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Buy, Buy Buy!: 2019 NHL Free Agency Frenzy Preview for the New Jersey Devils

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After drafting Jack Hughes and trading for P.K. Subban, the New Jersey Devils head into the first day of free agency with loads of cap space and a desire to get more talent. Who is available? Who is set to hit the market from NJ? All this and more in this free agency preview for the Devils.

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7
Ray Shero made some big moves. Will he spend some big money tomorrow?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last weekend, general manager Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils were the talk of the National Hockey League. They drafted The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, first overall. They made a big deal in acquiring P.K. Subban for not much of immediate consequence. They drafted ten other players and left Vancouver still below the 2019-20’s salary cap floor of $60.2 million. Tomorrow at noon, we will see what other moves Shero will make to improve the New Jersey Devils roster for this upcoming season and beyond. Before then, let us look at the Devils’ situation and what the market looks like. Let us update what we know from an earlier free agency primer from mid-April. For today is the calm before the storm that is known in the hockey world as Free Agency Frenzy.

The Devils Cap Situation as of the End of June 2019

According to CapFriendly, the Devils have $55.73 million committed to 2019-20. They are currently below cap floor by $4.47 million and they have the fourth most cap space in the NHL as of June 29. They have 32 contracts out of a maximum of 50; and 15 players on the roster, although that number does not include potential rookies like Jack Hughes (pending an entry level contract, which is going to be the maximum), Ty Smith, and/or Jesper Boqvist. The Devils have two “dead” cap hits: the bought-out contract of Mike Cammalleri, which costs them $1.66 million for this season and next season, and the recapture cap hit for Ilya Kovalchuk’s “retirement” at $250,000 per season until 2024-25.

In short: Don’t worry about Ray Shero’s cap. Even after acquiring P.K. Subban, they have oodles of cap space. Specifically, $25.77 million. They can also add up to 18 contracts - and possibly up to 20 if Ty Smith and Jeremy Groleau play less than 10 NHL games due to the entry level contract slide rule. The Devils can spend freely if they want to. They will need to be judicious as to not box themselves in for the future; but they can do a lot if they want to this Summer.

One more thing: the Devils do have some assets to make a trade. It is not common but Shero did pull off the Marcus Johansson-for-picks deal on July 2, 2017. They do not have a plethora of picks; the 2020 second rounder went to Nashville as part of the Subban deal and their only extra pick in that year is Boston’s fourth rounder. Anything else would be their own. The assets would be in players. With Subban on the team, they are more able to Vatanen. Depending on how they see Boqvist, Zetterlund, McLeod, Bastian, and others, they could move Miles Wood or even a few prospects as part of a larger deal. Of course, having $20+ million in cap space is an asset although I do not know if the Devils should be eating someone else’s bad contract as they try to compete for a playoff spot. But it is at least possible.

The Free Agents from New Jersey

The Devils have 17 players from 2018-19 who are set to become free agents on July 1. This is a case of quantity over quality. Let’s break it down briefly:

Qualified Restricted Free Agents (6): Will Butcher, Pavel Zacha, Mirco Mueller, Connor Carrick, Josh Jacobs, Brandon Baddock

Qualifed RFAs are safe bets to be re-signed to new contracts. Mueller, Butcher, and Carrick have arbitration rights, which usually just forces a deal to be made at some point. Unless they actually go to the arbitration hearing, there is nothing to be too concerned about with any of those three. Defenseman Josh Jacobs and forward Brandon Baddock were primarily Binghamton players and they’ll likely stay as such. Between re-signing these players and a maximum ELC for Hughes, the Devils are likely to hit the cap floor.

Unqualified RFAs - Set to Become Unrestricted Free Agents (3): Stefan Noesen, Cam Johnson, and Ryan Murphy

Typically, pending RFAs that are not qualified become unrestricted and set free. Every once in a while, a player is not qualified but ends up signing a contract below what a qualifying offer would guarantee. I do not see it happening in this case. Goaltender Cam Johnson and defenseman Ryan Murphy were not that great with Binghamton. With goaltenders Gilles Senn and Evan Cormier both signed to an ELC, Johnson is unnecessary. As for Murphy, the team will probably seek a veteran replacement. Noesen is the big name and I think he has also become somewhat unnecessary for the roster. While he plays right wing, the team does have Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod, John Hayden, Marian Studenic, and Fabian Zetterlund to compete for a bottom six RW spot. Not to mention any potential additions in free agency. We will always have the memories, Noesen.

