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A Way Too Early Look at the New Jersey Devils Restricted Free Agents for 2019

Miles Wood was a restricted free agent in 2018 and held out for a four-year contract. Could any of the team’s pending restricted free agents in 2019 do the same? One name comes to mind in this way, way, way, too early look at the team’s future RFAs.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
Will Butcher is set to get paid in 2019 - but could he hold out? Maybe. It is a possibility.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Miles Wood was a restricted free agent (RFA) in this past Summer. As a 22-year old coming off his second professional season wherein he played at least ten games in it, Wood was not eligible for arbitration. While the New Jersey Devils qualified him in June, he did not sign a new contract and negotiations stalled into preseason. However, the deadlock broke on September 22, 2018 and Wood signed a new contract. The contract itself - a four year, $11 million deal - is a very good one for the team. Wood was also the last remaining player re-signing the team needed to do, so the move effectively ended Shero’s 2018 offseason.

In the long run, I do not know if it matters that it took until the middle of preseason for an agreement of terms. However, holdouts and impasses are worth avoiding in general. As the 2018-19 season being, general manager Ray Shero needs to be aware of the future and who will be up for new contracts. To that end, now is a good time to take a way too early look at restricted free agents and identify any potential Wood-like situations that may be worth avoiding.

The Pending RFAs With Arbitration Rights

Article 12 of the NHL CBA (which is available here through CapFriendly’s FAQ) goes into detail of who is eligible for salary arbitration and how the process goes. Basically, how old a player signs their first NHL contract will determine the length of time before they arbitration rights. This only applies to restricted free agents. It is not uncommon for a qualified RFA to file for arbitration in order to speed up the negotiating process. The arbitration process can be a nasty one, so it is desirable for both team and player to agree to a new contract before going into it. Hence, filing for it can force a deal to be made much sooner. That is what tends to happen; it has been a very long time since the Devils and a player actually went to arbitration. In July, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen did it and their signings were announced on July 17 (same day: Coleman, Noesen), both before any hearing took place.

To that end, the pending RFAs with arbitration rights are at little risk of being hold outs in 2019’s training camp. They will force negotiations to happen though.

CapFriendly has a useful arbitration calculator that quickly lists who is eligible and how long it will be before they are eligible. The main roster page for each team includes an icon for the eligible players. The current list of impending RFAs with arbitration rights is as follows:

  • Right winger, Stefan Noesen
  • Defenseman, Mirco Mueller
  • Right winger, Nick Lappin
  • Left winger, Blake Pietila
  • Right winger, Kurtis Gabriel

There is not a lot of a concern for the latter two. Pietila and Gabriel are expected to be Binghamton Devils - they were placed on waivers on Sunday - and I cannot imagine it would take much to keep them or not. For all we know, they may not even be qualified. Lappin is in a more interesting spot. If he makes the New Jersey squad and stays on it, then he may be able use those rights to get a deal.

The more costly negotiations would be for the two sure-fire NHL players on this list. Not that either will command a ton of money short of having an amazing 2018-19 season. Noesen used his rights to lead to a one-year, $1.725 million contract. I would expect about the same, maybe a little more, for 2019. Mueller is making $850,000 for this coming season. If he is able to be active all season and contribute, then I could see him commanding seven figures even as one of the “lesser” defensemen on the blueline. The larger point is that while I would anticipate these two using their arbitration rights to force Shero’s hand, I do not think they’ll impact the salary cap too much or cause too much of an issue to agree to terms. Shero and his people have been through it with Noesen back in July and Mueller has plenty to prove before getting a big raise.

The Pending RFAs Without Arbitration Rights

The concern with a potential hold out would be the RFAs without arbitration rights. If qualified, they can only move to another team by signing an offer sheet, which are uncommon as it is in the NHL. Without arbitration rights, they have no means to force a deal by a certain date. They are also not required to sign anything until December 1, 2019 - after then, the player is effectively out until next season. So a team who really does not want to budge has the advantage. In other words, RFAs without arbitration rights have little leverage. As such, holdouts tend to be uncommon.

But Wood’s situation was a little unique. He put up some impressive numbers despite a not-so-impressive amount of usage. He’s young enough that he still has some potential to work with - and he just improved in his second season over his first. So a potential holdout it would likely involve someone who has been at least a solid contributor to the team, is qualified as a RFA, and has reason to extract a desirable deal in terms of length and amount. Do the Devils have any of these players among the following current impending RFAs?

  • Defenseman, Will Butcher
  • Center/Left Wing, Pavel Zacha
  • Center, John Quenneville
  • Defenseman, Michael Kapla
  • Goaltender, Cam Johnson
  • Defenseman, Josh Jacobs
  • Left Wing, Brandon Baddock

The good news for Shero is that most of this list are players who played with Binghamton (and Johnson was in college for most of last season). As they are not even set to be NHL players, it would be a real surprise if any of them held out for anything. They’re all on cheap deals and not every one of them is a lock to even be qualified. Quenneville still has a shot to making it to the New Jersey roster. Even then, I would find it hard to believe that he would force a long period of time to sign his second contract after his entry level contract (ELC). In fact, only Kapla among the B-Devils would not be coming off an ELC in 2019.

