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Looming Contract Negotiations for Hughes, Bratt, and Zacha Next Offseason Could Define Fitzgerald’s Tenure as Devils GM

The Devils have some key players on expiring deals after this season. What type of contracts will they get moving forward?

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season may have just begun for the Devils, but today I’m going to look ahead to next offseason. After what will hopefully be a successful season that includes a few playoff games, Fitzgerald will have some big decisions to make. Among those decisions is what kind of contracts to give pending free agent forwards Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, (and to a lesser extent IMO, and thus not addressed here) Miles Wood. Obviously the information obtained this coming season will significantly impact the decisions made on these players afterwards. That said, the information from prior seasons cannot be disregarded either. And in that respect, these three players have question marks by their names.

From GM Tom Fitzgerald’s perspective, that only further clouds what would already be challenging negotiations. Ever since his predecessor, Ray Shero, took charge of the Devils organization the mantra has been to conserve cap space, cap space is an asset, cap space is a weapon. And Shero did take advantage of that cap space numerous times to acquire assets, whether in the form of draft picks or roster players. But while Shero leveraged the space to collect assets, Fitzgerald now has the much more difficult task using that same cap space to actually pay his players, and do so without hamstringing the team before the rebuild even fully gets off of the ground.

Fitzgerald has plenty of space to work with at the moment. If my calculations are correct,(unlikely) capfriendly has the Devils with around $33 million in cap-space for next year with 9 skaters to sign. Assuming no major trades occur, the majority of the money spent will go towards the four players mentioned, with the remaining 5 slots filled primarily with players on ELCs (Holtz, Foote, Clarke, Bahl, Walsh, etc), players on cheap second contracts (Thompson, Boqvist), or other free agent signings (someone to replace Subban on the 3rd pair?). So it’s not as if there’s a danger of running out of space next offseason. Short of a scenario where each of them turns into a 30 goal pt/game player, there’s no real danger of that. But the space will run out quicker than you might think. Particularly if Hughes and/or Bratt have the type of seasons I suspect they will. Because what next offseason really does is set the stage for the following year. When Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Mcleod, Graves, Siegenthaler, Severson, Blackwood, and Bernier are all up for new contracts. This means Fitzgerald has to be judicious with the contracts he hands out and he may have to make tough decisions, either next offseason, the following one, or both, with who to retain and who to potentially let walk or deal away.

There are a ton of factors that go into these decisions (age, performance, injury history, role, player’s interest in re-signing, player’s priorities in negotiations, GM’s interest in player, etc) and as I mentioned above, the biggest factor, how this season plays out, is still an unknown. Regardless, I’m going to project the best I can and after going through all four of these cases I will come to a conclusion as to what I’d do in each situation. I’m going to be relying heavily on capfriendly for contract information, evolving hockey for advanced metrics and projections, hockey reference for basic counting stats, and naturalstattrick for shot metrics. So with that out of the way, let’s get started.

Jack Hughes

Jack is entering the last year of his ELC paying him 925k, but with performance bonuses factored in his current salary is $3,775,000 million. He had a great year last year, with strong underlying data, but little in the counting stats department to show for it.

The Question: The discrepancy between what Hughes does on the ice and his results in terms of point production, along with Hughes’s draft pedigree and his role on the team as potential 1C, makes this contract the most difficult of the bunch for Fitzgerald in my mind. While analytics are featured more and more in contract negotiations, points still play a big role. If Hughes takes a step forward in the points department, but it’s along the lines of 55 points instead of 70+, we’re likely looking at a bridge deal. That would be less than ideal for fans and the organization since it means a likely higher AAV down the road, having to deal with potential arbitration and/or offer-sheets. It’s best for all parties if Hughes can just have his breakout season now. That way the whole bridge deal can be side-stepped, Jack can get paid, and the fans will have some peace-of-mind that their star-center is locked up long-term.

Projection for this season: Hughes is the opposite of a sleeper pick for who will have a breakout season this year (Source, Source ($), Source), and you could make a good argument he already has broken out and just needs better finishing around him and more functioning power play to see the points flow. To that end, Evolving hockey projects Hughes to be the 36th most valuable skater($) in the league this season, with a GAR of 9.8.

Comparables: Evolving Hockey doesn’t have him listed so I guess they require 3 seasons of data before making player comparables. I will use the recent contracts signed by Suzuki ($7,875,000 cap hit) and Tkachuck ($8,205,714 cap hit) as comparables based on impact on their respective teams. On a shorter term deal Pettersson’s 3 year $7,350,000 contract may be an appropriate comparable. I don’t see him coming in above that on anything less than a 5 year deal.

General Thoughts: The Devils have reportedly started contract talks with the Hughes camp, which is a very good idea assuming it’s a long-term extension. Hughes has the potential to explode this year and getting him locked up long-term would be ideal. As Lebrun says in the video linked above however, the Hughes camp likely isn’t in any hurry. And Hughes’s value to this franchise is potentially more than what he brings on the ice. If you listen to any hockey podcasts you’ve probably heard the likes of John Buccigross, Elliotte Friedman, or Craig Custance gushing about the confidence and swagger Hughes carries himself with. He’s going to be the face of this franchise very soon (if he isn’t already) and potentially one of the faces of the NHL.

