It may only be July, as there still might be an entire NHL Playoff Tournament to go, but that doesn’t mean the New Jersey Devils shouldn’t be thinking ahead. As the team did not qualify for the tournament, they’re now looking towards the draft and free agency. So what does the team need to do before the offseason begins on November 1st? Plenty and we look at what they can do today.
Things Off The Checklist
Hiring a General Manager and Coach were the largest priorities for the Devils; they have taken care of both of those by removing the interim tag from Tom Fitzgerald as GM and hiring Lindy Ruff to be the man behind the bench. With the NHL Draft coming in October, this allows the new regime to flesh out the rest of the coaching staff, as well as allowing them to meet with the team’s scouts to determine what they want to do in the draft. Speaking of the draft...
The First Item: Figure Out a Plan for The Draft and Execute It
While the conditions on Arizona and Vancouver’s first round picks have not been solved as of this writing, the Devils will know if they have them for this year’s draft or next prior to November 1st. With no picks in rounds two and three, the hope is that the Devils add both of those picks to their war chest prior to the draft. Additionally, they have to figure out what to do with their five picks in rounds four through seven.
While some of the drafting will depend upon what teams ahead of them do, the Devils need to come in with an A, B and C plan for this draft. If the Devils get all three picks, they really can’t afford to miss on any of them; the team has been irrelevant for almost a decade now, and it’s time to start pushing toward relevancy. Three solid prospects who eventually become solid NHL players goes a long way towards being competitive.
Alternatively, the Devils could choose to trade one of three picks (assuming they get them all) to a cap-strapped team to acquire a player that the first rounder could eventually be. There’s been a number of names rumored to be available (Vince Dun of St. Louis, Brock Boeser of Vancouver) depending on who you follow/believe, and the Devils might want to get someone who can help them now in the vein of the Kyle Palmieri trade.
The Second Item: Determine Which Players Should be Re-Signed
The Devils have three players set to hit unrestricted free agency that were on their roster when the season was halted, along with one in the AHL. Additionally, they have five set for restricted free agency and four other RFAs down in Binghamton that could be offered new contracts. The team will need to decide if they are going to offer these players new contracts, or allow them to test free agency.
If I’m the Devils, of the UFAs, I bring back Kevin Rooney and Dakota Mermis, even if it is only to have them around in depth/Binghamton roles. Mermis in particular seemed to be finding himself with the big club, and even if he was a seventh defender or first call up, it would be a nice way to reward him. Freddy Claesson would be let go, as while fills a position of need, unfortunately his play just isn’t at a high enough level for a team that already struggles on the back end. Zane McIntyre is the AHL UFA and with two other goalies available to Binghamton, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s brought back or not; I wouldn’t mind either way.
For the RFAs, Jesper Bratt and MacKenzie Blackwood obviously get new deals, the only variables will be for how long and how much. I would guess Bratt sees a bridge deal, but Blackwood gets a long term deal, as he’s the Devils’ clear #1. Joey Anderson is (according to CapFriendly) inelligible for an offer sheet, but should be brought back at perhaps a slight raise from what he was currently earning; ditto that for Brett Seney and Nick Merkley minus the offer sheet part. Neither Seney or Anderson will yet require waivers to be sent down, and while Merkley will in 2020-21, he’s worth a shot over some of the other wing players we’ve trotted out. I could also see Josh Jacobs and Colton White getting new deals to solidify Binghamton’s roster.
John Hayden brought some grit to the Devils, but was constantly outclassed on the ice; Mirco Mueller brought less toughness, but was similarly outclassed. If the Devils want to be good sooner rather than later, these are the types of players to let go.
The Third Item: Buy Out Cory Schneider?
I feel awful even asking this question because Schneider was so good for the Devils during some really bad years. Injuries have affected his play though, and he’s currently counting for $6 million against the cap for the next two seasons. While Jersey’s Team is one of the few that does not have salary cap issues, buying Cory out could give them even more space and flexibility, both in free agency and possibly in trades. Schneider had only nine wins since the start of the 2018 calendar year, so a buyout seems inevitable be it this offseason or next. It will be interesting to see if the Devils do it now to improve their goaltending, or next year when it will hurt their long-term cap structure less.
The Fourth Item: Targets in Free Agency And/Or Trades
While the latter part of this section title might be more relevant before or at the draft, there are times where trade targets are acquired during the free agency period, such as when the Devils acquired Marcus Johansson. For trades, again, it all depends on who you believe is truly available; it might also be that a team wants to sign or re-sign a free agent, but needs to offload a contract to do that. The Devils have the cap space available that they could acquire a player for lesser assets due to the other team needing to clear cap. Now I’m not suggesting the Devils do other teams a favor, but if for example Toronto really wanted to sign a defender, and needed to unload, oh let’s say Kasperi Kapanen for futures, I think that could be advantageous for the Devils.
In terms of free agents, the Devils need help on the back and on the wings. They should give Merkley, Ty Smith and possibly Nolan Foote a good look each next season; they also should be looking to see if Seney and Anderson are truly NHL players or not. They could elect to do nothing and save the space for a season when they’re closer to competitive, as CJ said yesterday. Even if they choose to save cap space, and Smith proves to be an effective NHLer, by my count the team still needs a seventh NHL defender, especially if anyone isn’t sold on Mermis being an every night player. I think at the very least the Devils will sign or acquire a defender just to flesh out the roster.
Any way that you look at it, they need to figure out who they want prior to November 1st and then how to not lose them to another team.
The Final Item (For Now): Figuring Out if There Will Be Any Contract Extensions
As players can sign new deals while in the final year of their current deals; once November 1st comes around the Devils will have four players they can choose to extend new deals to. Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Connor Carrick all can test free agency after 2020-21 if they do not re-sign with the Devils. I could see the Devils letting Carrick go, if not trading him prior to the deadline to recoup an asset. Carrick is fine in a low pairing role, but he’s not a premiere member of the Devils’ defense.
I think the Devils should extend Travis Zajac. It may not be a popular opinion, but I think Zajac has another couple of seasons in him; his role, however, should become that of a fourth line defensive center. Travis’ offense isn’t what it used to be, but his defense is still outstanding, and he’s still one of the four best defensive forwards on the roster, leaving him as a necessity of the penalty kill. Give Zajac another couple of seasons at a much lower cap hit, let him teach the younger centers how to play defense, and let him gracefully retire as a Devil.
Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev are both tough calls; both bring the offense that the Devils desperately need, but the issue is that they will be 30 and 29 respectively when said new contracts kick in. While neither number is old, by NHL standards it means both are exiting their primes as players, and if they’re signed to long-term (7-8 year) deals, the last few seasons of the contracts will see them taking up a large percentage of salary cap while more than likely not being significant contributors. If both are amiable to deals in the 5-6 year range, than yeah I’m all for it; if not, the Devils should entertain trading at least one at the deadline. It would be a shame, particularly for Palmieri who has been a great Devil for years, but if the team doesn’t intend to be competitive in the next couple of season, the team’s window for winning won’t line up with that of Palms/Goose.
Are there any other things you feel the Devils need to take care of prior to November 1st? Which players do you see the team re-signing? Will they buy out Schneider? Any players that you believe they will target via free agency and/or trade? Any contract extensions you see the team signing? Leave any thoughts or comments below and thanks as always for reading!