In case there was not enough of an incentive to have that breakout season, Zacha’s up for a new contract. How he does this season will obviously impact how much he could command. If he repeats what he did in 2017-18, then it will not be for very much and likely for a very long term. Last season, Zacha did not contribute a whole lot in 5-on-5 play as per Natural Stat Trick. When he was on the ice, the Devils were usually being out-shot, out-attempted, and out-chanced. He certainly did not score a lot, as he fell behind the expected goals model for a second straight season. Zacha’s skills flashed enough times to remind you that he can be a useful player - but not nearly enough times for him to command a set spot in the New Jersey lineup. Yes, he is just 21 and he is just about to enter his third season and he is just about to be up for a new contract in 2019. Is he worth a long term deal? Is he worth a bridge? Is he worth a one-year, prove-it deal? Is he someone to trade? I’m sure you have some answers on that. It’s up to Zacha to help Shero provide his own answer to the question. To that end, I do not think he’ll be a holdout risk short of an astounding season that can truly be called a “breakout” season.

Will Butcher is going to a bit trickier. Butcher had a great rookie season. He was almost immediately thrust into being the one and only defenseman on the team’s top power play unit. He was kept to a third defensive pairing; he was mostly opposite Ben Lovejoy, a player who may actually be his opposite in that Lovejoy is old, physical, bigger, slower, and has no real offensive threat. In early April, CJ made a persuasive case that Butcher was underutilized in 2017-18. Now that the 2018-19 season is upon us, it is entirely possible that Butcher receives a bigger role in the lineup as the team let John Moore hit the market and never replaced him. If Butcher can repeat most of last season’s success, then he’s going to get paid. His rookie season alone may be enough to get him paid real well anyway. The good news for Shero is that Butcher only needs to be qualified to be kept as a Devil. However, he is the most likely among this group of pending RFAs to pull a Wood and holdout until a good deal comes along. Like Wood last season, Butcher has demonstrated value well above his actual ELC. Shero can avoid this by providing a more lucrative deal upfront or even talking about an extension with Butcher’s people during 2018-19. Granted, if Butcher really struggles as a sophomore, then it may not be as expensive. But based on what we know, Butcher is already a real good offensive defenseman in New Jersey. Those players tend to get paid - and I do not doubt that Butcher and his people will do what they can to get paid.

And based on those factors that Wood had, consider this: Butcher would still be under 25 years old with two straight seasons of significant power play time (and hopefully production) and still have some potential such that one may think he can become an even more important defenseman for the team. It’s not that dissimilar on paper at this moment. How the 2018-19 season will go for Butcher will confirm it or not.

The X-Factor

The X-factor is the man himself, Ray Shero. This whole time I’ve noted that these are the current pending RFAs. It is entirely possible that not every one of them is a Devil by the time qualifying offers are due in late June.

Shero has not been shy about wheeling and dealing to bring certain talents to Newark, New Jersey. While I think he would be silly to move Butcher, he’s really the only I would not move for the sake of quality. Granted, some of these pending RFAs have little trade value as it is, so they’re safe unless the other team needs a throw-in for cap/minor league purposes. But if a deal comes by and it takes a Zacha or even a Quenneville to make it work, then Shero may actually do it. Plus, the player coming back may also a pending RFA, who will have to be dealt with much sooner.

The other possibility is that Shero may not qualify some of the lower-end players. I mean, this may be a more likely reality for, say, Baddock. But by not qualifying a RFA, they can become an unrestricted free agent. Sometimes this is done with the intent of signing a different deal as qualifying a RFA does mean a minimum required raise for the player. But usually not qualifying a player is a way for a team to get rid of them. There is a whole season of hockey to be played so this possibility should be seen as remote except for the players with very little to offer now and in the future.

Your Take

I don’t think we’ll necessarily see a pending RFA do what Wood did and sit around for extended negotiations only to be completed during preseason. The player may not want to do it or may be more agreeable on term and money. Perhaps Shero will have “learned a lesson” from what happened with Wood and seek to provide extensions or better deals up front. We will see Shero make some big decisions this summer. There are plenty of players up for new deals. One of which, Butcher, is very likely to command some significant money based on his role on the team and what he has achieved so far.

As a whole, 2019 will be a big summer for Shero. In addition to these 12 RFAs, there are a number of UFAs where how they perform in 2018-19 will go a long way as to whether they should be retained or not. This includes Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid, and Ben Lovejoy. Even if you think they and the other UFAs should walk, then the Devils have to identify who can actually replace them - either from within or from the free agent market. Then there’s the matter of extensions for the pending free agents in 2020, which can include Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Sami Vatanen, and Jesper Bratt. Shero may be requesting the OK from Josh Harris to open the budget for a lot of money next Summer. The RFAs as a whole may not be as costly, but they will need to be dealt with. A potential holdout is just another obstacle that Shero and the organization probably does not need.

Your Take

While this is way (way, way) too early look at free agents for next offseason, this is one of those issues that will be ongoing throughout the 2018-19 season. How these pending RFAs will perform will definitely drive whatever deal they’re looking for. If some of them truly exceed expectations, then those without arbitration rights may look at what Miles Wood and figure on doing the same.

What do you think will happen? Will any of the RFAs without arbitration rights seek to holdout, even for a little bit? Will the RFAs with arbitration rights really file to push for a new contract sooner than they would otherwise get? Will the Devils enter the 2019 offseason with 12 RFAs at all? I know it’s early, but please give me your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.