils have quite a lot of it.

The Salary Cap & Roster Situation

According to CapFriendly as of April 28, the Devils have 32 standard player contracts worth a total of $55.1 million committed for next season. If the salary cap ceiling stays at $75 million, this means the Devils have $19.89 million to fill out their roster. There could be some changes to that. Bonuses need to be assessed - I don’t think there will be any overages, though. More importantly, the ceiling is unlikely to stay where it is. We should find out soon what the projected and actual salary cap ceiling and floor values are. I would expect that ceiling to rise given the addition of Vegas, which give the Devils (and everyone else) even more room to work with.

To that end, I do not anticipate any Devil being bought out. Andy Greene remains as team captain and played a ton of minutes on the first pairing in 2017-18. Travis Zajac returned from an injury and established a line by season’s end that took on part of Tampa Bay’s vaunted forward corp and came out ahead. Cory Schneider was awesome in 2017, awful in 2018, and redeemed that to a degree with his playoff performance. I don’t think he’s going either. Nobody really faltered in 2017-18 such that they should be paid out to not play for them in 2018-19.

As for the roster itself, the Devils have two goalies, six defensemen, and eight forwards who played significant portions of last season with the Devils already signed. So they do not technically have a lot of holes to fill from a roster-requirement standpoint. If you think really highly of prospects like Michael McLeod and Josh Anderson or minor leaguers like Nick Lappin and John Quenneville, then they could be inserted into the lineup just to get to twelve forwards. But that would be really filling in a spot rather than addressing any needs. The two that stand out from this perspective is that their blueline - especially on the left side - and getting more out of forwards who will not play with Superstar Taylor Hall. There are no expected changes to the coaching staff as far as I know, so the roster must change to accomplish those goals.

In short, Shero identifies a player that he wants to spend a lot of money, he can absolutely spend it. Is there such a player? Let’s look at the free agent market as it stands.

The Free Agent Market

Unfortunately for the Devils and other teams who have cap space to fill, this is not a deep class of unrestricted free agents. Per CapFriendly, only eight pending UFAs scored more than 20 goals last season - and that number includes Daniel Sedin, who is retiring alongside his brother. In terms of points, only nine players have cracked 50 points - including the retiring Sedins - and another five players broke 40 points. While points are not the end-all, be-all for offensive players, production does matter to a point for a team looking to add the ever-popular “secondary scoring” to their lineup. That only seven players scored at least 20 goals and thirteen players put up at least 40 points that should be playing next season makes for a small market.

What about minutes played? The Devils could absolutely use a replacement for Andy Greene. Or at least someone to play on that first pairing on the left side so Greene can play in a more suitable role at this point of his career. Well, only three defensemen averaged over 20 minutes per game last season: John Carlson at 24:49, Mike Green at 22:09, and Dan Hamhuis at 20:33. While minutes are just one surface factor, it does not inspire a lot of confidence that there is someone about to hit the market who can take on heavy competition and not get wrecked in the run of play.

This is not to say the free agent class is just a few good players and a bunch of schmoes. There are some names the Devils should look into and we’ll be writing about them in coming weeks. (One will be tomorrow.) Every team will have to do their homework on these players and determine what they can do with these players instead of hoping they can address needs the player may not be reasonably expected to do. That said, a team looking for that #1 defenseman or a plethora of scorers to choose from may need to consider other routes of getting those players than just offering someone a big contract.

So Shero can spend on whoever he likes. But there are only a few who will command a significant deal and maybe only one player who he should actually back up the Brinks truck to his house. I’ll write about him tomorrow.

Five General Thoughts about Free Agency to Consider

That is a good segue into five thoughts I’ve learned to consider over the years with respect to free agents. I will use a certain Islander as an example to illustrate each point.

