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At-Large Free Agency Commentary: Expectation and Gameplan for Devils Free Agency

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Given the state of the Devils franchise, and landscape of this season’s free agency, what should the plan be headed into July 1st?

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NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New Jersey Devils Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the bullet points of the Devils current status headed into the offseason, and, particularly, free agency.

  1. Ray Shero and John Hynes are entering the 5th year of their rebuild. In the 4 years they’ve been here, the Devils have won just 141 of 328 games— the 6th worst in the NHL in that span.
  2. The Devils made the playoffs unexpectedly last year due to, among other things, an MVP season from Taylor Hall (who’s entering the final year of his contract), but regressed to 3rd worst in the NHL this year.
  3. The Devils won the draft lottery and our 2019 selection (likely, Jack Hughes) will join Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall as the 3rd 1st overall pick on the Devils roster.

There is obviously a lot of stuff I’ve left out, but I think this paints enough of a picture for now. The Devils are entering the point of the “rebuild” where fans will deservedly begin to grow impatient. If this season goes sideways, the angry villagers will light their torches. The playoff appearance last year bought them a little breathing room, but also gave us a taste of success — which would make 2 consecutive bad seasons immediately afterwards even more frustrating and confusing. If we were good enough for the playoffs last year, how could we be bottom dwellers the next TWO seasons?

Owner Josh Harris’s other team, the Philadelphia 76ers, were notorious for embracing their “Trust the Process” mentality. It was so widely accepted by the fanbase that they marketed it with memorabilia. That GM lasted 4 years. He technically resigned, but was under immense scrutiny at the time and likely wouldn’t have lasted long anyway. Even the most understanding fans have limits. “The Process” was arguably successful given Philly’s current core, but the GM didn’t live to see it. I mean, he lived. Sam Hinkie’s still alive. But he wasn’t with the team anymore.

Fans already expected the Devils to make the postseason again sometime very soon, and that clock was accelerated when we won the draft lottery. On a Twitter poll I ran, 84% expect us to be a bubble team or better. The Devils will have Nico Hischier, Ty Smith, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes*, and Mackenzie Blackwood ALL on ELCs. Not to mention they have Taylor Hall on a bargain right now. A team with the second most cap space in the league, and those contracts, has the opportunity to make a significant leap. For a GM whose July 1st UFA history is highlighted by a 2-year contract for Brian Boyle, it’s fair to say that the expectation from Devils fans is for Shero to make his biggest splash yet this offseason.

So, with that in mind, what does this free agency class look like? What holes can be filled and what is available? Here are some of the bullet points for this year’s free agency.

  1. This UFA forward class is headlined by Artemi Panarin, and the defender class is headlined by Erik Karlsson.
  2. There are several good u30 consolation prizes among forwards (Skinner, Duchene, Lee, Eberle, and Nyquist to name a few). There is much less among defenders (Gardiner and Myers?).
  3. The Devils are losing basically no one to unrestricted free agency (Sorry, Egor).

The Devils do not have a reputation for landing big free agents. Whether it’s playing in NJ, the small market, the little brother syndrome in the shadow of NYC, or something else altogether — we are not a destination. That said, Shero also has recognized what many GMs don’t in the building process — unrestricted free agency is a great place to make bad deals anyway. When building a team for the future, getting handcuffed by a starry-eyed UFA signing is a bad news. When you’re a team with not one but several good-to-elite players on excellent contracts, that’s when your building job is done, and “go for it” time has arrived.

The Devils have defender problems — our only decent defender analytically is Will Butcher and many doubt his ability to log top pair minutes. We’re likely not in the running for Karlsson, and while I think they should give a go at Gardiner, they should prepare for not significantly improving their D in free agency. Which is okay. Teams have seen greater success with comparable/worse defencemen (see: Doumolin-led ‘17 Penguins). If our forwards are good and deep, we’ll be fine. Which brings me to the big point ...

The UFA forwards are flush this season. Whether you look at primary point rate or GAR, both metrics agree there are 23 forwards that produced at “top 6” level available on the market (though they disagree on who). This past week, Chris Ryan put up dream, realistic, and worst-case opening day lineups for the Devils. His realistic forward lineup looks like this:

Taylor Hall - Nico Hischier - Jordan Eberle
Jesper Bratt - Jack Hughes - Kyle Palmieri
Miles Wood - Travis Zajac - Blake Coleman
Jesper Boqvist - Pavel Zacha - Joey Anderson

This is where I think the free agency is going to be essential. With the Hall-Hischier-Palmieri top line over the last two years, the Devils have never really had 2 lines that you can count on. The addition of one or two genuine top 6 wingers — even if they’re not top-line guys (ex: Eberle, Ferland, Dzingel, Panik, etc.) — would finally give the Devils that opportunity. This finally allows Zajac and Coleman to either take away a team’s top line, or feast on the bottom 6 — something Coleman proved able to do this past season. Zacha is also relegated to his best place — a 4C that can contribute on both special teams. You know how the comments section here always says things like “Zajac should be a 3C” and “Bratt’s fine, but he’d be a 2nd-3rd liner on a good team” and “Zacha would be a good 4C, but is outclassed in the top 6” and stuff? Well, with Hughes, and another top 6 forward, all those comments finally become reality. That is the beginning of a team that can roll 4 lines all the damn time.

Summarizing Thoughts

With health, Hughes, improved goaltending, and cap space out the wazoo, the Devils are in position to pounce. Hall’s extension is looming and we need to show him and the fanbase that this rebuild was exactly that. In a UFA class juiced with top 6 forward talent, a few 3- or 4-year contracts to 2nd line forwards would offer the potential to completely change the complexion of our team, without being prohibitively harmful to the cap when Hall, Hischier, Bratt, Hughes, and Smith all need to get paid.

Shero used a few top picks to set the basis for his championship team in Pittsburgh and did several trades and re-signings. Sound familiar? But when it came time to compete, which turned out to be almost immediately thanks to Crosby and Malkin’s excellence, he went out and got Petr Sykora for $5M/2-years (2019-equivalent: $8.25M AAV) to flush out the top 6, and Darryl Sydor (same contract) to shore up the blue line. The Sydor was a swing-and-miss, but Sykora played an essential role in their top 6 with 63 points the first year and 46 the second.

I’m tired of sucking. Hall’s closing in on the end of his 20s, Hischier is entering his prime, we have cap-controlled contracts and a gigantic pool of forwards from which to get reasonable help. By independence day, I don’t want to praise GM restraint and resort to optimism for the future, I want to declare finally that the Day of the Devil has returned — the rebuild is over: we are built.

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What do you guys think of this year’s free agency class? What should the Devils do? Is it time? Or would you be okay waiting for trades to appear as in the past?

Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!