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After Nico: A Stupendously Early Look at the New Jersey Devils Free Agents for 2020

On this past Friday, Nico Hischier signed a big contract extension with the New Jersey Devils. He was arguably the second most important player for the Devils to sign in 2020. This post looks at all of the other pending free agents, including Taylor Hall.

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Vancouver Canucks v New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier just got paid. Who’s left?
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

On Friday, the New Jersey Devils announced that Nico Hischier signed a contract extension for the next seven seasons for a total of $50.75 million. It is a big deal for a burgeoning top center in the NHL. I think it is a great extension and think everyone is a winner here. One point that should not be ignored is that general manager Ray Shero helped himself a lot by getting this done earlier rather than later. It will be a busy offseason with the free agents within the New Jersey Devils alone; and Hischier was the second most important player among them. Now that Nico Hischier’s extension is sorted out, who else does Shero have to plan for during 2019-20? Let us consider the Devils’ pending free agents in this stupendously early look at their 2020 offseason as per CapFriendly.

Restricted Free Agents without Arbitration Rights or Post-Entry Level Contract Players

The first contract most NHL players will have is an Entry Level Contract (ELC). These are limited in terms of time and money. When they end, the majority of players become Restricted Free Agents (RFA). The restriction is that their current team only has to give them a qualifying offer to retain their rights. If another team wants to sign them, then they have to issue an offer sheet. For the offer sheet to work, the player must sign it to its terms (there is no negotiation), the original team has the right to match, and if the original team does not match it than the team issuing the offer sheet has provide compensation based on how much the offer sheet is. That is a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot to potentially pay, so offer sheets are rate at it is. Therefore, nearly all RFAs are kept by the original team. Furthermore, since most who sign to an ELC are young players, they often do not have the number of professional seasons accrued to be eligible for arbitration. Without this right, the team can take their time to determine the next deal for the RFA player after they are qualified.

This is a lot to say that this is a common type of free agent that you can bet your bottom dollar will remain on the team. There is not much the player can do. They could hold out for a deal, which has been threatened in this past summer by a number of “big name” RFA players. For 2020, the big name for the Devils was Nico Hischier. This obviously cannot happen since he signed a contract extension. And since he signed it a few days ago, the Devils avoided the risk of Hischier having such a great season that he would understandably demand a larger contract in June or July 2020. It is another reason why it was a great deal.

Who else is in the same position that Nico Hischier was? There are two names you know and a bunch in Binghamton:

New Jersey: Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood

Bratt and Blackwood will see their ELCs end with this season and will need new contracts. They are also in very different positions.

Bratt has went from being a top-six somewhat-regular to a bottom-six mainstay in this short season so far. In his contract year, Bratt has started the season with a goal, two assists, just four shots (!!), and an average ice time of 12:10. I can understand the frustration that Bratt could do more. To be fair, Kyle Palmieri and Wayne Simmonds have been far better in the run of play as the Devils have been creamed in 5-on-5 play when Bratt is on the ice. It is only eight games and I am hopeful that Bratt will receive more opportunities to show that the player who has shined in bursts in the last two seasons is the real thing.

As far as Blackwood goes, did he just become the starting goaltender in New Jersey? After the debacle against Florida, Blackwood was given the start against Our Hated Rivals. He succeeded, using his large frame and pads to deny shots like he did in his impressive call-up last season. Two days later, he was given the start against Vancouver and prevailed with a shutout. It is only two games and it could be nothing more than riding the hot hand and I believe the goalies have been let down by abysmal play. Still, I think it is telling that Blackwood received both starts with days off in between. Should Blackwood get the start against Arizona, then it could be a case that he’s #1A and Cory Schneider is #1B. In any case, Blackwood has every incentive to perform as well as possible. His past seasons in pro hockey is shaky but it’s all about what he does in the NHL and if he does well, then so be it.

Both players strike me as prime candidates for bridge deals. It is clear that both Bratt and Blackwood are talented. However, they are not on Hischier’s level in terms of importance or early success. In Bratt’s case, he’s had enough stretches of anonymity where one wonders what he’s doing out there. In Blackwood’s case, he has not played nearly enough to be comfortable thinking he is a good goaltender. Both deserve raises but a two season deal to prove that the good things they bring to the table are what they are truly bringing seems appropriate to me. Of course, how 2019-20 goes may help determine that.

