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2020 Free Agency & Offseason Preview for the New Jersey Devils

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs wind down, offseason activity is increasing around the league. The NHL Draft and free agency will begin in a few weeks. This post previews the offseason for the New Jersey Devils with looks at their salary cap, team needs, current rumors, and more.

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Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils
You’re the man now, dog. Time to make some decisions.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2020 Stanley Cup Finals have begun and can theorhetically end this week. Most likely, it will end next week - which will still be before October begins. While the NHL wants to have a full season for 2020-21, it is not known how that can be done or when it can begin. What we do know that is that the offseason activities have already begun for several other times. A couple of trades have went down for other teams, such as St. Louis sending Jake Allen to Montreal and that odd Staal-Johanssen trade between Minnesota and Buffalo. Contract discussions have begun for others, with a few reportedly already broken down such as one for pending UFA Alex Pietrangelo. The NHL Draft will take place on October 6 and 7 and free agency will open at noon on October 9. It has been a while, but it will soon be time for the New Jersey Devils to make some decisions. Now is a good time as any to go over their current situation heading into the offseason, what they have done, and what they need in this preview of the weeks to come.

What the Devils Have Done So Far

The Devils did fill two major roles already. The organization took the interim tag off Tom Fitzgerald, who is now the General Manager, and the team hired Lindy Ruff to be the team’s head coach. Fitzgerald was an assistant under Ray Shero during his time with the Devils. It remains to be seen whether he will continue what Shero was going for or go in a different direction. Ruff is brand new to the organization but not at all new to being a head coach. The experienced bench boss has favored high-tempo offenses in the past; whether we will see that at The Rock next season remains to be seen. If nothing else, the Devils are heading into these crucial weeks coming up without any question marks for the people in charge. As a result of those hires, there have been some additional changes among the coaching staff and management.

For the coaches, a new head coach typically means changes to the assistants. One has already been made. Mark Recchi was hired earlier this month to be an assistant coach. With the news of the Recchi hire, Randy Miller at confirmed that Alain Nasreddine would return as an assistant coach as well. Miller also reported that Rick Kowalsky, Mike Grier, and Roland Melanson will not return as assistants. At a minimum, the Devils will need a new goaltending coach to replace Melanson as well as at least two other assistants assuming Ruff wants four assistants.

For management, unless I missed it earlier, Dan MacKinnon is now listed as an Assistant General Manager. If I recall correctly, he was previously the Senior Director of Player Personnel and brought into the organization by Shero. Similar to how Fitzgerlad was retained, MacKinnon seemingly received a promotion. Additionally, the staff directory page on the team’s official website lists a position I have not seen before: European Development Coach. The position is currently held by Esa Pirnes. I am not sure what Pirnes does in the role. With several prospective players on loan to teams in Europe (e.g. Janne Kuokkanen, Marian Studenic, Yegor Sharangovich, Fabian Zetterlund), I would think Pirnes would at least keep tabs on how they are performing and report back to the team at large.

What is on the Books

The Devils have been well below the salary cap ceiling for the last several seasons. More often than not, they were closer to the floor than to the ceiling. The NHL has determined that the salary cap for 2020-21 will remain flat. It could remain flat for longer depending on how long it takes for fans to return to the games - both in terms of whether they are allowed to attend and whether they will actually attend. According to Frank Seravalli at TSN, at least 17 teams have established a tighter internal budget. What this means is that more teams will not be so willing to spend close to the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling in addition to reduced staffs.

I do not know if the Devils will follow suit with the 17 teams in Seravalli’s report. I also do not know whether Fitzgerald intends to continue the rebuilding efforts started by Shero or blow it all up and start again. I would not expect the Devils to make the playoffs in 2020-21. (I would be happy if they prove me wrong.) Non-playoff teams should not be spending to the salary cap anyway. Having no room to manuever in your budget for players and being bad is a bad place to be. Just ask Arizona and Anaheim, who are both bad teams who are somehow up against it for next season. Therefore, I would expect the Devils to remain well below the $81.5 million limit regardless of the pandemic-driven situation across the league.

