The Devils had a huge draft weekend a couple weeks ago, adding Jack Hughes and PK Subban in 24 hours to make this a big summer already, but they have also had themselves a pretty quiet free agency in the aftermath. Beyond signing Wayne Simmonds to a 1-year deal on July 1st, the Devils having done anything of note for the NHL roster. Because we as fans are never satisfied, some folks have gotten a little restless with the relatively muted free agency period. Some substantial difference-making options are still out there though, including the season’s best UFA defenseman to hit the market. The spectre of more offer sheets also still looms with several teams in tight spots and a cap crisis in Vegas means something’s gotta give. Could Ray Shero still have an ace up his sleeve? Let’s explore his options.
Jake Gardiner is head and shoulders above any other defensemen remaining out on the market. Really, once Erik Karlsson was re-signed by the San Jose Sharks before free
agency opened, Gardiner became likely the best defenseman available on
the market on July 1, period. This is largely due to an otherwise weak FA class on defense, but the point remains that he was probably the best UFA player available at the position on July 1. In spite of that, he remains very much available now almost a week into free agency.
With the Devils (theoretically) set on the left side of their defense, I’m unsure that Ray Shero is looking in this direction, but the move could still make some sense for the Devils if Gardiner comes at the right price/term. While Gardiner has some injury baggage coming with him from this past season, few defensemen in the league were as valuable as he was in 2018-19. His relative on-ice metrics were strong on a very good Leafs team and he added 30 points in 62 games (25 of those at even-strength) to go along with it. Digging deeper into metrics like his RAPM and GAR (via Evolving-Hockey), Gardiner shows out extremely well. A look at his impacts this season from Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM* metrics is eye-opening:
Gardiner shows up as a positive impact pretty much across the board and drives a huge amount of offense at even strength without sacrificing much overall on defense. His GAR** paints a similarly positive picture, with Gardiner landing at 17th in the league overall among defensemen and 12th in GAR/60 (among D with 1000+ minutes). At even-strength, he was particularly valuable in 2018-19, landing 5th among all defenders overall. Even if you are skeptical of these advanced metrics, it’s hard to find any stat that really shows Gardiner in a negative light. He was really good this past season and has been for a few years now.
Gardiner’s reputation has of course been dinged by a couple high-profile miscues in the Leafs past couple playoff series and he can play the type of risk-taking hockey that leads to memorable gaffes, but the body of work is clearly that of a very strong player and a smart team would be wise to acquire him, especially if he can be had at a shorter term to mitigate any injury concerns. With Greene likely off the books next year, a left side of Gardiner, Ty Smith, and Will Butcher going forward could be a pretty, pretty solid group. To make things fit this year, the Devils could look at moving Sami Vatanen and his expiring contract and shifting one of their lefties to the right side on a sheltered third pairing, if need be.
*Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus - A regression-based stat that looks to account for a players true impact on the ice in a variety of categories, adjusting for teammates, competition, deployment, and other outside factors.
** Goals Above Replacement - Utilizing a combination of on-ice metrics, shooting, penalty differential, and other factors, this statistic is intended to capture the approximate value a player contributes to his team, expressed in team goals added versus a generic replacement-level player.
Nitkita Gusev is a player with a huge amount of potential to make an impact on an NHL roster. Last season, he led the KHL in points by a wide margin with 82 in 62 games (13 more than the second most in the league). Perhaps more impressively, though, Gusev has been utterly dominant in international competition. In the past three IIHF World Championships, Gusev has put up 34 points in 24 total games, plus he added a great performance at the Olympics with Team Definitely Not Russia, where he put up 12 points in six games. Gusev is a left winger (though he shoots right, so he generally plays his off-wing), so the Devils might have to do some shuffling around of the depth chart, but he has the potential to bolster a top-six in a significant way.
Currently, Gusev’s NHL rights are owned by the Vegas Golden Knights and while Gusev reportedly wants to make the jump to the NHL this season, the Knights are in dire straits with their cap situation as things currently stand. Without significant other moves, the Knights don’t appear to have any way to fit Gusev under the cap, given the 2-year, $4M AAV deal he is reportedly looking for. For a team with space like the Devils, a deal like that could end up being an absolute bargain.
Like any import, Gusev is a player who carries some risk and uncertainty with him, but given the type of performances he's had in recent seasons in league and international play, he seems like a good bet to be a guy who can perform in the NHL. To be clear, Gusev is not a prospect, as he will be 27 in just a few days, so a team would be acquiring him to make an impact right now and in the near-term. If he did flame out, he wouldn’t be the first flashy import to do so, but given the potential benefit of adding him to a roster, it’s a risk worth taking.
What would it take to pry him away from Vegas? Well, the Knights know he is a valuable piece and teams are interested, so they are unlikely to give him away for peanuts, but teams also know the Knights are really in a bad spot with the cap right now. As far as what the Devils can give up, I think Shero and Co. would be unlikely to part with a top prospect like Ty Smith or Jesper Boqvist (or a future first-rounder), but maybe a package built around former first-rounder Michael McLeod and picks or something where the Devils send back picks and a decent roster player like a Miles Wood and take on a bad contract like Ryan Reaves could be enough. This is sort of a unique situation, though, so the market is a bit tough to judge. If Shero could pull some of his trade magic to land Gusev without giving up too much, he’d have a lot of happy Devils fans on his hands.
