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Simmonds and AHLers: A Fairly Quiet July 1 for Ray Shero & the New Jersey Devils

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Free Agency Frenzy took place throughout the league on July 1, 2019. The New Jersey Devils only got a little bit involved as they signed a big one-year contract to Wayne Simmonds and three AHL players. That’s more than last year’s result for the Devils. This post reviews it all anyway.

Nashville Predators v Winnipeg Jets
Wayne Simmonds was the one and only NHL signing the Devils made today.
Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Short of some massive news at night, the New Jersey Devils appear to be done for July 1 - the first day of free agency in the National Hockey League, also known as Free Agency Frenzy. General manager went into the day with loads of cap space available. So much so that the Devils were below the cap floor. He ended the day with the signing of right winger Wayne Simmonds and three players on two-way contracts meant for Binghamton: defenseman Daktoa Mermis, defenseman Matt Tennyson, and center Ben Street. At the least, the Devils are above the cap floor.

This is more than last year, when the Devils did pretty much nothing with their oodles of cap space. This was defendable to a point at the time and still is. The free agent market was not that strong. Overpaying players is sometimes required to get a free agent and that can become a problem when they (likely) do not provide enough on-ice value to be worth their contract. However, the relative inaction played in a role in a terrible 2018-19 campaign marred by awful goaltending, significant injuries, awful goaltending, poor coaching, poor puck possession, and awful goaltending. It was not the reason why they finished 29th last season but it played a role. It was what it was. I would think the lesson from that would be that the Devils could stand to be more active in 2019. And Shero was a little more active - for New Jersey at least.

The NHL Signing: Wayne Simmonds & Day One NHL Thoughts

Simmonds is a NHL player and Shero signed him to a $5 million contract for one season (link goes to Gerard’s post on the matter). He is a player with something to prove after he did not have such a great 2018-19 season himself. Sure, he potted in 17 goals last season per NHL.com. But that was also a season where he just had one goal in 17 regular season games and two playoff games with Nashville, hardly a team lacking talent. It was also a season where he put up 30 points, tied for his second lowest career point total. Given a total individual expected goal count of 10.3 as per Natural Stat Trick, it’s hard to argue he was unlucky or unfortunate to not have more. Also in that campaign, whether he was in orange or mustard yellow, opponents enjoyed playing against Simmonds given his low Corsi For, scoring chance for, and high-danger chance for percentages with both teams. This is all to point out that the soon-to-be-31 year old Simmonds had his struggles last season. Given his age, I can understand why some (many?) may think he is in a decline. I can also understand anyone confused why the Devils gave him $5 million.

The last part is easy. It is an overpay but it guaranteed a short term. It is a one-season contract. I would like to think Simmonds could have accepted a lower salary if it came with a longer term. To pay him more to minimize his stay is what makes it work. The Devils, again, had loads of money to burn. Now they are in a favorable situation with Simmonds. If he bounces back and play more like he did from two or three seasons ago. then he will all but guarantee himself more NHL contracts and maybe even a longer stay in New Jersey. If he repeats last season or declines, then he can be moved more easily during next season or simply part ways on July 1, 2020.

I am hopeful he bounces back because I am a fan of his style of play. With Philadelphia, he was basically a souped-up version of what Patrick Maroon was for the Devils in 2017-18. I liked Maroon a lot in that season and Simmonds was just a much better version of that kind of player. In other words, I would be all aboard the Wayne Train based on what he did. Simmonds is not fast, he is not much of a play driver, but he has always meshed well with quicker and more talented players. The Devils have had a tendency to get pucks in deep and try to create space out of battles; Simmonds would absolutely be helpful there. The Devils’ power play needs some serious re-thinking. Simmonds has been dominant setting up to the right of the crease. He is more than just a screener, he is strong and poised enough to make plays from that spot or attempt some close shots or second-chance opportunities. At a minimum, Simmonds should get the coaching staff to re-think a power play that could use it. While you cannot measure or create offense off of intangibles, Simmonds does have a lot going for him in that regard. Similar to Brian Boyle, Simmonds has a great reputation and he did win the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2019. I do not think this was a need, but it is nice to have. So is the chip on his shoulder.

