Consider this to be an early preview of what the New Jersey Devils need to do within the organization this offseason. For those who are aware of the Devils’ roster, contracts, and salary cap, the Devils have a lot of roster and cap space as well as a lot of players to re-sign. As much as the excitement in free agency is about who is available on the open market, a lot of what the 2021-22 Devils may look like will come down to what General Manager Tom Fitzgerald decides to do with those currently on the team that need new contracts. So let’s look at the whole picture and go from there.
The Cap & Roster Situation
From CapFriendly, here is the current situation of the team as of May 23, 2021:
2020-21: 44 standard player contracts, cap hit of $70.9 million, a potential performance bonus amount of $4.18 million, and one retained salary slot.
As it is well-known, the Devils have the most cap space in the NHL. Even if all of the performance bonuses are met, there will be no carry-over bonus overage for next season because the Devils have much more than $4.18 million in cap space.
Based on this article by Sean Shapiro of The Athletic ($), the NHL has reportedly missed out on $3.6 billion in revenue with this past regular season. I think it is safe to assume then that the NHL’s hockey-related revenue did not increase. Unless the NHL reports something different, the salary cap will likely remain with a floor of $60.2 million and a ceiling of $81.5 million. If that is the case, then here is the current picture for 2021-22:
- The Devils have 28 standard player contracts out of 50. 13 of them were with New Jersey last season: 8 forwards, 4 defensemen, and 1 goaltender.
- The sum of those 13 contracts is roughly worth $43.87 million. This means the Devils roughly have $37.62 million in cap space.
- As the Devils’ have retained Travis Zajac’s and Kyle Palmieri’s salaries for this season, they will come off the books for next season. This means the Devils will have 3 retained salary spots available assuming they do not use their third and final one.
- Not that it impacts the cap, but Mike Cammalleri’s buyout ends with the 2020-21 season. That’s ~$1.67 million that Josh Harris and David Blitzer will no longer have to pay. Cory Schneider’s buyout will have three more seasons to go and Ilya Kovalchuk’s recapture cap hit will continue for another four.
The Devils have a lot of space both in terms of contracts and the salary cap. However, much of that will be kept in house due to the sheer number of free agents available.
Non-New Jersey Internal Free Agents
These free agents were last listed with Binghamton to close this past season and so are listed under “Non-Roster” at CapFriendly. This means that they do not count against the Devils’ salary cap. However, their contract does count against the limit of 50. And should the player be called up from the AHL, then their cap hit would then be on the books.
Since the NHL wants to return to normalcy for next season, it is unclear whether all teams will have to have a taxi squad with at least one goaltender available for 2021-22. For the sake of this post, I will just regard who was left on the taxi squad in this group. Which ended up being just one Marian Studenic.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents
These are the players who need to be re-signed before free agency begins or they can hit the open market and sign with whomever they want. It is a short list for this offseason. A couple are Group VI free agents, which is triggered by a lack of NHL games played.
- Forwards (3) - Mason Jobst, Ben Street, Brett Seney (Group VI)
- Defenseman (1) - Josh Jacobs (Group VI)
I think this could be the last season for all four of these players in the organization. Street was an AHL veteran signing meant to help stabilize what was a young Binghamton roster. As he is 34, unless the Devils think he still a capable veteran for what will likely be a young team in Utica, I can see both sides parting ways. Seney and Jacobs have been fringe players at best. That they could not get any action for the 2021 Devils is a telling sign that they may not factor in the Devils’ future plans. I could see Jacobs retained just to have another right-sided defender on the blueline. But from a New Jersey perspective, I do not think we will see him in Newark unless as an emergency fill-in. Jobst was one of the returning players from the Zajac & Palmieri deal. I think he and A.J. Greer were in the deal to help make roster space for Zajac & Palmieri coming in. He did put up 5 goals and 8 points in 12 games with Binghamton; perhaps the Devils will opt to keep him on as a veteran of sorts for Utica. But I am reaching on that point.
Pending Restricted Free Agents
This is where it starts to get a bit more interesting for Utica and for incoming players.
- Forwards (3) - Marian Studenic, Brandon Gignac, A.J. Greer
- Defenseman (3) - David Quenneville, Colton White, Colby Sissons
- Goaltenders (2) - Gilles Senn, Evan Cormier
Each of these positions will have players coming in on entry level contracts (ELC) that begin next season. Graeme Clarke, Aarne Talvitie, and Alexander Holtz all played for Binghamton last season, but their contracts come on the books next season. The blueline will be adding Michael Vukojevic’s ELC. The tricky bit is with the goaltenders. Over the past few weeks, the Devils signed Nico Daws and Akira Schmid to ELCs. While most pending RFAs are re-signed, the Devils would have four goaltenders outside of the New Jersey that are under contract. That may be one too many, as the Devils will definitely look to sign a backup for Mackenzie Blackwood in New Jersey. While the Devils do have an ECHL affiliation with the Adirondack Thunder, there are only so many minutes available for four fairly young goalies.