  1. Not everyone who is a pending free agent will get to July 1. Some teams will seek to trade an expiring contract away for a small cost just to get something instead players going elsewhere for free. Some teams will try to re-sign players prior to free agency beginning. And a few free agents may decide to play elsewhere (e.g. Jacob Josefson is going to Sweden) or not play at all (e.g. the Sedin twins). It is exciting to think that, say, John Tavares will be available as a free agent on July 1. However, the Islanders can (and probably should) offer him the world in a chance to keep him. Should he accept, then he’s off the market - and that is his choice to make.
  2. Getting free agents should come with the expectation - and willingness - to overpay. Let’s use Tavares as an example. He’s easily the biggest name potentially hitting the market. This means a lot of teams will call his people to find out what the expectations are. Top forwards do not often become unresticted free agents before 30, so as more teams want to pursue him, the more he can command in a contract, and the more teams will have to offer to at least be considered. This is true for free agents of other needs. If 5 teams want a certain right-sided defenseman, then team #6 needs to come in with a big offer to expand that consideration. This leads to overpayments in salary and term. It is the cost of doing business. So if a team really is concerned about that, then they need to adjust their plans and stick to what they want to do.
  3. Free agents does require some projection and long-term planning. John Tavares is under 30, he’s been one of the top-20 scorers over the last three seasons, and is likely to command a big contract. Not just in salary but in term. So how the player projects as a player as well as other contracts needs to be considered in determining when to sign someone. Are you paying the player for what they just did? If so, can you live with it if he doesn’t reach those marks again? If Tavares wants 7 years, how much would you expect him to contribute at age 33 or 34? Is that good enough? Is it worth the salary to do that? Does adding that contract make it harder to keep other players who may need new contracts in 2019, 2020, and beyond? These are all crucial questions for any team. For other players, it may be a shorter term and lesser cost, but they still must be asked. While a free agent can help out right away on the ice, it is best to establish what impact can they have for the future in the books as well as on the ice.
  4. You’re likely going to have to trust someone at 30 or over. Unrestricted free agency is available for a player after a contract ends and they are either 27 or played seven seasons in the NHL. As such, a lot of the free agents available are in their late 20s and early 30s. While the Devils have made an effort to become a younger team, getting a free agent usually means having to get a somewhat older player. Players tend to peak in their mid-20s - Hall’s 26 year old season is likely his best ever - so how they’ll decline is a real factor to consider. I don’t believe that all declining players should be avoided, though. For some players, they’ll still be more than good contributors - likely John Tavares based on the fact that he’s been a point-machine despite his team all his career. For other players, it may be a bigger risk considering past injuries, team situations, and their style of play. Regardless, if a team is dipping into free agency, then it is likely you’re not going to get a career-best out of the player.
  5. It is not in the interest of most free agents to take a “hometown discount” or be re-signed. One of my biggest frustrations as a fan is when I read about how a team let so-and-so go. My thinking is that the team absolutely tried - the player wasn’t interested. And why would they be? I’ve realized over the years that it usually not in a player’s best interest to sign a big extension. Unless they absolutely love where they are and the extension is that lucrative, a player can and should absolutely leverage other teams to obtain a better contract for them. For some of these UFA players hitting the market, they’ll only get one chance to have a say on where they want to play and to cash-in for all that they have done so far. If they’re lucky, they may have two or three chances. Being a professional athlete is not a long career and it only takes one injury or incident for it to end. So it is only reasonable to find out how others would value you before deciding who to sign on with - even if you love where you are. Sure, there are other, more personal factors like location, ambition, and family that helps drive this decision. But all roads go back to money being one of the biggest factors for a free agent being signed. Taking a “hometown discount” or accepting an extension without an idea of how much you’re worth elsewhere undercuts the goal of getting paid the most for your services in what is usually a short career. Circling back to point #1, John Tavares may be offered the world from the Isles, but he may learn he could get a galaxy somewhere else.

That all being said, let’s look at the Devils free agents.

The Devils Free Agents - Quick Reactions on All of Them

Per Cap Friendly, the Devils have eight pending unrestrictred free agents (UFA) up with New Jersey and four off the roster (they’re in Binghamton). The Devils have four restricted free agents in New Jersey and six in the system.

Restricted Free Agents

The restricted free agents (RFAs) are usually safe bets to be kept. They just need to be qualified by the Devils by a certain date and they will remain with the Devils. They’ll still need a full standard player contract, but other teams would have to provide an offer sheet that the Devils can match to get the player. I do not think any of the RFAs are at real risk of an offersheet.

  • NJ - Forward Blake Coleman, Cap Hit & Salary: $660,000 (Two-way)
  • NJ - Forward Stefan Noesen, Cap Hit & Salary: $660,000 (Two-way)
  • NJ - Forward Miles Wood, Cap Hit & Salary: $925,000 (Entry Level Contract)
  • NJ - Defenseman Steve Santini, Cap Hit & Salary: $925,000 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Binghamton - Forward Christoph Bertschy, Salary: $892,500, Cap Hit: $775,833 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Binghamton - Forward Nick Lappin, Cap Hit & Salary: $824,500 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Binghamton - Forward Mario Lucia, Salary: $817,500, Cap Hit: $792,500 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Binghamton - Forward Kevin Rooney, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (Two-way)
  • Binghamton - Defenseman Michael Kapla, Cap Hit & Salary: $925,000 (Entry Level Contract)
  • Binghamton - Goalie Ken Appleby, Salary: $690,000, Cap Hit: $635,000 (Entry Level Contract)

Again, Wood, Santini, Coleman, and Noesen are RFAs and so I expect them all to be back. The question will be for how much and how long. I don’t think either has performed so well that they can command a very long contract or a whole lot of money. Wood has improved the most and he’s the youngest of the four, so he could get four years where the other three may get one to three year contracts. Even so, I’d be shocked if either made more than Brian Boyle last season ($3 million).

