The New Jersey Devils will be looking to improve their roster this summer in free agency, and the cap space they have will need to be well spent. There’s a variety of names available to bolster depth, but the price and what they bring to the table can vary greatly. We will be looking jointly today at five players available from within three salary tiers, and how likely it is that the Devils will be able to sign these players. We will be looking at our Reach ($5M+), Target ($2M-$4.9M) and Safety (under $2M) Tiers to not only see what is available, but also to choose one player from each of these categories for who we believe would be the best fit for our New Jersey Devils.
This is a list of the top five available UFA forwards in each salary tier (based off EvolvingWild’s projections) in GAR. Primary points (P1) per 60 is also included. The “weighted” column is a weighted average with a split of 70/20/10 on previous years based off the same contract model.
Among the elite players, Skinner actually outperforms Panarin in weighted GAR. Panarin impacts the game in a wider variety of ways, as evidenced by his clearly superior P1/60 (2.6 vs 2.1) and his elite transition game dwarfs the merely-above-average Skinner. Fellow Blue Jacket, Matt Duchene, had the 2nd highest GAR (Skinner) and the 2nd highest primary point rate (Panarin) among UFA forwards in 2019. He’s a pretty unambiguously great forward and at a cost of $4M less than Panarin, is a steal for the price. Nyquist is the guy you settle for if you need an elite forward and can’t get the big ones (FYI: this may describe us). Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7, is still chugging along, and could be a good role model for a young team with cap space (also describes us)
Among middling forwards Thorton’s likely not acquirable. But his teammate Joonas Donskoi, is just 27, averaging roughly a half a point per game over the last two years, and has excellent on-ice impacts with a +6.23 relative expected goal ratio (13th out of 348 forwards with 1000+ minutes over last 2 years). Hagelin has strong impacts and is perceived as a sparkplug due to his speed ... but ... Rangers. Panik is a guy many view as a sneaky top 6 add because of his consistency — 30+ points, +2 or over relative corsi, and 4+ GAR in every one of the last 3 years despite a trade bisecting that span. Brett Connolly is not on as many lists, but perhaps he should be. He’s only 27 and has a 1.88 wP1/60 and consistent positive GAR numbers as well.
And in the clearance aisle, we have Pominville as the wily vet still capable of genuine production both in impact and points. Garnet Hathaway is likely a depth forward, but perhaps worth a shot. With 19 points and a negative Corsi, you have to work to see the value — but, he’s positive in expected goals, and all of his points were at even-strength. Brandon Pirri is a fascinating case — he’s put up 23 goals and 16 assists in only 1220 minutes of hockey over the last 3 years. For a reference point, Blake Coleman, in this breakout season of his, had 22 goals and 14 assists in 1327 minutes. If someone gives him a shot, he may be a surprising producer on the PP and in the bottom 6. Cracknell and Carr make the cut due to strong GAR, but played a combined 80 minutes last year so probably shouldn’t be considered to strongly.
Reach: Jeff Skinner
Skinner presents a good projected mix of value and production to go along with the desired speed that would fit the Devils’ system. While Panarin certainly fits that bill as well, aside from the price tag, it seems like more of a pipe dream that he would come to New Jersey over the teams that he has been linked to;, Duchene probably falls into the “pipe dream” category as well. Nyquist, as stated above will probably wind up with a team that strikes out on the big FA names, so he takes the runner-up position to Skinner for the sake of this article. Justin Williams could be a good addition, but he falls outside of the age range that the Devils are looking for, especially once you factor in his expected salary.
Signing Skinner would give the Devils three legitimate scoring threats in their Top 6 (alongside Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri) to couple with crafty youngsters Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Skinner being signed would also allow the Devils to keep Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac reserved for suppressing the opposition’s top players nightly, rather than having to rely on them for scoring as they did this past season due to the locker room transforming into an infirmary.
Did we mention that Jeff Skinner brings the goals? In his career so far, he’s tallied 244 goals in 661 contests, which equates to just over 30 goals at an 82 game pace. While much of the recent narrative surrounding the Devils was on defense and goaltending, it never hurts to have another high end player putting pucks into the net. While we will look at addressing the defense issue tomorrow, today is about shoring up a “meh” offense and having another impact forward will do that. Skinner is still young (he actually will just be turning 27 tomorrow), which fits right in with Jersey’s core, and having him would give the Devils another weapon and another legitimate Top 6 player. If all it is costing is money and cap space (which the team is flush with) there’s no reason not to do it; it’s time for Ray Shero to spend and Jeff Skinner would be the perfect player to spend it on.
Target: Brett Connolly
While he may be the lowest ranked player in middle category, Connolly possesses some skills that help him to stand out from the rest of the pack that he’s grouped with. He would be a good mix of cost-effectiveness, on-ice speed and goal scoring, with the latter two points pretty much being a trend of what the team is going to be looking for. With 22 goals this past season, and 15 each of the prior two before, Connolly is seeming to be somewhat of a late-bloomer at the NHL level, and having a natural RW with some size would certainly help the Devils fill some gaps.
Additionally, Connolly sits tied with Joe Thornton from this group for primary points wP1/60, and while his weighted GAR is the worst in the group, it’s still above most players in the safety category. He’s also not exactly a slow player, as we mentioned, and having another player on the right side who could keep up with our speedy left wingers (read: Taylor Hall and Jesper Bratt) would give the Devils some more advantageous match-ups and this should in turn keep the puck moving away from Cory Schneider and MacKenzie Blackwood and into the opposing net.
Thornton is on the cusp of retirement, and is almost certainly not coming to New Jersey for one year, especially when his chances at a championship next season. Carl Hagelin has the desired speed, but his production from this past season was discouraging to say the least. Richard Panik and/or Joonas Donskoi wouldn’t be disappointing either, but Connolly’s goal production and relatively friendly price (especially if he can repeat as a 20 goal scorer) gives him the edge and makes him our target for the Devils in free agency.
Safety: Jason Pominville
If we have to be pulling anyone from the bargain bin to improve the team through free agency, then Pominville presents the best opportunity out of the mentioned available players (who fall into that last category) to do so. He is projected to cost the least out of the three players in this tier who were at least semi-regulars in the NHL last season, and could bring a good veteran presence to the locker room as well.
Additionally, Hathaway is as we said above, a depth forward at best, and Pirri’s lack of skating ability could hurt his ability to contribute within the system the Devils play. While Pominville has age working against him (he’ll be 37 at the end of November), he has still contributed 16 goals each of the past two seasons, which is more than most Bottom 6 players the Devils employed last season could say. He’s also a natural RW, meaning he fills two needs (secondary scoring and right winger) for the Devils, even if it is just in their Bottom 6.
A one to two year deal at $1.1M won’t break the bank and gives the Devils roster flexibility (as Pominville could be sent down with only $175,000 counting against the salary cap), and will help to insulate some of the up and coming prospects. Pominville may be in the discount bin, but that doesn’t mean that Ray Shero should be hesitant to pluck him from it.
Who do you believe that the New Jersey Devils should pursue in free agency? Do you like the picks of Skinner, Connolly and/or Pominville? Do you prefer another player in any of the tiers? Is there any other forward not listed that you would like to see the Devils pick up? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!