With the draft officially in the books, the next major event is right around the corner: the start of free agency, otherwise known as Free Agent Frenzy, begins in less than a week. On July 1st, teams will be able to officially sign unrestricted free agents. Until then, teams can still re-sign players from their own teams, and you might hear unofficially that a player has committed to sign for a different team ahead of the July 1 start time, but those cannot be made official until Sunday.
For the New Jersey Devils, with the draft in the rear view mirror, we can begin to look at what Ray Shero might or might not do. The Devils have historically been very tight-lipped with potential plans heading into free agency, and this year is no different. As far as I am aware, there have been essentially zero leaks with respect to whom the Devils are targeting, have considered, or teams they have talked to with respect to potential trades or signings. So while you will see different NJ-related free agency posts throughout the week here at AATJ and elsewhere, they will all be pure speculation, as there is no indication about what Shero is considering or planning.
What I will attempt to do here, then, is showcase what the Devils have, do not have, and how this could affect their decision-making heading into July 1st and beyond.
According to Cap Friendly, the Devils have a projected salary of just over $55 million heading into next season. With the cap for next year being set at $79.5 million, that gives NJ approximately $24.5 million of cap space to play around with. That is a very healthy number. Only 7 teams are projected to have more salary cap space heading into free agency. That $55 million salary includes 17 players under contract for next season so far. That would be 9 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders. The forwards under contract for the 2018-19 season already are: Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, Nico Hischier, Joey Anderson, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Bratt. The Defensemen are: Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Will Butcher, and Mirco Muller. And of course, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid are the goalies under contract.
UFA and RFA Devils
Of course, 17 players does not make a full NHL squad, and NJ has a list of potential restricted and unrestricted free agents that they will need to deal with as well. RFAs will need to be qualified by the end of the day today. That would mean that any offer given to them could be matched by NJ once free agency starts, and if NJ does not match that offer, they will receive draft pick compensation for losing the player.
Noteworthy restricted free agents include: Miles Wood, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, Steve Santini, Nick Lappin, and Ken Appleby. There are others; however, I would expect the names here to get qualified, maybe others as well. Not all of these players are NHL regulars, but assuming Wood, Noesen, Coleman and Santini will spend most of their time in Newark this upcoming season, that adds another four players to NJ’s roster, upping that number from 17 to 21.
On the UFA side, Shero has the rest of this week to work out deals with these players before they can test the open market and sign elsewhere come Sunday. Some players Shero will certainly want to look into bringing back, while others he will probably be happy to let go. UFA players include: Jimmy Hayes, Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, Brian Gibbons, Drew Stafford, John Moore, and Eddie Lack.
In my opinion, Shero should and probably will at least discuss a contract with Maroon, Gibbons, and Moore. Grabner is arguably the most talented player on that list, but he did not fit in at all in his short stint here, and will most likely receive a decent contract offer elsewhere that he will take. Shero would most likely need to offer him somewhere in the market of 3 years, $3 mil per year, and I doubt that happens. Maroon, on the other hand, gelled really well here, and would definitely provide needed depth in the bottom 6. They should also be able to get him for more like $2 mil per year, cheaper than Grabner for sure.
Gibbons is an interesting case that can be discussed in greater detail in another post, as he had a dynamite start to the season, but was not the same after coming back from injury, and his final tally of 26 points in 59 games was nothing exceptional. I am not sure how Shero will go about contract negotiations with him. Moore is also an interesting case, again maybe worth a separate, longer post. Many will argue he should not be brought back, as the analytics behind his game are quite poor. However, he is still fairly young at 27 years old, and if he could be gotten for around the $1.5 million he was getting previously, he might be able to provide some 3rd pairing depth.
As for the rest, don’t expect much. I would bet on Lack, Stafford, and Hayes all being allowed to test free agency, and would be somewhat surprised if any are wearing a Devils uniform come training camp.
Before the draft, I would have to say that most people would have identified two major needs for this club heading into next season: secondary scoring behind the top line, and a better blue line. With the first round selection of Ty Smith, Shero looked to address the latter situation in the draft. However, defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, and I would not expect to see Smith in Newark for at least a couple of seasons. Therefore, both needs still remain heading into free agency.
With plenty of cap room, Shero can and should look to alleviate these concerns starting on Sunday, at least to some degree. The interesting debate will be how hard Shero should work. Overspending on big names fails more often than not, so don’t expect these needs to be immediately repaired after Sunday. Shero has also proven himself to be at least somewhat conservative with spending money.
In terms of filling the first need, secondary scoring, there will be plenty of forwards to choose from. Top names include John Tavares, James Van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny, James Neal, Tyler Bozak, and others. There are other depth names behind them too, on a similar page with Patrick Maroon. We can fantasize about Shero being able to nab Tavares or JVR, but the odds are unlikely. Rumors are that Lou Lamoriello and the Isles have already offered Tavares 8 years, $88 million. JVR is coming off of a 6-year, $25.5 million contract he initially signed in Philadelphia, and at 29 years old, is still in his prime. He will most likely have his pick of the litter, and you know when that happens, rarely anyone chooses NJ.
As for defensemen, the big name on the market at this time is John Carlson, coming off of a monster year and great playoff run. Rumor has it that Arizona and Oliver Ekman-Larsson have agreed to an 8-year, $64 million extension, and Carlson will want at least that. At 28 years old, he has many years left in the tank, but there is no doubt that the contract he is about to sign could become an albatross to whichever team nabs him. Washington is in active negotiations with him, and cleared some space by shipping out Brooks Orpik, but Carlson has expressed his desire to test the open market, so we will see what happens. Again, odds of NJ signing him are not high, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Other names out there include Mike Green, Calvin de Haan, and Ian Cole.
In the end, there is a lot more that can be discussed, and we can dive deeper into specific players Shero can and should target, and we can debate how active NJ should be come Sunday. Overall, however, hopefully this primer helped you get in the mindset of free agency, which will be here before you know it. Again, NJ is fairly tight lipped, so do not expect many quality leaks about what Shero might do before Sunday. But given their needs, you can expect that Ray will be looking at different ways to find better defensemen and secondary offense. He also has to figure out who to bring back and who to let walk. In my opinion, don’t be surprised if NJ is fairly quiet come Sunday, with maybe a depth signing or two, but I could be totally wrong there.
What do you think about NJ’s options heading to free agency? Which players should they bring back, and who should they be targeting in the frenzy? Should Shero be overly active to try and make a wild card team a true contender, or should he be conservative in his moves? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.