Binghamton: Joey Anderson, Brett Seney, Blake Speers, Colton White, Josh Jacobs

Among these five, I can only see Anderson and Seney has players coming back up to New Jersey. Both played quite a bit in New Jersey in 2018-19 and I would like to think they could challenge for ice time if/when they are called up - if not by next training camp. Anderson is only 21 so he has some room for growth, but at a minimum he could be a bottom-six right winger that helps quite a bit on the penalty kill. That may not be an exciting role but it is a role. Seney is 23 so he does not have as much room for growth but he could be a fourth-liner all the same. I would expect both to be re-signed and we shall see if they get opportunities in the future.

We may see White and/or Jacobs in the case of injuries on defense but I do not think either of them have the potential to really become mainstays in New Jersey. There was a reason that Matt Tennyson was called up ahead of both. They will likely be re-signed but they will likely stay in upstate New York instead of coming to North Jersey. Speers has not really shown much of anything in Binghamton. I am tempted to think he may not even be qualified, but given how cheap and easy it is to keep RFAs, I think he will be.

Restricted Free Agents with Arbitration Rights

These RFAs can file for arbitration. Arbitration where an arbiter hears the arguments by both sides in a hearing and determines what the next contract is. It is a harsh process and both sides really do try to avoid it, so in practice it is used to force a contract to be made before the hearing itself. I could be wrong but I think you have to go back to the late 1990s for the last time a Devil filed for arbitration and the hearing took place. Therefore, I would not worry about arbitration until it actually happens, which likely will not. There are a handful of Devils that have this right.

New Jersey: John Hayden and Mirco Mueller

The Devils acquired John Hayden for John Quenneville and he has not been particularly good. He is a fourth-line right winger that has demonstrated very little in 5-on-5 play. He has been used on the penalty kill to little success. He is a player that fans have lamented that he is in the lineup over, say, Jesper Boqvist. There is a lot of season left for Hayden to show off what he can do. Albeit that it is solely in this fourth-line right wing role.

Mirco Mueller has received no shortage of criticism. His inattention to what has gone around him on defense has led to a couple of scratched appearances. It is not a good sign that the coaches would rather have Connor Carrick play on his offhand next to Tennyson for a game instead of putting in Mueller. Mueller, at his best, is a non-flashy defender who is decent at what he does. That would be a big help on the left side of the defense as it stands but Mueller has yet to showcase that in this season. There is plenty of time for him to turn it around and with a contract on the line, it is in his best interest to do so.

As both players are pending RFAs, I have this expectation that they will be kept if they are still Devils by the offseason. Neither are making a lot and it may not cost a lot to retain them by both term and salary. Between the two, Mueller may be more crucial as after Ty Smith, the Devils do not really have any depth on the left side.

Binghamton: Dakota Mermis and Brandon Baddock

Yes, the Devils have two players on NHL deals ending this season that have arbitration rights while in Binghamton. Defenseman Dakota Mermis was added in this offseason to provide additional coverage to the blueline. Brandon Baddock has remained in the organization for reasons. Both may not be qualified at all. It is up in the air if there is any desire to retain either player.

Non-Superstar Unrestricted Free Agents

Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) are players who are free to sign with anyone after their contracts end on July 1 after the season. There is a time period where they can meet with other teams prior to July 1. They are not to discuss terms, but, in practice, that is exactly what happens. Generally, if a pending UFA is not re-signed by July 1, then they are likely to sign elsewhere. The Devils do have a handful of notable non-superstar UFAs for this season.

New Jersey: Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds, and Kevin Rooney

There could be a big sea change on defense as the captain Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen will both be out of contract after this season. Vatanen will surely continue his career. As a right-sided defenseman with some offensive skills and has recently became the #1 defenseman on the power play, Vatanen could be a popular man on July 1. So much so that the Devils could consider dealing him away during this season. Greene is just about near the end of his career. He will turn 37 by the end of this month and while his start to the season has been good, it is questionable how well he can keep things going long-term. Both Greene and Vatanen have played a lot for New Jersey since 2017-18. Their absences would leave a lot of minutes to be made up.

