It’s been a big summer for general manager Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils. After a quiet offseason in 2018, the 2019 offseason has been a wild ride for the team and its fans. After winning the draft lottery and subsequently taking Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, the Devils added former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman PK Subban less than 24 hours later. When free agency opened, the team grabbed net-front presence and bounceback hopeful Wayne Simmonds. Then, this week, the team traded a couple of picks to acquire KHL star Nikita Gusev and signed him to a two year deal. The Devils added the first overall pick, a top-pairing defender, and the best player in the KHL all in the same 6-week stretch, all while having very few prominent faces from last year’s team head out the door.
With a bunch of new players in the fold and the roster (barring a surprise from Ray Shero) seemingly pretty much set at this point, the Devils will now turn their attention to the season at hand. From a roster-construction standpoint, though, the next big question now moves to next summer, where the Devils’ two best forwards will both be looking for new contracts and big raises. The Devils will have a few deals expiring to make some room, but with Subban and Gusev now in the mix, the Devils could start to feel some pressure from the cap ceiling as soon as next season.
Where Things Stand
Heading into the summer of 2020, the Devils currently have just 11 players signed (per CapFriendly), totaling a pretty substantial $46.7 million in total cap hit. This number doesn’t reflect the exact situation, but it represents a good enough starting point and shows that the Devils will be advancing beyond the days where they have virtually unlimited cap space very soon. The cap ceiling currently sits at $81.5 million for 2019-20, so assuming a relatively modest $2.5-million increase, that would put the cap at $84 million in 2020-21. If that is the neighborhood of where the cap ends up, that would give the Devils about $37 million to fill 12 other roster spots.
Some of those 12 roster spots will inevitably be filled by players on ELCs that CapFriendly doesn’t show at the NHL level for now (two obvious candidates being Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist), but either way, the Devils will need to split those $37 million 12 ways, and there are a couple names alone that could end up commanding over half of that. However you slice it, the cap is about to become a factor.
There will be some players who the team will hand out new deals to next season and likely a few names they will not. Let’s run down the list of 2020 expirations.
- Taylor Hall (current cap hit $6M)
- Wayne Simmonds ($5M)
- Andy Greene ($5M)
- Sami Vatanen ($4.875M)
- Kevin Rooney ($700K)
- Nico Hischier ($925K)
- Jesper Bratt ($749K)
- Mackenzie Blackwood ($698K)
- Mirco Mueller ($1.4M)
- John Hayden ($750K)
- Joey Anderson ($925K)
- Brett Seney ($758K)
Out of those two lists, there are four names that jump out to me as the most crucial. Taylor Hall is the glaringly obvious key player among the UFA group and then Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Mackenzie Blackwood are all RFAs who will be looking at significant pay bumps if they continue their trajectories this year. The rest fall into two categories: a) the veterans who are most likely to become cap casualties in some manner (Simmonds, Greene, Vatanen) and b) the depth guys who could stick around but likely won’t command too much more than they’re getting right now (the rest).
Building the Roster
Now comes the fun part, let’s try to attach some dollar values to the players who need new contracts. We’ve had some posts here from CJ and Gerard earlier this offseason trying to answer the Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier contract questions. I’ll take my own stab at a guess for each here, but if you want a more in-depth look, head to one of those posts.
Taylor Hall, LW — 8 years, $10.75M AAV — Hall is going to command big dollars whether he stays or goes, though I think his cap hit will get dinged a bit by his injury history. Before Panarin signed with the Rangers, this would have been the largest AAV for any winger in the league, so it’s far from a low-ball offer. I could see Shero going up to the $11M range to get this done, but this number feels like a win for everyone.
Nico Hischier, C — 6 years, $8M AAV — I admittedly have a little bit of trouble nailing down where I think this deal might end up, but this feels like a reasonable range for both team and player. The six years buy two UFA years at a reasonable price for the Devils, but it will also expire when Hischier is 27, giving him ample opportunity for a next big contract.
Jesper Bratt, LW/RW — 3 years, $4.5M AAV — I think the Devils are likely to go shorter term with the other non-Hischier RFAs to try to keep cap hits and commitments down. If Bratt continues to play strong hockey, though, he’s going to get a big raise either way. His deal is a bit of a wild card and depends a lot on how this season goes, but this gives him a nice raise and takes him up to his last RFA year.
Mackenzie Blackwood - 3 years, $3.5M AAV — Even moreso than Bratt, this deal is going to depend a lot on what Blackwood looks like this year. He really good for the most part in 2018=19, but he also still only has 23 NHL appearances to his name and a pretty uneven few years leading up to his breakthrough. This number assumes that he performs well this season sharing a starter’s load with Cory Schneider. If he’s only okay, I think this number comes in a good bit lower and likely shorter term.
Elsewhere on the roster, there are a few other minor questions to answer. Pavel Zacha is the one remaining loose end from this offseason, so let’s just assume he signs a two-year bridge at around $2M AAV. The Devils are likely to re-sign at least some of those RFAs listed above but for the purposes of Armchair GM’ing we’ll just sign Joey Anderson up as a depth piece at a $1M AAV. To complete the roster at forward I assumed the Devils sign Aarne Talvitie to an ELC and he figures into the fourth line picture.
That pretty much fills out the forward ranks, but assuming that the Devils have Ty Smith in the mix, that still leaves some gaps in the defense. Namely, with the potential departure of Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen, the Devils will have holes to fill on both the right and left sides. For the right side, the Devils will still have Connor Carrick under contract, but could see that third-pair defense role filled from within the system with Harvard prospect Riley Walsh. Opposite Walsh, it seems unlikely the team will be able to fill their hole on the left from within, so they will need to bring in a new body or re-sign one of Greene and Mirco Mueller. Greene could still have something in the tank to be a third-pair mentor type, but how much of a pay cut is he willing to take from his current $5M? Would he accept a 1-year deal at third-pairing-type money? Let’s just assume he would, and if not, maybe figure the Devils go with Mueller or some other veteran journeyman to fill at the roster at around $2M.
The final total cap hit for that bunch comes in at $82.8M on an $84M cap, leaving just $1.2M in space. Obviously some of these numbers could go up and down a bit with final deals, but I think I’ve thrown out reasonable enough figures to get players signed. I think the takeaway here is that even without any further big adds, the Devils will be starting to push up against the cap ceiling next summer, with the big caveat being that Taylor Hall’s potential deal is a huge driver of that scenario. If he leaves, the Devils will a fair bit more flexibility but also won’t have one of the very best wingers in the league.
I think this drives home just how important it was for the Devils to be smart in the way they managed the cap these past couple offseasons. Just looking at something like the Simmonds deal, if that were two years, the team would already potentially be in a “somethings gotta give” position by next summer. As it stands, things look a little tight, but there is definitely enough room to hand out big contracts without having to wriggle out from underneath anything yet.
Beyond 2020, the Devils figure to be much more of a cap team if they are able to lock up Hall and Hischier long-term. In 2021, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, and Blake Coleman will be looking for new deals, though Zajac’s contract will also be up. Summer 2022 already looks like a big one, as contracts for Hughes, Smith, and Boqvist, will all need to get done, though Subban and Schneider’s current contracts will both be coming off the books at that point. The outlook can always change as trades happen and new young players come in, but the Devils are now entering a brave new world after this season: one where the cap ceiling is actually a consideration once again.