The New Jersey Devils need to be competitive this season. For the franchise, for the fans and for the sake of a Taylor Hall extension/re-signing, there’s no other way to state it. General Manager Ray Shero and his staff have done a good job so far this offseason, mainly with the drafting of Jack Hughes and the trade for P.K. Subban, to make Jersey’s Team more competitive. Looking at how much the landscape of the Metropolitan division has changed, however, shows there’s no guarantee for any team to succeed.
With that being said, there’s still some steps the Devils could take to give themselves a greater chance for success; the defense is still a huge question mark, and even problematic in some cases, such as CJ’s discussion yesterday. There are questions up front and in net, and while the Devils seem set upon starting the season with the goalies on the roster, if an opportunity to improve up front presented itself, you’d have to think they would take it. So what avenues are still available as July is set to turn to August next week? Well...
1.) Sign Jake Gardiner
As of this writing, Gardiner, projected to be one of the first names swooped up in free agency, remains unsigned, and it is unclear as to exactly why that is. Perhaps due to his back surgery, his contract expectations, a combination of both, or some other factor, Gardiner was predicted to be one of, if not the prized blue line acquisition after Erik Karlsson avoided free agency, but that has not been the case.
CJ covered his pros and cons earlier this summer, and with the Devils left side mainly boasting just Will Butcher currently (a restricted free agent himself at time of writing) along with an aging Andy Greene, signing Gardiner would go a long way to alleviating some of the team’s issues. One possible side effect of this would be that Ty Smith would not be able to be a regular on Jersey’s blue line this year, even though he is seemingly ready for NHL duty. Signing Gardiner and rolling him, Butcher and Smith would be great in a perfect world, but then you have your captain in the press box. Many would point out that Smith predominantly played the right side in juniors, but with Subban, Damon Severson and Sami Vatenen there, either Smith is fourth in line, or one of those guys would have to play their off-hand side, still resulting in Greene being scratched.
The Devils would have an unenviable task in this situation, as Smith has seemingly proven all he can in the WHL, but is not AHL-eligible until next season, meaning it’s NHL or juniors for him. If they were able to obtain Gardiner, and Smith was seen as an upgrade over what the team iced last season, it seems someone else on the blue line would have to be moved to maximize the defense’s potential.
2.) Trade with a Cap-Strapped Team
This option just seems to keep coming up time and time again this summer, especially with the Devils still holding onto a good chunk of cap space. There are a number of teams that have gotten even closer to the maximum (with some even approaching the summer overage of 10%) after re-signing some of their key restricted free agents; many of those same teams still have other key players to sign and even less money with which to work.
There have been rumblings of moves such as Vegas trying to either trade Nikita Gusev’s rights, or another player to open up space to sign Gusev; while they recently completed a trade with Toronto, they still don’t have the cap available right now. The Washington Capitals are in similar straights, as Chandler Stephenson has an arbitration hearing coming up, while the team is already above the maximum for the beginning of the season. They may be able to make a few promotion/demotion transactions if he’s awarded/signs a lesser deal, but if not, the Caps will need to clear some cap as well. Speaking of Toronto, they, Our Hated Rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars are all close to being capped out, with only Dallas and Pittsburgh seemingly having 23 man rosters that they could enter the season with.
The Devils can take advantage of these issues; while they may not be acquiring another Hall-caliber player (or even a player with Top 6 certainty), they could still be getting someone with untapped potential. At the very least, it could be an upgrade over what they already have. This also could be combined with the first option to open up a Ty Smith slot should management view him as essentially a lock for the opening night roster.
3.) Internal Growth
Perhaps the least appealing option from where things stand at the moment, but the Devils do have a number of young players, some of whom have impact player potential. Nico Hischier has put up two very solid seasons to start his NHL career and with more comfort and growth, he could be poised to put up some big numbers in his third NHL campaign. The same could be said of Jesper Bratt who has had to overcome some injury hurdles to this point in his career as well; for a former 6th round pick, Bratt has been money so far, and his skill set seems to indicate that he could be ready to produce more provided he stays healthy.
Then we have the incoming players; should the aforementioned Smith make the roster, he has a penchant for making solid plays with the puck, and could be racking up a good number of assists depending on his role. Jack Hughes should be productive right away thanks to his talent, and the fact that the Devils will have a pair of centers (HIschier and Travis Zajac) who can provide him with easier match-ups. Jesper Boqvist will also be looking to not only make the roster, but transition his successful SHL season into a full-time NHL role.
If more than one of the rookies makes a profound impact, coupled with growth from the incumbents, then the Devils fortunes could be looking much brighter than they have in recent memory.
Again, it’s only one week until August and there’s still plenty that can happen this summer; with Ray Shero committed to surrounding Taylor Hall with more talent, there’s reason to believe that he’s not finished and is simply waiting for other NHL dominoes to fall before striking again. What do you believe is Shero’s next move; will he sign Gardiner? Does he make a trade with a team needing some salary cap breathing room? Is he going to simply bide his time and let the youth have their run at propelling Jersey’s Team? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!