At forward, Wayne Simmonds took salary over term in 2019 by signing with New Jersey for one season at $5 million. While Simmonds has not found the scoresheet much (one assist in eight games), he is second on the team in shots (24) and the Devils have generally done well when he is on the ice - especially next to Travis Zajac. I think the goals and points will come for Simmonds; then I think more will realize he has been pretty good so far in New Jersey. Kevin Rooney has not been so hot in New Jersey. In his five appearances so far, the Devils have had to play a lot of defense. While no one should be expecting much offense from Rooney, one could expect the ice to not be so tilted. He is a fourth-line center so his role is not irreplaceable. While Simmonds is playing for his next deal, he does have a reputation for being a solid NHL winger. Rooney has no such reputation.

The thing about UFAs is that they are ultimately in control of their situation if they receive offers. It is in their best interest to see how the season goes before talking about any contract extension. It is in their best interest to see how much interest they would have from other teams to leverage their own deal. It is in their best interest to be able to control who they want to play for. To that end, I would not expect Vatanen or Simmonds to re-sign during this season. Both have much to gain by getting to July 1 and see what is on the table. Could either be traded ahead of time? I am now doubtful of that. Given how poor Carrick and Damon Severson have looked early on, I am less confident about the Devils trading Vatanen away. They need him for the right side of the defense. As for Simmonds, he has been one of New Jersey’s better wingers. I would not move him even if I liked Bratt enough - and I like Bratt - to think he could replicate his work. Rooney may be game for it just for the security of having a new contract, but the Devils could replace him fairly easily with who they have in the minors.

Greene is a different case. The first question for him is whether he wants to keep on playing. He has played in 14 seasons in the NHL, which is a successful career by any standard. If Greene wants to hang it up, then he has earned that right. If Greene wants to keep going, the Devils will need to think long and hard about whether to retain him or not. As good as his start is, Greene has been declining over the past few seasons and I would not bet on him being a viable top pairing defender by the end of this season. If they do bring him back, it would have to be a short term, a reduced salary, and a reduced role. At that point, the Devils may want to consider life after Greene - and a new captain. It seems cold but Father Time is undefeated and Shero has to do what is best for the team.

Binghamton: Ben Street and Joe Morrow

Down in Binghamton, the team signed veteran Ben Street and acquired Joe Morrow to further supplant the roster. While the AHL team has been largely used for development, the team does need some veterans to help avoid the roster getting rolled on a nightly basis. These are a few of those veterans for the 2019-20 Binghamton Devils. Will they remain? Morrow is 26 and, like Tennyson, might be a call-up option - it is possible. Street is 32 and likely will just be replaced by another UFA signing in 2020.

Other: Brian Strait

Defenseman Brian Strait re-signed to a two-season contract back in 2018. He did not play a lot last season in Binghamton due to a concussion. He was placed on season opening injured reserve for 2019-20 so he is not on the books. Per Devils Insiders on Twitter, they found a Jimmy Murphy tweet where Strait was listed as a scout for the Devils. Like the Devils Insiders, I presume that Strait’s time as a player is over and he will continue as a scout.

The Superstar Unrestricted Free Agent

Taylor Hall gets his own section for this post. As he should. He is a superstar. Hall is the first and only Devil to have ever won the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Hall is the most talented forward on the team. P.K. Subban may be getting his name in People and Jack Hughes has the brightest future, but Taylor Hall is the main man for this roster. Case in point: Hall demanded that the team add talent last April. The team drafted Hughes, traded for Subban and Nikita Gusev, and signed Simmonds. Hall spoke and management listened.

He is also in the final season of his contract, which has no no-trade or no-movement clauses. With the terrible start to the 2019-20 season and the assumption that Hall wants to be on a successful team, the rumors are already swirling. Already there are posts and -articles detailing who could be in the mix to trade for Taylor Hall, such as this Sportsnet article by Luke Fox. As well as this question by Jonathan Willis at The Athletic ($) exploring whether Edmonton could sign him as a free agent. And the rumors definitely picked up when legitimate NHL insider Elliotte Friedman highlighted Hall’s situation in his recent 31 Thoughts column. While Friedman notes that the Devils want to give him a long-term extension, the terrible start to the season may have Hall and his people considering other options.