That said, here is the cap situation as of this writing (Sunday, September 20) according to CapFriendly. The Devils have 13 NHL players signed and 31 contracts on the books. Those 13 players take up $55,254,999. This means the Devils are below the salary cap floor by just one dollar over $4.945 million. This also means the Devils have $26.245 million of cap space to use. You will not need to worry about Fitzgerald’s cap at the moment.

Pending Free Agents from New Jersey

Here is a listing of players from last season’s team that are entering free agency for 2020-21, also from CapFriendly:

Pending Restricted Free Agents:

NJ - MacKenzie Blackwood, Jesper Bratt, Joey Anderson, Mirco Mueller, John Hayden

Binghamton & Elsewhere - Brett Seney, Nick Merkley, Colton White, Josh Jacobs

Pending Unrestricted Free Agents:

NJ - Kevin Rooney, Frederik Claesson, Dakota Mermis, Brian Strait (was on LTIR last season)

Binghamton & Elsewhere - Ben Street, Brandon Baddock, Zane McIntyre

All pending RFAs only need a qualifying offer to have their rights retained by the team. While it is not impossible to see a handful to not be given one (Hayden? White? Jacobs?), I would expect the majority of these players to return to the organization in some capacity. I would also expect more significant deals to be given to Blackwood and Bratt. Blackwood is expected to be the starting goaltender in New Jersey and Bratt has spent his entry-level contract years as a top-nine forward. They should receive longer term deals with much more money than the ELCs they are coming off of right now. Re-signing those two alone will likely the Devils over the salary cap floor. Anderson would secure it if they some how do not. All the same, expect most of these nine players to be Devils in 2020-21.

As far as the pending UFAs, I expect the Devils to let most of them walk. Claesson and Mermis were only listed with New Jersey as they joined the team before the NHL Pause that effectively ended the Devils season. Claesson was a throw-in from the Vatanen deal and Mermis was an AHLer called up to see what he could do. With Ty Smith and possibly Kevin Bahl and Reilly Smith coming into the pro ranks, the need to keep both is less. Likewise, the Devils may have a replacement for Rooney in Jesper Boqvist, Merkley, Kuokkanen or Seney. Outside of providing veteran help for Binghamton, I would not expect most of this group to return.

All together, the Devils will likely have plenty of room to acquire a veteran player or two in free agency to help a young Devils team be somewhat competitive in 2020-21. They can do so and still have some spots open for the growing number of B-Devils and prospects that will challenge for roster spots whenever training camp happens.

Current Devils Roster Needs

With only 13 players from last season’s team signed, the Devils have plenty of spots to fill in.

Backup Goaltender

This may be Cory Schneider’s job to lose - assuming he stays on the team. His contract still carries a $6 million salary for this season and next season. Schneider may not be tradeable - especially in a NHL where the cap is flat and over half of the league is tightening their budgets - but he could be bought out. If he is kept, then I’m not sure where his spot would be. It would be expensive to stash him in Binghamton. His flashes of NHL competence in recent seasons have been overshadowed by some horrific goaltending. While he has not been fully healthy, he is currently not a reliable veteran goaltender to fill in for Blackwood. If the Devils intend on being poor for 2020-21, then that may not matter much. But if the idea is for the Devils to take a step forward, then the Devils could use a reliable #2 or #1A option to join Blackwood in the net. Even if the idea is for the Devils to take a step forward in 2021-22 or 2022-23, then it may be in Fitzgerald’s best interest to find that goalie sooner rather than later.

Left Defensemen

One of the biggest failures of the Ray Shero Era was not identifying a replacement for Andy Greene. The team captain was clearly declining as he went further into his 30s. Yet, he was still leaned on to play a lot of tough matchups in big-minute situations. Even in this past season, the 37-year old Greene was drowning in the run of play for most of the 20 minutes per game he received. He was their #1 option on left defense. The Devils had none after trading Greene back in February.

