With another loss last night against Toronto, the Devils now sit 13 points out of the final wild card in the East with 39 games remaining in their season. The Devils are just one point clear of last in the Eastern Conference and two points clear of the NHL basement. Barring some sort of miracle at this point, the meaningful games in this season appear to be in the rear-view mirror. So focus will now turn to how the Devils will position themselves heading into next season.
If this season was a test tube for Ray Shero and John Hynes to determine which players from within the organization can be contributors on a good team, I believe they at least got some answers there. Now though, with the Devils pretty much out of things just past the halfway point, the team has a lot of time to think about how they are going to reinforce the pieces they do have here. At forward, they have some core and solid complimentary pieces on the right side of 30 like Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman. On the blue line, the picture is a bit murkier, as CJ dug into this week, but Will Butcher, Damon Severson, and Sami Vatanen (if they all stick around) represent players who can likely be at least mid-pairing contributors at the position on a good squad. The Devils have some pieces here, but as Gerard pointed out yesterday, the team needs more players who can move the needle in a positive direction.
So how does a team acquire players who can move the needle? One answer is obviously through the draft and development process. The Devils have two drafted players in particular who look like prime targets to make the jump next year in the form of Ty Smith, who is tearing up the WHL, and Jesper Boqvist, who, at 20 years of age, is among the scoring leaders in Sweden’s top men’s league, the SHL. Those two can surely come in and help things for the Devils, but they will far from cure all the ills we’ve seen from this team this season. So for more help in 2019-2020, the Devils will have to reach outside the organization, whether via trade or in free agency. Trades obviously have a lot of moving parts, and outside of moving rentals for picks, the Devils are not in a strong position to be trading too many futures or current pieces at the moment. So for improvements to the current roster, Shero and the Devils will have to go the free agency route.
The good news is that, for once, there appears to be a pretty solid crop of free agents heading into the summer. Some of those will inevitably re-sign with their teams before reaching UFA status, but a pretty good number of good players look like they could make it to July 1st. Let’s run down what’s out there (and this list comes from the indispensable CapFriendly UFA tracker):
There are a bunch of pretty big fish on the forward side who can be longer-term pieces as they are still in their prime years:
- Artemi Panarin, LW, Age: 26, Shoots: R, 41 GP, 15 G, 47 P
- Mark Stone, RW, Age: 26, Shoots: R, 45 GP, 20 G, 48 P
- Matt Duchene, C, Age: 27, Shoots: L, 37 GP, 18 G, 42 P
- Jeff Skinner, LW, Age: 26, Shoots: L, 43 GP, 29 G, 42 P
- Gustav Nyquist, RW, Age: 28, Shoots: L, 45 GP, 10 G, 37 P
- Kevin Hayes, C, Age: 26, Shoots: L, 39 GP, 10 G, 33 P
- Anders Lee, LW, Age: 27, Shoots: L, 42 GP, 16 G, 33 P
- Brock Nelson, C/LW, Age: 26, Shoots: L, 41 GP, 20 G, 47 P
- Jordan Eberle, RW, Age: 28, Shoots: R, 38 GP, 9 G, 19 P
- Jakob Silfverberg, RW, Age: 27, Shoots: R, 39 GP, 11 G, 18 P
That is quite a crop right now and while not all will necessarily make it all the way to free agency there is potential for some game-changers and some other complimentary top-six pieces to be out there. The list even extends to people like Ryan Dzingel, Joonas Donskoi, Alex Chiasson, and Michael Ferland who can produce pretty well in complimentary roles. There are also veterans like Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, or Justin Williams that, while not as attractive of options for a team on the rise, could serve as a shorter-term bridge while the Devils try to fill from within in the medium and longer-terms.
I think the players you might call the real cream of this potential free agent crop at forward are Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene. If Shero and the Devils can land one of those three, I think that has a big immediate impact on the Devils’ outlook. For instance, if you have a lineup with Taylor Hall and Artemi Panarin on the top two lines, you are a team that is going to start causing major matchup problems for a lot of teams. Mark Stone has seemingly flown under the radar for a while in Ottawa while being a player who has produced at a 70-point pace since entering the league. He is really good and, like Panarin, is a right shot, which the Devils sorely lack up front.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to speculate how free agency will shake out with any real accuracy, but Ray Shero will almost certainly have options to try and improve this team at the forward position.
The free agent market at D will be are a little less flooded with talent than the forwards but there could be a Norris-caliber defenseman available if he doesn’t re-sign, plus some other intriguing options to improve the defensive group in New Jersey:
- Erik Karlsson, Age: 28, Shoots: R, 44 GP, 41 P, 24:59 ATOI
- Jake Gardiner, Age: 27, Shoots: L, 43 GP, 24 P, 21:41 ATOI
- Anton Stralman, Age: 32, Shoots: R, 27 GP, 12 P, 21:33 ATOI
- Tyler Myers, Age: 28, Shoots: R, 44 GP, 13 P, 19:20 ATOI
- Nick Jensen, Age: 27, Shoots: R, 44 GP, 11 P, 20:45 ATOI
- Alexander Edler, Age: 32, Shoots: L, 31 GP, 19 P, 23:13 ATOI
Like I said, the list is shorter here, but there are some options. Karlsson is going to have 30 other teams banging down his door if he doesn’t re-sign with the Sharks, so that one is probably a longshot. Hard to imagine a quicker way to remake a defense than dropping Erik Karlsson into it, though. A man can dream, I suppose. I think some of the most attractive options for New Jersey outside of Karlsson would be Gardiner and Stralman, particularly if the Devils do end up moving, say, one of Severson or Vatanen in a trade. Stralman is on the wrong side of 30 now and not necessarily the guy he once was, but on a shorter deal, he could make sense as a steady hand next to Ty Smith on the right side of that pairing. Gardiner could make a lot of sense too as a top-4 replacement for Andy Greene, though things start to get crowded on that left side quickly without a trade if you go that route. Edler is intriguing as well, though he’d be a much shorter-term solution with his age.
I think the task on defense is a little bit tougher for Shero than at forward. There are less options and the Devils have a bigger need for a real top talent, which there isn’t much of outside of Karlsson on the FA market. They do have Ty Smith on the way, but he will likely take a little bit of time to adjust to the league and the Devils want to provide something approaching a stable situation for him to get his footing over the first year or two. The options outside of the ones listed above are pretty limited too, with guys being third-pairing types or over 35.
I think a look at the free agent market does at least give you the feeling that the Devils have options going forward. Particularly if Shero can play this deadline right and accumulate a few more picks in the upper half of this draft, the Devils will have an opportunity to improve this team’s outlook greatly for both the short- and longer-terms over the next 6+ months. This has been a disappointing season, but regardless of the current standings we are approaching a pivotal moment in this rebuild that may determine whether it ultimately succeeds. Fingers crossed.