Some of the biggest name RFAs remain unsigned a few days into free agency and some of those are on teams with cap troubles. Most notably, the Mitch Marner saga remains ongoing in Toronto and Brayden Point remains without a contract in cap-strapped Tampa Bay. Both of those players are huge difference makers and the type of players who could actually make a massive offer sheet worth it. But while both Toronto and Tampa are both squeezed pretty tightly right now, they each might still have the wiggle room to match a huge offer and figure things out later using the 10% offseason cap cushion.
Another thing to consider is that the Devils are a bit hamstrung for offer sheets right now, as many of the compensation tiers are eliminated by virtue of the Devils not having next year’s second-rounder. The levels they can actually offer at are below:
This means that they can only tender an offer sheet at the following levels:— Mike Stromberg (@ColdSportsTakes) July 2, 2019
$0 - $1,395,053 (no compensation)
$1,395,054 - $2,113,716 (3rd rounder)
$4,227,438 - $6,341,152 (1st and 3rd)
$10,568,590+ (4 1sts)
With that in mind, unless the Devils are going to make a mid-level offer sheet in that $4.2-6.3M range or go the full home-run-swing on one of the Marner/Point duo, there aren’t a ton of options for them. If there were ever players who might be worth blowing four first round picks on to sign long term, though, Marner and Point are about as good of options as you’re gonna get that are even remotely plausible.
With an inability to offer sheet a lot of the bigger names, could they maybe toss out a lower offer sheet to a player like, for example, Jesse Puljujarvi in Edmonton, given how sour that relationship has turned out? Would Edmonton even match a $2M offer sheet at this point or might they just cut their losses? And on the Devils end, is that too much to commit to a total reclamation project, even if it only costs a third rounder in the end?
Beyond Jake Gardiner, there are still a few other half-decent names left in the UFA market, though they are pretty much exclusively forwards. We’ll touch on a few here.
Ryan Dzingel — Dzingel is an interesting option, in that he is the top scorer left on the board among UFA players. He was one of the isolated bright spots in Ottawa before they traded him and produced decently enough down the stretch for Columbus. He dropped off the face of the earth in the playoffs, which isn’t great, but it’s a small sample and he had a good season points-wise. The problem with Dzingel is that he is apparently a substantial defensive liability, with his on-ice relative GA and xGA rates among the worst on a terrible Ottawa team and his RAPMs from Evolving Hockey being similarly brutal for defense (see below). Dzingel can shoot the puck, but he doesn’t seem to bring too much else to the table. Perhaps in the right situation he can work, but I don’t know if the Devils are that situation.
Micheal Ferland — Ferland was a bit of an afterthought in the big Dougie Hamilton trade between the Flames and Hurricanes last summer, but he produced pretty well as a role-player for Carolina, putting up 40 points in 71 games. Ferland’s underlying numbers are only so-so, but he could be a good depth add for a team looking for options on the wing and for their power play unit. His first name is spelled wrong, though, and that annoys me as a Michael.
Patrick Maroon — Hey, I remember this guy. Maroon went home to St. Louis last offseason and all he got was this lousy Stanley Cup. Maroon turned 30 last year and put up 28 points in 74 games, just one above his low since breaking into the league full time. Maroon is a bruiser and a net-front presence who can chip in some goals and passes the puck pretty well, but he also might not make much sense at this point, given the Devils already signed one bruiser winger with questionable speed who just turned 30 this offseason.
Marcus Johansson — Hey, I remember this guy. As you are likely aware, Johansson was on the Devils this past season, and while he dealt with another rash of injuires both before and after his trade to Boston, he also played pretty well in the intervening time. Johansson will be 29 this season, and while he has obviously dealt with some injury woes the past couple years in New Jersey, he’s also a pretty decent player when healthy. He was an effective part of Boston’s supporting cast on their run to the finals in this year’s playoffs. I don’t know that either he or the Devils are interested in a reunion, but on a short-term, reasonable AAV deal, I probably wouldn’t argue with a return.
Various Olds — Most of the other players remaining out there in UFA, at least the ones that go beyond just another guy status are more of elder statesmen. Justin Williams put up 53 points last season in Carolina as a 37-year-old, making him the second-highest scorer left on the board besides Dzingel. If I had to bet, though, I’d say a return to Carolina or retirement are the most likely options for him. Joe Thornton was similarly productive at an advanced age last season, but I think most would pencil him into San Jose’s roster despite his UFA status. Other veterans available are scoring role-player types like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek or grinders like Brian Boyle (hey, I remember that guy) or Troy Brouwer. I’m not sure the Devils are interested in any of these names at this point, but there are some older veterans who may be available to fill out a roster on a one-year deal.
So do you think the Devils are done making (significant) moves for the summer? Or do you thing Ray Shero might have another splash or two up his sleeve? Are any of the players mentioned above ones you really would like to see the Devils go after? Are there any names not mentioned that you’d be interested in? Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.