With yesterday’s article kicking off our coverage of unrestricted free agents this offseason, it makes the most sense to look at those belonging to our own New Jersey Devils first. This article will pertain to those UFAs that finished the season in New Jersey rather than the Eric Grybas and Nick Lappins within the organization. As such, there are four players who qualify: Drew Stafford, Kurtis Gabriel, Kenny Agostino, and Egor Yakovlev. We will today look at their previous season, a projected contract for each, as well as if I believe the Devils will attempt to retain each player or not.
Previous Cap Hit: $810K
EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 1 Year/$850K
Stafford was re-signed by New Jersey just prior to the start of the regular season out of necessity due to an injury to Jesper Bratt. Prior to that Stafford had been a part of the team’s training camp roster, but it seemed as though he wasn’t going to be given a contract, and the Devils were embracing younger, more talented players. While Stafford certainly used to be an NHL level player, it seems his best days are behind him; father time, as always, is undefeated.
I did appreciate the leadership that Drew brought to the team, as it was reported that he led a players only meeting in mid-January as the team’s season was beginning to fall apart; it was a valiant attempt to get the players to take pride in their game even with players such as Taylor Hall missing from the lineup. Nevertheless, he was a net negative in most of his time on the ice, as he struggled to keep up with the pace that the rest of the team played at. While hie shoot-out specialties certainly have not waned, the rest of his on-ice ability is hampered by his declining speed.
Stafford posted 13 points (5G-8A) in his 57 contests last season, good for the lowest single-season point total of his career. Stafford will also be turning 34 shortly after the season begins, which doesn’t fit with the Devils’ window for competition. While his GAR (courtesy of evolving-hockey) was close to 0 at -0.6 (and not as much was expected due to him being a fourth line player) if combined with the other above points, it means the Devils should move on from Stafford this season, injuries or not.
Evolving Wild’s contract projection model sees Stafford get a modest raise to just under $850K. If he's going to get this raise on an NHL contract, I hope it is from another team, as unfortunately outside of the shoot-out, Drew Stafford just isn’t helping the Devils all that much. I wouldn’t mind, however, if the team kept him around in Binghamton for his leadership, as I think Drew could have a positive impact on some younger players coming through the system.
The Verdict: Keep him if he is willing to accept a two-way deal that sees him spend most of his time in Binghamton; if not, cut him loose.
Previous Cap Hit: $650K
EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 1 Year/$735K
Gabriel’s signing was viewed as a bit odd prior to the 2018-19 season; Ray Shero made so few moves in free agency to begin with , and one of the moves was for a player with all of 15 games on NHL experience that was mostly renowned for his grit. While it was not a popular move to begin with, most fans understood that it was an AHL deal to help protect the kids’ or at least, it seemed that was all it would be.
With the rash of injuries that plagued the Devils, Gabriel was called up from Binghamton on a pair of occasions; the first would be at the start of November, where he would appear in one game before being sent back down. The second recall was at the start of February, and Gabriel would be a fairly regular fixture, appearing in 21 contests down that stretch. While he was mostly in for energy minutes, hitting, and the occasional scrap, Kurtis certainly had one of the feel-good moments of the year when he potted his first NHL goal at home against the Ottawa Senators.
Kurtis had a few feel-good moments, but he was a player who just seemed to be pinned in his own zone all of the time. Even as a fourth line player, you don’t want to see players unable to get the puck up ice, because that leads to bad things happening, be it penalties or goals against. With a lower GAR than Stafford (-1.5), Gabriel is again not bringing the offense, nor helping to generate it.
While I disagree that he will be getting a raise as Evolving Wild projected he would, I still think even at the same salary it’s not worth keeping Gabriel. He doesn’t fit the team’s speed, style, or attack strategy. I wouldn’t hate him being back in Binghamton, but I still feel there’s better options.
The Verdict: Cut him loose.
Previous Cap Hit: $700K
EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 1 Year/$765K
Agostino may be the most interesting name on this list, as he didn’t start the season in New Jersey’s system. His 2018-19 began with the Montreal Canadiens, where he contributed 11 points in 36 appearances. He would be placed on waivers, and the New Jersey native would be claimed by Jersey’s team. He would suit up for 27 games as a Devil where he contributed 13 more points.
I feel that Kenny coming over was again due to the Devils’ injury woes, but this pick up worked out pretty well, as Agostino was essntially a .5 PPG player in his tenure here. I’m not sure if that’s due to the system, the usage or some other factor entirely, but with the Devils starving for help on offense, can you really turn down a guy who’s chipping in a point every other game on average?
The concern here could be that Agostino doesn’t improve upon this season’s numbers; with both teams he played 61 games and recorded 24 points, but is already at the end of the curve for where forwards peak offensively. Agostino may be looking for a long-term deal, but if I were the Devils, I’d be looking at a “prove it” contract within John Hynes’ system before giving him a multi-year extension.
The Verdict: I would honestly give him a 1 year contract at $800K; Agostino seemed to fit well in Jersey’s system, and I would like to see what he could do with a full year.
Previous Cap Hit: $925K
EvolvingWild Contract Projection: 1 Year/$800K
We reach the conclusion of our UFAs today with the lone defenseman in Egor Yakovlev. He joined the Devils’ organization last season after coming over from the KHL, having won the Gagarin Cup two seasons prior. Yak was expected to compete for an opening night roster slot, but found himself as the odd man out, partly due to the fact that he was exempt from waivers.
He appeared in 19 AHL contests, registering 16 assists, and at the NHL level, he would see 25 games of action (with quite a few scratches) where he registered 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points. While the numbers don’t jump off of the paper, I still consider those numbers solid for a player who was adjusting to the North American ice size/game.
The problem with Yak is that despite some favorable numbers (his GAR of 1.5 in limited action for example) he still couldn’t find a regular role within a pretty awful (especially after Vatanen’s injury) New Jersey Devils defense. If this is the case, then even with some games under his belt at the NHL level, I don’t know if he will be able to solidify himself as a true, every night NHL defender.
The Verdict: I wouldn’t mind having Yak back, especially if the team strikes out on signing defense elsewhere. I honestly don’t think he was as bad as his usage/scratches suggest. I do honestly feel, however, that he will be looking for an expanded role on another team, so I don’t realistically see him back in NJ.
These are the prominent members of the New Jersey Devils roster who are going to hit unrestricted free agency come July 1st; who among them is most deserving of a new contract? Which of these players would you personally want back on the team and why? Do you see the Devils moving on from all four of these players? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!