Group 6 Unrestricted Free Agents (3): Kurtis Gabriel, Nick Lappin, and Blake Pietila

The NHL CBA mandates that players who do not play a certain number of games can become unrestricted free agents before they turn 27 or play seven seasons in the NHL. These are Group 6 free agents. They typically are not established players. These three are not. None of them should return to New Jersey. Expect replacements for Binghamton and call-up purposes.

Unrestricted Free Agents (5): Kenny Agostino, Drew Stafford, Eric Tangradi, Eric Gryba, Eddie Lack

The last three were primarily minor league players. They were all veteran players for the minors, which usually requires a NHL contract to have them sign up for it. They’ll be free to go. Stafford was a UFA last season, went unsigned throughout the summer, and then was brought back to the team. I do not think there will be space for him given the incoming players through the system. Ditto for Agostino, even though I thought he was OK with the Devils last season.

In short: Devils will re-sign six players at some point and have gaps to fill in their system, mostly for Binghamton.

The Free Agency Needs of the New Jersey Devils

Expect a number of minor league signings. Whether you thought they were good in Bingo or not, my count is eight B-Devils are set to leave the organization. Moreover, according to Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports, the Devils placed Adam Helewka on unconditional waivers and he was not claimed so he’s gone. I do not know what happened there. Nashville signed him to a one-season extension in February, traded him to the Devils for future considerations (read: nothing), and the Devils ended the deal. Regardless of why, Binghamton will need another forward. Again, to bring in more experienced players to play in the minors, a NHL deal is usually needed to entice them so they know that they could be called up and they could command a decent salary in the AHL. So look out for a couple of forwards, perhaps a defenseman or two, and maybe even a veteran #3 goalie in case Cormier or Senn struggle or New Jersey’s goalies get hurt.

In terms of the New Jersey Devils, the main goal is really to acquire talent. Taylor Hall has made that clear back in April. If the Devils want Hall to sign an extension, then they need to become more competitive. I would like to think some of the other Devils feel the same way. Some strides have been made in that regard. Drafting Jack Hughes helped. Trading for P.K. Subban really helped. Just look at Elliotte Friedman’s 10th thought from his recent 31 Thoughts article at Sportsnet if you’re not sure. However, there is more to do and I would expect more to be done. I doubt that the Devils would have traded for Subban, who will make $10 million in salary in 2019-20, and then stood pat with about $20 million of cap space. The Subban trade is evidence that ownership will spend money, it is now up to Shero to spend some of it.

The largest positional need would be at the wings. Center is set with Nico Hischier, Hughes, Zacha, and Travis Zajac. After Hall, it is not clear who should be the second line left wing. After Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt, there is not much established offensive talent at right wing. The Devils have plenty of prospects and young players that may rise up and take the spot one day. But remember that the Devils’ main goal is to acquire talent. That means for next season - not one day in the future. Even if the Devils end up getting a second line left winger as their one major free agent signing, then that would be a big help.

The second largest need is at the left side of the defense; namely Andy Greene’s spot. The captain is going to turn 37 in October, he is entering the final year of his contract, and he was still playing heavy minutes last season for little positive impact. Subban’s arrival means he can be the main man on the blueline and the right side is stacked with Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen with Connor Carrick as depth. Unless the plan is to give Will Butcher a shot at more significant minutes or hope Ty Smith emerges really fast, the Devils could use an upgrade on the left side. It is not as critical since they have players (Greene, Butcher, Mueller, and the incoming Smith), they just do not have that player who can force Greene to play a more limited role where he can be more successful.

But at the end of the day, the Devils need to have a more competitive roster after free agency settles down than what they have now. Again, Subban will help a lot. Hughes will help. So may Smith, Boqvist, and anyone else earning a spot out of camp (no one expected Jesper Bratt back in 2017). With cap space, roster space, and a public statement from the team’s superstar desiring more talent, now is the time to spend. And not just for Binghamton, who definitely needs it given how many players are set to leave.

The Market & What to Look for Around the League

For the last week, pending free agents have been meeting and discussing their futures with interested teams. This has spurned all sorts of rumors and speculation. I remind you, the Devils fan, that Ray Shero has fortunately followed Lou’s approach to this sort of thing. Keep your plans close to your vest, do not use the media to tip your hand or negotiate a move, and make the move when it is time to make the move - not because the fans or the press are getting hyped over it. Therefore, treat any speculation and rumor involving New Jersey with a grain of salt.

