As the Devils offseason enters its 9th month since NHL play was halted back in March, there doesn’t seem to be much left but the wait for training camp to open, which may or may not happen in December at this point with the pandemic surging in Canada and the US, especially. The draft came and went, as the Devils continued to work on building their prospect pipeline by nabbing two quality forwards in Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer, plus taking a swing on the big project defenseman, Shakir Mukhamadullin. The Devils made some trades, improving the team by acquiring Ryan Murray from Columbus and Andreas Johnsson from Toronto. The team has also signed a couple NHL players through free agency, most notably strong veteran netminder Corey Crawford along with depth defender Dimitry Kulikov. Given the lack of activity since the Kulikov acquisition several weeks ago, it’s possible to conclude that the Devils are done adding for the offseason and will head into camp with what they have.
There are a couple significant names floating around in free agency that have not landed with a team yet, though, and the Devils could benefit from trying to dive back into the market and improving the team at a relative bargain price. The two biggest UFA names still remaining are likely Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman, two veteran forwards with very different player profiles. Granlund is a two-way center who spent most of his career as an impact guy for Minnesota before getting to traded to Nashville in 2019, where he’s had a bit less success. Hoffman on the other hand is a pure goal-scorer who can fill the net like few others, but lacks much of a game outside of that element. While I think Hoffman has some appeal for the Devils, especially as a bargain pickup, today I want to highlight Mikael Granlund, who could greatly solidify the Devils down the middle in the short-term.
The Devils, as we know, have a great outlook for the future down the middle, with the top two lines likely to be centered by Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes for many years to come. Beyond those two, though, things are a much bigger question mark. Travis Zajac, longest-tenured Devil and mainstay at center for nearly a decade and a half, is now 35 and declining with a contract that will expire after the upcoming season. He is probably best-suited to a defensive bottom-six role at this point and should prebably have some distance from a top-six hoping to be competitive. Separately, Pavel Zacha, ostensibly in line to be the team’s third-line center going forward, still has yet to show he can can drive results as a center at even strength. Your mileage may vary on whether Zacha has another step forward in him, but while he has proven to be a quality penalty-killer at this point and can splash in a nice play here or there, there are plenty of reasons to have doubts about his ultimate abilities as a top-nine pivot on a good team.
Given this situation, and given that Jack Hughes still has some improvement to do following a so-so rookie season, one area could stand to improve is at the center position in their middle-six in the short term. Following that statement, you can see where a guy like Mikael Granlund — a player who is still just 28 and is not far removed from a two-year stretch where he was a strong 200-ft center that put up 136 points over two seasons — could be a strong fit to help the Devils in the coming seasons.
Let’s take a look at Granlund’s career counting stats, which show him perhaps beyond his peak but also show that he has consistently put up points while maintaining his reputation for a solid two-way game. Stats below pulled from CapFriendly:
For whatever reason, Granlund hasn’t quite been a fit in Nashville, which is likely part of why there wasn’t a ton of discussion of him returning to the Predators after this season. His counting stats prior to being traded away from Minnesota were quite good, though. In the majority of three seasons leading up to that trade, Granlund had put up 62 goals and 123 assists for 185 points in 221 games (a very nice 69 points per 82 games pace). I don’t necessarily know that Granlund would return to those 2016-2019 heights if he came to New Jersey, but the track record is good enough that I’m willing to partially write off the disappointing 79-game run he had in Tennessee (18g, 17a over that stretch) as a bad fit.
As far as the underlying numbers, Granlund has consistently been a strong player at both ends of the ice throughout his career. Even in this past season with Nashville, he helped drive play forward on offense and suppressed chances from opponents. He has the ability to handle tough assignments, which could help spread the burden of difficult minutes around more instead of just piling them on Nico Hischier and a declining Zajac while Jack Hughes develops his game. Essentially, Granlund is a sort of prototypical two-way center, which is why it is surprising to still see him available over a month after free agency started.
So why is a guy with fairly recent track record of two-way top-six success still floating around unsigned during what is essentially the August portion of a typical offseason? It’s hard to say the full reason, but it seems obviously related to the leaguewide cap crunch initiated by the salary cap remaining flat due to the pandemic. Perhaps Granlund was asking for too much term or money for anyone to commit to at the start of free agency? Maybe teams are particularly concerned about his down year in Nashville?
Either way, I think he’s a guy that it might make a lot of sense for the Devils to grab to give them a truly solid top three centers. If they did that, one might wonder what the team plans to do with Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha in particular. As a long-time advocate of Team Zacha Should be Moved to the Wing, I would propose Zacha moves to the wing and only steps in as a center for spot duty when necessary. Depending on Granlund’s contract demands, I think going higher dollars for shorter term would be the most attractive option for New Jersey, keeping their long-term flexibility intact while utilizing the space they will have for the next couple of years. If the Devils signed him for two years in that five-to-six million range, I think that brings them significantly closer to being competitive in the near term while keeping options open for when many of their younger players need new deals.
Is this a possibility that Granlund would consider? Hard to say, but presumably the fact that he is still lingering on the market means his options aren’t overflowing. If he can be had, it seems like a situation that might be worth taking advantage of to help provide some near-term stability and two-way talent to a still young and developing Devils team.