While most of the deals Shero made looked good at the time and do not look so bad in retrospect, the Mirco Mueller deal was not well-liked then or now. Two picks were sent to San Jose for arguably one of the worst defenders on the team. Especially last season in 5-on-5 hockey. He was largely kept to a second or third pairing and averaged about 17:40 last season. The 25-year old never really developed into being a solid hand on a middle or bottom pairing. As a pending RFA, he may be kept by the Devils but I would not expect a long-term or an expensive deal.

One of the big wins in free agency by Shero was inking Will Butcher. Butcher immediately stepped into the New Jersey Devils roster in 2017-18, took the sole defenseman spot on the team’s top power play unit, and played rather well as a rookie. His sophomore season was good amid the downfall of the 2018-19 squad. Last season was rough. It is a question as to how good he will be in 2020-21 and what his future is in this organization. By default, he should receive more ice time. But will he?

I list all three of these players to really emphasize that this is the biggest position of need among the skaters. I like Butcher, but he is just one man. The Devils arguably need two left defensemen to really strengthen the defense. Forget whether or not someone is a true #1 defenseman or whatever that means. They need to figure out who is going to be able to play on a first pairing on the left side that will not get destroyed. They need people to upgrade this side of the defense. While Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl will likely get a look in camp, the Devils need someone with some experience to stabilize the left side of the blueline. It would be grand if Butcher bounces back in a big way and can do it, but that would be expecting a lot for someone coming off such a bad season. The Devils need a left defenseman. And, if they can move on from Mueller, left defensemen. I would expect the Devils to try to find this in free agency.

A Scoring Left Winger

As of now, the Devils’ left winger depth will be Nikita Gusev, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha if he is slid to left wing instead of center. The good news is that after Gusev acclimated to the NHL game and rink, he did very well. Gusev is absolutely a top-six winger at this level. Additionally, there is more quality depth in Binghamton at forward than at defense. Boqvist, Kuokkanen, Maltsev, and Nolan Foote could challenge for a NHL spot at this position.

The not so good news is that it is an area filled with hopefuls instead of solid quality beyond Gusev. Wood has some nice traits when it comes to chasing down pucks and skating fast in a straight line. However, his lack of attention to detail on defense, his issues with making himself an option for others when he does not have the puck, and his tendencies to bomb shots from anywhere in the offensive zone have all undercut what he could bring to the Devils. He finished his fifth season last season. I doubt he will change all that much in the future. Wood is pretty much limited to a bottom-six role. Which is about where Zacha would be based on past usage. He is fantastic on penalty kills and he has shown some real flashes of greatness. However, he has never been able to put all of his tools together on a consistent enough basis to warrant anything more than a bottom-six role.

This means the Devils absolutely have room for a scoring left winger to play on one of their first two lines. As nice as it would be for someone in the system to break out, the Devils may be more likely to find a free agent or a player in a trade to take this spot. Alternatively, the Devils may want to consider finding upgrades to eventually replace Wood and/or Zacha. Not that the right side is amazing, but Palmieri, Bratt, and Anderson is a lot more stable than the left side of the wings in New Jersey.

Improvements in General, Really

As a fan, it is tempting to look at a team’s roster and not want to see players get moved. The harsh reality is that the Devils were a Bad Team in 2019-20. They were bad enough to see the head coach and the GM fired within months of each other. After an offseason providing legitimate hope for the future, they were sellers by the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline and dealt away Coleman, Greene, Vatanen, and Simmonds. Whether Fitzgerald is going to continue the selling or start building from this current group, the reality is the same: few players on this team are too good to be given up on. If there is an opportunity for Fitzgerald to make the team better, then it is in his best interest to at least consider it - even if it is a position of relative strength like center or right defense. I would go as far as to say that only Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are untouchable. Everyone else could be moved and/or improved upon by someone else. Whether or not that Fitzgerald correctly identifies those someone elses remains to be seen.