The big names at forward are very much in play. Artemi Panarin is in that rare category of “A free agent who will likely be worth whatever he asks for” and he is out and about. He’s going to make so much bread and receive it too. Matt Duchene is also available, although Nashville made the Subban trade in part to go after him. Joe Pavelski is not expected to return to San Jose and there is interest there too. There are plenty of second and third line options available from Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi to Marcus Johansson and Patrick Maroon to Michael Ferland and Richard Panik to Anders Lee and Mats zuccarello. Given that the Devils’ positional need is for wingers, they have plenty of options. And if they want to go really big, they can.

The free agent class of defenseman is a lot thinner. Erik Karlsson signed a fat extension with San Jose and he was set to be the only bona fide #1 defenseman on the market. Jake Gardiner is now the best defender available and he will get to command a lot of money just by scarcity. After Gardiner, there are a lot of veteran depth players and younger bargains. Among the rest, I like Anton Stralman and Ben Chiarot but only to a degree. But there is not a lot here to get excited about. Good thing the Devils made that Subban trade.

Goaltenders are interesting for free agency this year. Sergey Bobrovsky is the big name but he is not coming off his best season. I would have to think Florida, who just lost Roberto Luongo to retirement to the annoyance of Vancouver, will go hard after him. Robin Lehner had an awesome comeback season - and he has not re-signed with the Isles. Carolina’s goaltending tandem that finally provided the team at least decent goaltending, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, are also hitting the open market. And do not count out Seymon Varlamov, who Colorado appears to be moving on from with Grubauer and Francouz. After them, it’s a bunch of veterans and not-good goalies. Thankfully, the Devils do not need a #1 or #1A goalie for next season.

There are some significant RFAs on some teams that have a challenge to retain them. Mitch Marner is the big one in Toronto. With negotiations rumored to be well above $10 million, Toronto is feeling the cap crunch. It is definitely a Drama at this point and he could be the subject of the rare offer sheet. The Devils do not have their 2020 second, so they’ll have to go massive (or really small) and risk giving up four first rounders on top of a massive contract that could go to Panarin or Hall or someone else. And an offer sheet has to be signed by the player and the team could match it. I see offer sheets as more trouble than they may be worth and that is usually why you do not see a lot of them. This has not stopped the clamoring for offer sheets by media people who so badly want to write about them. Sebastian Aho in Carolina and Brayden Point in Tampa Bay are also players expected to receive huge deals, but their teams have the space to sign them. But if negotiations break down there or elsewhere, an opportunity may present itself for New Jersey.

Lastly, keep an eye on Vegas. As of this writing, they’re above the $81.5 million salary cap at $82.3 million. They have two RFAs to sign and only 18 signed to their main roster. They can be above the cap by as much as 10% in the offseason but they need to be compliant in the Fall. The Devils could help themselves in helping Vegas. Then again, so could Colorado, Columbus, Ottawa, Florida, Winnipeg, Carolina, and the Islanders - and some other teams who are not currently below the floor.

The Offseason Posts

Since mid-April, CJ and Gerard have been focusing on the many angles and issues involving the offseason for the New Jersey Devils. From potential new contracts for Zacha and Butcher to players to avoid. Additionally, we have been profiling multiple UFA targets that may or may not be players we think the Devils should go after:

Jake Gardiner (written before the Subban deal), Mats Zuccarello, Gustav Nyquist, Joonas Donskoi, Richard Panik, Anton Stralman, and Patrick Nemeth.

Please check those out ahead of tomorrow’s opening of free agency.

The Frenzy

It is called Free Agent Frenzy because a lot happens right on July 1. The majority of free agent signings, minor and major, happen within hours of free agents being allowed to sign contracts. It opens at noon on July 1 and it is common for significant contracts can be announced within that first hour.

Are these deals actually made within minutes? No. There has been a lot of preparation and ground work made. It has happened so much that the NHL has allowed a discussion period for pending free agents to meet with teams since it was clearly happening anyway. Call it talks. Call it legal tampering. Call it what you want. It is a thing. Next year will be interesting as this period will only be four days as the draft will be on June 26 and June 27. For this year, the longer period has increased intrigue and rumor.

We will have an open post for the day on July 1. We will have a summary post of Day 1’s activities for the Devils. We will try to keep up with what the Devils do, be it with minor league signings or signings for the NHL team. Please join us and please do not spread rumors / speculation from nobodies on the internet. There will be more than enough happening from legit sources to pay attention.

In the meantime, share your thoughts for what the Devils should do tomorrow and this Summer in free agency in the comments. How much should their RFAs (Zacha, Butcher, Mueller, Carrick) be re-signed for? Which UFAs should the Devils go after? Who do you think they should avoid? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2019 Free Agent Frenzy in the comments. Thank you for reading.