It is way too early to predict lines but I think he would thrive in the kind of role of Boyle had last season. He can be utilized more efficiently in a bottom six role and he’ll get prime minutes on the power play to add to his contributions. Given how much the coaching staff wants to dump-and-chase with Miles Wood, sticking Simmonds across from him can help win more board battles, win more pucks, and give a different element from the speedy straight-line play of Wood. Given that Simmonds has not been much of a play driver, keeping him to a lower line mitigates that issue to a degree.

That all said, this is a somewhat underwhelming singing in that it is the only one for the New Jersey squad. I like Simmonds in theory. I’m not a huge fan of his 2018-19 season and I’m sure he isn’t either and I’m concerned about how much he would bounce back. Yet, I cannot possibly hate a one-year contract. If it was Simmonds and someone else, then I would be more jazzed about this.

I did expect more to happen this year from Shero. The free agent market for wingers was much deeper and the Devils have a need at that position. Specifically, a top-six winger to line up behind Taylor Hall or a top-six right winger such that Jesper Bratt can shift to left wing where his left-handed shot would fit in. They can do that with Simmonds but asking Simmonds to play in that prominent of a spot is risk. If he bounces back, then it will work out. If not, then it’s a trickier situation for a team that really should be competing for a postseason berth. There were many options for a winger in addition to Simmonds. Seeing that Gustav Nyquist went to Columbus for $22 million over four years and Joonas Donskoi went to Colorado for only $15.6 million over four years among other signings, and I think the Devils could have been involved without breaking the bank. Sure, there were some huge overpays I’m glad the Devils did not get involved in, but again, there were many options. Just Simmonds must make me think that the team is big on their incoming talent like Jesper Boqvist.

Let’s take a step back though. Hall publicly stated he wanted the team to add more talent. While the Devils won the lottery and drafted Jack Hughes as well as make a big trade for defenseman P.K. Subban, the Devils had more than enough room to add another player while re-signing their qualified restricted free agents and still have plenty of space for extensions. In addition (and I’m kicking myself for not bringing this up in the preview), this coming season will be the final years of the entry level contracts for Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Mackenzie Blackwood while also being the first year of Hughes’ eventual ELC. The first three players will not be cheap to re-sign and you want to maximize the use of Hughes at his cheapest. This coming season may also be the big comeback season for Cory Schneider (I hope) and Subban (ditto). The window to compete is pretty much now. If there is a time to spend on wingers, this was a good one as any. I understand the concern about the cap’s future, but teams can (and do!) sign players without a massive deal that will be a bad idea 30 seconds after its signed. The whole point of having the cap space is to use it when needed. Especially when the team’s best player has been vocal on wanting to be on a competitive team and he is entering the final season of his contract. Putting that aside, is getting Hughes, Subban, and Simmonds enough talent to make the team compete for the postseason? I do not know.

I still think they need another winger for the second line even though Simmonds is a winger.

Of course, Shero could make a trade to get that winger. Or even a signing! There are still a few interesting names in Ryan Dzingel and Michael Ferland still available as of this writing. Maybe Shero signs one of them. And, hey, maybe Boqvist or some other young winger is going to breakout immediately in the NHL. July 1 is not the only day to make your team better. Yet, it is not an accident that the majority of signings happen on that day and the majority of those signings include the best ones available. Simmonds will pay off if he bounces back but that’s still an “if” and it’s the only move made by Shero today for New Jersey.

The Four AHL Signings

If you expected more as a New Jersey Devils fan, then I would think a Binghamton Devil fan may feel the same way for their team. Among the outgoing free agents today, Kurtis Gabriel and Nick Lappin signed elsewhere. Helewka is gone after being acquired for basically nothing. Cam Johnson and Ryan Murphy were not qualified and became UFAs. It does not appear Eric Gryba, Eric Tangradi, John Ramage, and Blake Pietila are returning. The B-Devils were not that good last season so there may not be a lot of people missing them. But there were many gaps to fill and the parent team only provided three today: defenseman Dakota Mermis, defenseman Matt Tennyson, and forward Ben Street.