What makes it a bit trickier is that Cormier needs to remain in the organization for the expansion draft. All NHL teams will have to expose a goaltender who is either signed through next season or is a pending RFA that is not coming off his ELC (or currently on one). Only two goaltenders meet those requirements: Blackwood and Cormier. The Devils are not exposing Blackwood. So Cormier will at least need to be maintained until the expansion draft.
The issue may resolve itself, though. According to Swiss Hockey News on May 20, referencing a report from Klaus Zaugg, HC Davos is interested in bringing Senn back to their organization. Zaugg also named HC Lugano as also having interest in Senn. It is possible that Senn may want to go back to Switzerland. After all, New Jersey opted to bring in Scott Wedgewood as a #3 goalie. After Corey Crawford’s retirement, Evan Cormier and, later, Aaron Dell were claimed off waivers as Wedgewood became Blackwood’s primary backup. Senn did not even get a chance in this past season. With Schmid and Daws coming in and Cormier needing to be kept, he could see the writing on the wall and go to a team where the minutes are more guaranteed. But that is all up to Senn and how Devils management see him for the future. He is 25, so he is the oldest of the four here.
For the other positions, the situation is more simple. Out of the three defensemen, only Colton White made two appearances with New Jersey last season. That was out of necessity as opposed to rewarding good play. I could see them returned to keep some continuity on the blueline for Utica. But with Vukojevic joining Walsh, Okhoityuk, and Bahl; they would have to be fine with primarily being AHL players. It may not be the worst idea to replace one of them (or Jacobs) with a veteran blueliner to shore up what was a leaky defense either.
At forward, the big name (for a given definition of big) is Marian Studenic. He was given a call up last season and ended up making eight appearances. He scored his first NHL goal and registered his first NHL assist. He was at least good enough to warrant some rotation with Nick Merkley, Nolan Foote, and Mikhail Maltsev by the end of the season. I think he will be re-signed. I also think he’ll start in Utica and will need to work his way up to New Jersey should he want another taste of the NHL. I think the competition at forward at camp next season will be fierce and he could end up on the outside looking in. But that did not fully deter him last season, so do not be shocked if he gets a ninth career game in 2021-22. He’ll likely get another contract.
Gignac struggled this past season with most of his 2021 action taking place with Jacksonville of the ECHL instead of Binghamton. He has suffered injuries in the past and now that he’ll be turning 24 in November, he is going to have to show quite a bit to have any shot of a NHL future. Or even as a solid AHL career given his relative lack of production. Greer, like Jobst, was part of the Palmieri & Zajac trade. Unlike Jobst, he did get a game with New Jersey last season and he was not very good. He was quite productive with Binghamton, though, with four goals and fourteen points in sixteen games. He has been a productive AHL player; I could see him retained for Utica.
For the RFAs, I think most of this group will end up being re-signed. But I could see a few not being qualified and essentially let go.
The Devils were very active in signing prospects to ELCs either before their rights would end this season or just to get them in the organization sooner rather than later. There are only two on the team’s reserve list that would need some action (or inaction).
The first is Christoph Bertschy. The center was acquired for Viktor Loov back in February 2018. He finished up the season with Binghamton and then went to HC Lausanne in Switzerland’s National League. He has been a very productive player there. He is also under contract with Lausanne through next season. As he is now 27, the Devils will lose his rights as of June 30, 2021. This is not an issue. I wish Bertschy continued success in Switzerland.
The second is Matthew Hellickson. The Norte Dame defenseman ended his college career and joined Binghamton on an Amateur Tryout basis. He was able to get into five games. He was also a surprise addition to the United States roster at the 2021 IIHF World Championships. Fitzgerald was part of the board to help pick that team, so I imagine he is keeping an eye on that tourney. Hellickson does have the right to wait until August 15, 2021 and then become an UFA. But I doubt the defensive-minded defenseman will garner so much interest from the open market. Given that he has already appeared for Binghamton, I think an ELC and a full season in Utica is in his future for 2021-22.
New Jersey Internal Free Agents
These are the players that most of you, the People Who Matter, will be interested in. After all, you just saw them play for the Devils in this past season. The Devils finished 29th last season and could seemingly use any kind of upgrade. Most of those players were young and so there is some reason to think they will get better now that they have had their initial NHL seasons. As they were young, most of them will be retained. Let us begin with the pending UFAs first then.