Speaking of RFAs, Alex wrote about Coleman just yesterday. Check that out if you have not yet read it.

As for the Binghamton players, some of these players may be coming back on AHL deals and others will be re-signed to keep depth in the system, such as Lappin and Bertschy. Jeff and his panel’s grades thought well enough of these six, with Lappin receiving the highest of praise. Do any of them have a real NHL future? I could see Lappin be a call-up guy again, Bertschy did well after he was acquired, and Appleby could be back as a goalie in the system. But the others, who knows.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Ryane Clowe is never playing hockey again so his $4.85 million cap hit will end in 2017-18. He will not be re-signed. These others could:

  • NJ - Forward Jimmy Hayes, Cap Hit & Salary: $700,000
  • NJ - Forward Brian Gibbons, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way)
  • NJ - Forward Michael Grabner, Cap Hit & Salary: $1.65 million
  • NJ - Forward Patrick Maroon, Salary: $2.1 million, Cap Hit: $1.575 million
  • NJ - Forward Drew Stafford, Cap Hit & Salary: $800,000
  • NJ - Defenseman John Moore, Cap Hit: $1.667 million, Salary: $1.95 million
  • NJ/Binghamton - Goalie Eddie Lack, Salary: $3 million (retained from past trades), Cap Hit: $2.75 million
  • Binghamton - Forward Michael Latta, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way)
  • Binghamton - Forward Bracken Kearns, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way, 35+ year)
  • Binghamton - Forward Ben Thomson, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way)
  • Binghamton - Defenseman Brian Strait, Cap Hit & Salary: $650,000 (two-way)

I don’t anticipate all of the Binghamton players returning - at least not on NHL deals. I would defer to Jeff about their value to the B-Devils, but I do not see much of a reason to have them return to take up a spot on the contract list. Eddie Lack is the interesting one as he ended up being, sort of, the #3 goalie in the system. He would have to take a significant pay cut to stay, which may be anticipated as he could not stay in the NHL with Calgary after Carolina dealt him. And it could be argued that would work. Appleby and MacKenzie Blackwood weren’t supremely good in Binghamton this season. The Devils thought so highly of their other goalie prospects that they signed Cam Johnson right out college and it is not expected they’ll sign Evan Cormier out of juniors. A veteran like Lack may be useful to have around if/when injury strikes. Of course, I think the Devils can find a cheaper option on the market to do the same given that 36 goalies could be going UFA this summer.

As for the New Jersey side, the only two names that stick out as players to keep around would be Maroon and Gibbons. Gibbons was hot for the first two months of 2017 and ended up being a perfectly OK fourth-liner and a good penalty killer. Those players aren’t exactly rare, but I would not be opposed to the Devils keeping him as a 12th, 13th, or 14th forward on the roster for another year or two. He’s a better Stephen Gionta. It won’t cost much to retain him and provided the Devils only sign him to two years or less, then it should be OK.

As I wrote last week, Maroon has done quite well since becoming a Devil. While he is slow and now 30 years old, his style of play fits in with how the Devils have attacked outside of whichever line Hall is on and he’s a great fit in their 1-3-1 power play formation. Unless new coaches are coming in (and they may not be), keeping someone who fits in well is a good idea. Maroon broke out in 2016-17 when he rode with Connor McDavid for most of the season and he set a career high in points in part of playing a lot with McDavid and with Hall on the power play in 2017-18. Take him away from two of the best players in the game today and Maroon may not be as impressive. He’s also now 30 years old; it remains to be seen how he will age given that he is at his best along the boards and amid traffic. This is all to say that there are some red flags that would give me pause about giving Maroon a long-term deal or a significant one. But if they give him something similar to what Boyle received, then I would be more than OK with it. I like Maroon; I’m just concerned about what it will take to get him back.

I will point out that during the Devils players breaking up for the day, the Devils official Twitter account posted this quote from Maroon.

There were questions about free agency. John Moore said something similar about staying. But he wasn’t quoted in a Tweet by the team. That the team’s official Twitter account highlighted this one from Moore, I think it’s a tell that the Devils want to bring him back too. Of course, going back to the general thoughts I had earlier, Maroon has every right to confirm his value. It may be in his best interest to find out who’s interested in him first before decided to stay or not. We’ll see what happens in the next few months.

One Last Note

No, the Devils cannot give Taylor Hall an extension yet. That can happen next year.

Your Take

There’s plenty to decide and discuss. What do you think the Devils’ general approach to free agency should be? Should Shero spend big in this summer? Should the focus be on addressing needs in other ways? Who should the Devils try and keep from their UFAs? Do any of the RFAs deserve a long contract? Please leave your thoughts about the Devils and free agency in the comments. Thank you for reading.