And as I’m writing this Hughes just left with what looked to be a somewhat significant shoulder injury, particularly given his reaction going down the tunnel... sigh. Best case is probably an AC joint sprain, which I feel is likely given the mechanism of injury (falling and landing on the top of his shoulder), but it could be a number of other more serious conditions.

Back to the contract situation. The injury may or may not impact things depending on the severity and how it potentially affects his play the remainder of the year. But since I don’t know that for sure at this moment, let’s say he’s back in the lineup on Thursday with no lingering effects. I’m going to go ahead and project him for somewhere between 70-80 points in a full season, and say he’ll also lead the Devils in this category.

Verdict: Hughes gets an 8 year-deal with a cap hit of 9.8 million.

Jesper Bratt

Jesper Bratt was signed to a two-year $5,500,000 bridge deal prior to last season with a cap hit of $2,750,000 coming off of his ELC. Like Hughes, Bratt had a very strong year last season, and produced at a 53 point pace in a full 82 game season with strong underlying numbers.

The Question: Bratt essentially has the exact same questions as Hughes, but just on a lesser scale in terms of expectations. Can he have a season where the production matches the underlying numbers? I’ve made my opinion of Bratt potential pretty clear, so suffice to say I think he’ll get there.

Projection for this season: Evolving Hockey projects Bratt to put up a GAR of 7.2 for this season, which based on 2019-20 (last full season) will would rank just over 100 (among forwards) making him a high end second liner by their model. This is about what Bratt was worth last season in just 46 games, but his xGAR was only 3.7 so I’m guessing the projection takes this difference into account.

Comparables:

Data via capfriendly and Evolving Hockey

I cut off the projections where I did because it worked out nicely that these 3 players all were signed to new contracts following their last season of the projection. Obviously Bratt has one more season to go, but it gets us in the ballpark.

General Thoughts: The Devils should lock up Bratt long-term. I tend to think that Rakell’s deal is a good starting point but Rakell wasn’t as productive in his first 3 seasons. Let’s bump up the cap percentage a smidge to 6%. And since I’m projecting Bratt to have a breakout year, let’s put him down for 50-60 points, so that percentage will have to get bumped up again. Let’s make it 7.5% of the cap. In terms of years I think sticking with the Rakell comparable still makes sense, so give him 6 years.

Verdict: 6 years, $6.2 million cap hit.

Pavel Zacha

Pavel Zacha is on the last year of a 3 year, $6,750,000 bridge deal with a cap hit of $2,250,000. Zacha led the team in points last year with 35 points in 50 games but unlike the previous two players does not have strong on-ice impacts.

The Question: Zacha is not a play-driver, but there are areas of the game where he is effective (special teams, 3 on 3) and there’s no denying his shot is a weapon. So is his special teams prowess worth the negative on-ice impacts? If Bratt is Hughes lite, then Zacha is the opposite of those two.

Projection for this season: Zacha projects to put up a GAR of 3.3 via Evolving Hockey’s model. This puts his value as a fringe 2nd line/high-end 3rd line forward.

Comparables: Zacha’s closest comparable by several percentage points is NYI’s forward Josh Bailey at 91.3% similarity score.

If Zacha were to sign a similar contract as Bailey following this season, he would be at a cap hit of $4,232,250. This seems like a reasonable contract for him. However, because Zacha has been more productive, and I tend to believe that carries more weight in contract negotiations than GAR, I would expect him to get more than this.

General Thoughts: Zacha is a complicated case to me. A year ago I would have said the Devils should cut bait and get what they could in a trade for him. I still don’t think that’s a bad idea, but it’s entirely possible that Zacha may have just been miscast. We know for sure is that Zacha is not an NHL center, since the Devils spent the better part of 5 seasons trying to make him one and it hasn’t worked. But as a winger alongside Bratt and Hischier, Zacha has been effective and his negative impacts on the run of play are minimized with less defensive responsibility. If the Devils commit to him on the wing and he remains a positive contributor on special teams there is a useful player here. I would be more hesitant to commit long-term to him than either of the other two, but I’ll be less frustrated now than I would’ve a year ago if Fitzgerald does choose to go that route.

Verdict: 3 years, $4,537,500 cap hit.

As we get more data on these players, including Wood, throughout the season, Fitzgerald and co will be able to make better decisions on what to do with these players. And something I didn’t really touch on is that how this season plays out in terms of where the Devils finish in the standings will also contribute to these decisions. If the Devils bottom out again, is Fitzgerald ready to make some changes? I would suspect so. Where do you expect these players to end up on their next contract? Do you think I am close to projecting their value accurately? Would you choose to move on from Zacha or Bratt? What about Miles Wood? Please leave your thoughts below and thank you for reading!