Trade Rumors (Take with a Grain of Salt)

Between the last point and the Devils having a new GM, we could see some deals happen over the next few weeks. Of note, Kyle Palmieri’s name ended up at #6 on The Athletic’s ($) Trade Board recently. Craig Custance’s explanation is that there have been some talks about a contract extension for Palmieri. But until it gets done, his name is out there. As he has only one season left on his contract, he’s 29 now, and he could offer a lot for a contending team, I can agree that he is an attractive asset for a trade. While he has an eight-team no-trade list, that just means 22 other teams are possibilities. If the Devils are not looking to be competitive in the near future, then a 29-year old right winger who can score may yield more for the future than keeping him on the squad. That all said, Custance does note that the price may be too high for a trade at the moment. New Jersey is in control of the situation as . Things could change by the draft, though.

The same logic could also apply to Gusev, who also has one season left on his current deal. However, he is not as experienced in the NHL as Palmieri, he is a year younger, and the Devils’ left wing depth would be a lot worse off without Gusev than their right wing depth without Palmieri. That would mean it could take a lot more to get Gusev, who may not be perceived as valuable as Palmieri. To me, that would explain why his name is not on the trade board but Palmieri’s name is. Anyway.

A surprising name has emerged in trade speculation recently: Damon Severson. On TSN Radio Vancouver, Ray Ferraro dropped Severson’s name as someone who could be acquired if a team - like Vancouver - wants a right-sided defenseman but does not want to get someone as expensive as Matt Dumba. I am skeptical of the idea. Severson has been one of the better defensemen on a bad blueline. I do not think rebuilding the blueline would include removing the better defenders from them. I am also not sure where Ferraro gets the idea that NJ has “soured” on Severson. I do not know about you, but I have not heard anything that would be in support of that. Also, Ferraro does mention his name as a possibility, so he could have been just throwing names out there. After all, his line is that “If Jersey is willing to move him,” not “New Jersey could be willing to move him” or “Jersey is willing to move him.” That said, Severson has the team’s longest contract on the books after Hischier, he could fetch a very good return, and if Fitzgerald intends to blow up the roster, then that would be a move that could do that.

The wild card is what has not been rumored but is a possibility. What if someone wants one of the three first round picks the Devils own? I would not want them to move 7th overall, but 18th or 20th overall could be on the table for the right price. Or they may be moved up or down as Fitzgerald and his staff sees fit at the virtual draft table. They are assets that could bring in a player to help the team now, or bring in other future. Or they could be used as-is. We will not know what will happen until the draft itself happens.

A Quick Word about the 2020 NHL Draft

The 2020 NHL Draft is too important to put in one section in a post. This will get its own preview closer to October 6.

The Big Question to be Answered

I expect the Devils to be mostly active on the week of the NHL Draft and Free Agency. I think they will be quiet before then short of some staff and minor moves. Once qualifying offers go out, which have to be made by 5 PM on October 7 - yes, the second day of the NHL Draft, we will see the Devils in action answer the one question I have: Is Fitzgerald going to start a rebuilding effort all over, build on what is already here, or something else?

I’ve alluded to this throughout this post. If we see more veteran Devils traded away for prospects and picks, then it is likely a full on re-build. If the idea is to re-assess for a 2021-22 campaign and let current young players develop and grow, then we could see little action beyond re-signing players that need new deals. If we see more signings and moves made to plug in current holes, then the goal may be to at least make the Devils a little more competitive in 2020-21. I would prefer that than seeing the team be almost totally out of the playoff picture by January 1, 2021. I would love it if I am wrong and the 2020-21 Devils claw their way to a playoff spot. But it is not my team to run. The moves made in a few weeks will give us a clear indication of what Fitzgerald intends to do in the near future. Good luck to the Devils management.

Your Take

The Devils have a lot to do in the coming weeks and plenty of needs to improve the roster. With the week of October 5 not that far away, there will be a lot more activity in the NHL and that could involve Our Favorite Team. As such, the content on this site for the next three weeks will be returning to a focus on free agents and draft picks. What do you want to see Fitzgerald do as offseason activities begin? Who on the roster would you want to re-sign or walk? Who is on the trade block in your mind? What would be your goal if you were in Fitzgerald’s position? Please leave your answers in the comments and other thoughts about the impending offseason for the Devils. Thank you for reading.