Credit Fitzgerald and his team for taking care of these prospect decisions promptly. Not only do they have only two of them for this year; there are only three that need to be signed by June 1, 2022: Baumgartner, Pakkila, and Pytlik. Should the organization think they have a future in New Jersey, I would think they will be taken care of well before that day.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents
These are the players who need to be re-signed before free agency begins or they can hit the open market and sign with whomever they want. It is a short list for this offseason and it is entirely in the back end of the roster.
- Defensemen (3) - Ryan Murray, Connor Carrick, Matt Tennyson
- Goaltenders (2) - Scott Wedgewood, Aaron Dell
While Wedgewood had some fantastic performances last season, the Devils would do well to have a more reliable #2 (or #1A) goaltender to play with Blackwood. An overall save percentage of 90% is not that reliable, even if he and other goalies were victimized by the skaters many times last season. If the Devils did not already have Schmid and Daws coming in, then I could see Wedgewood more as a #3, where he can be a veteran option for Utica and still spell Blackwood / Future Backup as needed. It was real rough at times with Dell in net as he posted an overall 85.7% save percentage in seven games. Given that Wedgewood ended up getting the #2 spot instead of Dell says a lot. I think the Devils will let Dell hit the market. And perhaps Wedgewood too depending on how they see the incoming goalies and who they think they can bring in at goaltender. If either are re-signed, then I cannot imagine it would be for too much money. Wedgewood made $700,000 on a two-way deal last season and Dell had a $800,000 one-way deal. Any raises would be marginal.
The defense is a little more costly. If you felt that the Devils’ defensemen were an issue as a unit last season, then you may be inclined to let all three go. Will that happen? Gerard wrote more at length about Ryan Murray back on Thursday. I will not go into more detail than Gerard did here, but I will point out that among these three, he would be the one worth the most to bring back. Whether or not that his play alone was worth bringing back is another question. I am just stating that in comparison to Tennyson and Carrick, Murray would have the most value. If he is brought back, I would hope it would be far less than the $4.7 million salary he earned last season.
As for Tennyson and Carrick, I’m sorry, but they need to let loose. Neither were all that good. Whenever they were on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were generally caved in by both Corsi and expected goals per Natural Stat Trick. While both were third-pairing defensemen for the most part last season, the Devils can and should find upgrades to either if they want to really improve their blueline. They may even be in the organization already. But Tennyson and Carrick are not going to help make the Devils better on defense based on what they did last season.
Pending Restricted Free Agents
Welcome to the main event. I will state upfront that it is a safe bet that all of these players will be re-signed. How much and for how long will be important as the moves made today will impact the Devils in the near future. And the 2022 offseason is a critical one to make sure there is enough money to keep everyone happy.
- Forwards (5) - Nick Merkley, Michael McLeod, Janne Kuokkanen, Yegor Sharangovich, Nathan Bastian
- Defenseman (1) - Jonas Siegenthaler
Starting with the one defenseman, the Devils traded for Siegenthaler in 2021. They did so on the basis that he was a player they felt needed an opportunity to play in order to grow. He was able to get into eight games with the Devils before being on the COVID-19 protocol kept him out for a period of time. He did return to the team before the season ended. As he only played in eight games, it is hard to really gauge how good he is or could be. But I do think he is an upgrade over Tennyson and Carrick alone. His 5-on-5 numbers, while pretty good on their own, were far better than those two defenders. Like I wrote earlier, the improvements over either may be in the organization already. This is one of them. Unless Siegenthaler wants out, I think the Devils will keep him around for a little bit. It should be a fairly cheap deal given that he will likely be a third-pairing defender to start 2021-22.
Now the forwards. This is where the decisions made have to be judicious. All five are coming off their ELCs. Nick Merkley may likely be the one to be retained on a fairly cheap, short deal. He did get into 27 games last season, but he did not maintain a regular roster spot throughout. He was ultimately used in rotation with Jesper Boqvist, Mikhail Maltsev, and other forwards.
Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian were regulars throughout the season, when available. They even received PK shifts and even some 5-on-6 shifts in the few cases the Devils had a lead near the end of regulation. While they were seen as fourth liners with Miles Wood, they were often third-most in terms of ice time in games so they were effectively a third line. Their 5-on-5 numbers were a bit mixed; Bastian’s was better than McLeod’s although McLeod had the kind of production you would be pleased with as a bottom-six player. McLeod’s nine goals finished fifth on the team, which is good for McLeod and, well, not so good for New Jersey. Either way, they showed they are NHL players. The question is not going to be whether they will return. They will. The question is for how much and how long. Hopefully, Fitzgerald does not overvalue them because that could create some issues with the next two as well as future cap space.
Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich ended up making New Jersey from the beginning of the season and playing most of it with Jack Hughes as a center on a top line. The trio were impressive in how they would drive offense, especially when the other three lines would struggle. If you wanted the proverbial spark, then these three were the ones to usually bring it. Kuokkanen has better 5-on-5 rates than Sharangovich, suggesting that he did more to help drive play along with the main driver of that line, Hughes. Sharangovich was more productive and ended up third among all rookies in the NHL with 16 goals. Given that the Devils have badly needed a shooter and a finisher, Sharangovich’s season is a welcomed sign. It is a question whether both will repeat it, or whether those two would be the best wingers for Hughes. But, like McLeod and Bastian, they will return. Unlike those two, Kuokkanen and Sharangovich can stand to make a lot more money. After all, they had very good seasons, they are young, and should they keep progressing, then a bridge deal could end up being expensive in the long run. There is some cause for hesitation; a “sophomore slump” from either could hurt - especially for Sharangovich should his primary value be in scoring goals. Among all of the RFAs, these two could end up being the most costly. And the more they get, there could be less for free agents from other teams - like Dougie Hamilton - and it could put 2022 in more of a bind. What Fitzgerald does here will be the most critical among all of the internal free agents.
Some Final Thoughts
As one final point as a preview, let us experiment a bit and ignore the salary cap for the moment. What if the Devils re-signed all of their RFAs? Again, it is easy to re-sign a RFA; the team just needs to make a qualifying offer and their rights are maintained. But all teams are subject to a limit of 50 contracts on the books. There is a little wiggle room for this. Players under the age of 20 on ELCs can have their contracts slide as long as they play fewer than 9 games in an 82-game season for the NHL team. That means it will not count for the limit of 50 for the season. Plus, with the expansion draft, someone from New Jersey will be claimed so that is a contract that will be removed.
That said, the Devils have a total of 14 RFAs within the organization to re-sign. If they do that, then they will be at 42 contacts. That number can quickly go up. If they sign Matt Hellickson before August, then that’s another contract. If they bring back any of their UFAs, then that also increases the count. There are 9 total UFAs, so the Devils literally cannot bring all of them back. However, I do not think they will based on their performances last season and what they can (or, rather, cannot) bring to the Devils.
This means that the Devils will likely have the ability to go sign someone from outside of the organization. Or make a trade to bring in someone. And should some RFAs be left unqualified. Perhaps the Devils let some of those Binghamton Devils loose instead of taking them to Utica. Perhaps Senn does go back to Switzerland to clear up some of the goaltender logjam that would form if he does not. Perhaps the Devils make a deal with Seattle to have a currently signed player taken instead of a free agent, so the Devils can freely re-sign that player to a contract. It does not seem like much, but Fitzgerald would do well to be mindful of not suffering a “Death by a Thousand Papercuts” scenario with respect to his roster for next season.
I am more focused on the number of contracts rather than the cap. With over $37 million in cap space to make decisions for over 23 players, I doubt the Devils will come close to using it all internally. The vast majority of the pending free agents are all on six-figure salaries and only a handful (McLeod, Bastian, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen) are likely to get salaries well into the seven-figures this offseason. The concern is to make sure all of those returning players do not eat up so much of that $37 million that they price themselves out of a market for an area of need - like Dougie Hamilton - and without making an expensive 2022 offseason even more of a challenge assuming the cap remains flat. I will go more into that tomorrow. Again, the main idea for Fitzgerald is to avoid a “Death by a Thousand Papercuts” situation.
The Devils will have a lot of work to do with their free agents within the organization alone. They have a lot of space to do so. But Fitzgerald and his staff will need to be mindful not to just bring everyone back. The 50-contract limit is something that could be met rather quickly even if the cost of bringing a lot of these free agents back will be minimal. How he handles these free agents should set up for what he could do for the expansion draft and when free agency frenzy begins on July 28. There is a lot of time between now and then, but time has a funny way of going quickly before its realized. I would think a lot of the decisions will be made over the next few months, with negotiations coming to a close in July itself. It will be a busy Summer all the same for the Devils.
What is your take on the Devils internal roster decisions? Would you bring most of these pending free agents back? Who do you want to see the Devils not qualify, if anyone? We’ll go into more depth on the bigger names in this group in the coming weeks. But what is your initial gut feeling on how much you would re-sign the NHL pending free agents? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the future offseason decisions for this year in the comments. Thank you for reading.