Gerard has a brief write up on all three. They’re veterans of the AHL game. Street is 32 and has been in the AHL for a while as a regular producer. He will presumably help. Tennyson and Mermis served in leadership roles on Rochester and Tucson, respectively. If nothing else, the B-Devils locker room can lean on that. Especially given how many of the players are prospects still honing their game at the professional level. All three contracts are two-way deals, which is a good indication that the team expects them to be in Binghamton moreso than New Jersey. Binghamton also added a fourth signing in inking forward Ryan Schmelzer to a one-year, AHL contract. Schmelzer finished his first season of pro hockey with the B-Devils last season and the team was pleased enough with his play to keep him around for a bit. That may also help going forward.

Still, that’s four players - five if you think John Hayden (Devils traded Quenneville for him) will go to Binghamton - for a team that can lose up to nine players from last season. There can absolutely be more signings for the AHL team. However, getting the veteran help for quite a young group of prospects in Binghamton does require some NHL contracts to be made. Shero may get involved further but, again, plenty of those players also were signed today and so picking what’s left may not be as ideal.

What Happens Next

Again, we could see further activity this week. Unlike past years, Day Two and beyond is not just a group of players who are unsigned because they are not in demand. There are still a few solid players on the open market. Surprisingly, Jake Gardiner is one of them; after Karlsson signed his extension, I thought he would be the sure-fire top defenseman available. Either he is still making decisions or other teams do not rate him as much. There are still teams wrestling with getting their RFAs signed that could open the door for Shero to make a trade. Vegas is still over the cap. Despite a big trade involving Toronto, Mitch Marner remains unsigned. Montreal went for an offer sheet on Sebastian Aho and Carolina is going to make them wait to match it (which is very likely) as a show of another reason why offer sheets are not great ideas. There are still spots in Binghamton to fill. There is some juice left in the fruit we call the NHL offseason.

But soon, the juice will run out. CapFriendly helpfully has a list of important dates for the remainder of the offseason:

By the end of this week, we will see some players in the NHL file for arbitration. According to CapFriendly, Mirco Mueller, Connor Carrick, Brandon Baddock and Will Butcher are all eligible to file. If they do, then do not panic. Panic if the player and the team actually makes it to the hearing and the hearing is held. More often than not, this is done to ensure that a deal is made sometime in the next few weeks. After then, drafted college players who are out of college and without a contract can become UFAs. I do not know if there will be any Butchers or Kerfoots available, but it is something to look for.

That does not seem like a lot to look forward to in the NHL after this week ends. It really is not. Short of some outstanding drama, the 2019-2020 Devils are close to being set. That’s why July 1 is such a big day. Per CapFriendly, as of this writing, 117 players were signed today with a total cap hit of $213 million. The majority of free agency happens on day one and it happened again this year. After today, the signings will start dwindling and the news will dry up. Maybe there will be a few events but we are about to enter the off-part of the offseason. How off? Bob McKenzie has transformed into his alter ego Bobby Margarita and took off (of course, Toronto made a trade after he posted the picture).

Of course, we at All About the Jersey are not going anywhere. If and when the Devils do something, we’ll have something to write about it. If not, we have a season to look back on and identify improvements and we have a season to look forward to. I’m going to write up a free agent Metropolitan Division snapshot of sorts next week (today didn’t help NJ a lot in this regard but I’m saving that thought for that post). Hopefully, there will be a prospect development camp and perhaps another prospect tournament to look ahead to.

Concluding Thoughts

Getting back to today. Was this a better day than last year? Sure. But the Devils did next to nothing of significant last year. Could the Devils have done more? I really do think so and I wonder if this will come back to haunt them. Simmonds could work out well but plenty needs to go right for it. It is a short-term contract either way. At the end of the day, I have to ask: Is it enough? Are the Devils that much more of a competitive team? If you include the weekend of the draft, the answer is a strong maybe. Which may really mean not enough. Or, more accurately, let’s see if the goaltending is better and the health is more fortunate in 2019-20 and hope for the best. I am still holding out hope that Shero has another significant move to make in the near future. But for a review of Day 1 of Free Agency Frenzy: meh.

That’s how I see it. Maybe you’re more positive about what the Devils did today and think that Simmonds is a big upgrade and/or that the vets for Binghamton will help them out tremendously. Or maybe you’re more negative and concerned about the Devils (either NJ or Binghamton) in 2019-20 because of what they did not do today. Maybe you’re in the middle. Please let me know in the comments.

Thanks to Gerard for taking care of business here during the day; and to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog as well. Thanks to everyone who followed along during the day. Thank you for reading All About the Jersey.