This has provided no relief to the anxiety the Devils fanbase has over Hall. Many still remember and are still bothered by what Zach Parise did. In a full season after an injury-shortened one that ended in the Stanley Cup Finals, Parise took his time in free agency, signed a massive contract with Minnesota on July 4, and the Devils had no real option to replace the arguably irreplaceable. While Parise’s time in Minnesota may not have been so great, his departure dealt a massive blow to the Devils, who went on to enter a long re-building period. Knowing the Devils benefited from the best years of Parise’s career provides little solace for what has happened since then. Fans understandably do not want to see a repeat of 2012 in 2020 with Hall. So much so that there have already been calls for the team consider dealing him now or establish some kind of due date for an extension before trading him away.

Of course, what I wrote about UFAs applies to Hall. It is in Hall’s best interest to see how the season goes before agreeing to anything. If playoff appearances and eventual playoff success is what he values the most, then that is what will drive his decision-making. As bad as the team has started, the season is far from over and the deficit can be made up.

More importantly, Hall would have to demonstrate he is worth what would presumably be a rather lucrative contract from New Jersey or any other suitor. The Devils’ 2-4-2 start is just as much on Hall as anyone else. Per Natural Stat Trick, when Hall is on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils have a CF% of 42.35%, a SF% of 40%, a SCF% of 38.61%, and a xGF% of 37.63%. Those are not superstar numbers. Those are not even decent numbers. Those are not 5-on-5 percentages you want to see for someone who could be demanding an eight-figure salary. Hall is a mainstay of the first power play unit, which took all of seven games to make their first conversion of the season (for the whole team, in fact) and he did not pick up his first power play point until Game #8. Hall does currently lead the Devils in points (6) and shots (32) with just one goal scored. That is unfortunate, but again, I think more can be expected for someone who could be commanding a supremely rich contract. Just as the Devils need to demonstrate to Hall why he should stick around, Hall needs to demonstrate why he should deserve tons of cash. The Devils have not done their part, but Hall has not done his either. Add to the fact that Hall will be turning 28 this season and there is the very real possibility that Hall’s game does not age well. You may be willing to suffer through a couple of less-than-ideal seasons at the end of a long term deal to secure him in the short-term, but it could be a problem for the team in the future.

I am hopeful both Hall and the team will rebound. However, I would not hold my breath for any news of an extension anytime soon. The one player fans would love nothing more to see signed to an extension as soon as possible is not likely to do so. Nor should they. Both sides have a lot of work to do on the ice to prove to each other off the ice that what they want is in everyone’s best interest. Between the two, I will agree the challenge is more on the team’s side. Hall in a contract-year should be a force for oppositions to reckon with. The Devils have to get results at a higher pace to keep playoff dreams alive after earning six out of a possible sixteen to start the season. Still, this will be one ongoing storyline that will continue in the larger hockey media. The rumors will not go away. The anxiety will not either until a decision is made. That decision could go a long way to decide Ray Shero’s larger fate in New Jersey. No pressure.

Final Thought

After all of this, I hope you can better appreciate how getting Hischier’s extension done early is a benefit to the Devils. They have more time to consider the other players whose contracts are ending after this season. They also have more of an idea of how much they can spend on those players. We do not know what the cap ceiling will be for future seasons, but we know that Hischier’s extension adds $7.25 million to it until 2026-27. For next season, assuming the cap is not increasing, the Devils will have about $23.6 million to re-sign Blackwood, Bratt, Mueller, and Hayden while also keeping or signing replacements for Greene, Vatanen, Simmonds, Rooney, and Hall. That seems like a lot but it really is not. If you figure Hall is going to be retained, then you should figure on the Devils having really only $11 to $13 million to spend on everyone else. Keeping the RFAs should definitely be attainable. Replacing or keeping the pending UFAs is another issue entirely.

The larger point is that coming offseason will be the first one where Shero will really have to be judicious about his spending. In past offseasons, the Devils were re-building and so they kept as much space open as they could. With an intent to compete, they will have to be smart about who they keep on the roster. Even those signed beyond the following season may not be secure due to their cap hit and/or term. While the Devils have plenty of players with a strong incentive to have as good of a 2019-20 campaign as possible, Shero will need to seriously consider how these players fit into the short and long-term futures of the organization. Getting Hischier taken care of early and for possibly less than it could have been in the 2020 offseason was a big win for the Devils. Now there is everyone else.

What would you do if you were Ray Shero and you had these players up for new contracts? How would you handle the RFAs? How many of the UFAs do you let go? What do you offer to Hall, assuming he is taking offers? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this stupendously early look at the 2020 free agents of the New Jersey Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.