Yesterday, I wrote at length about the many New Jersey Devils players within the organization who will become free agents this Summer. With 14 pending restricted free agents and 9 pending unrestricted free agents, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will need to make some difficult decisions in terms of the roster. While most of those pending RFAs will return, how much and how long their new contracts will be of a concern for the near future. I would go as far as to say that next Summer should be in Fitzgerald’s mind when he makes any signing, minor, cheap, or otherwise. This is because the 2022 offseason could end up being one of the most expensive in recent franchise history.
The Pending 2022 Free Agents for New Jersey
The pending UFA list is short. And it may be one that Devils fans have been looking forward to depending on how they feel about the player. The contracts of P.K. Subban and Will Butcher will end. The Devils acquired Subban and his massive contract with a massive $9 million cap hit back in 2019. While Subban was really not that bad last season (~52 CF%, ~50% xGF), he has yet to play like someone worthy of a $9 million cap hit. At least he was playing significant minutes. Butcher fell so far out of favor that he did not become a regular until the team had no choice last season after losing Sami Vatanen to waivers and trading Dmitry Kulikov. His $3.73 million cap hit is not that much money on its own but it is arguably better spent elsewhere. At least on someone the coaching staff would use more often than “only when necessary.” Not that the Devils need space, but they will have plenty of it from those two. (And also two holes on the blueline to fill.)
This is assuming they even make it to the 2022 offseason as Devils. Subban’s final season in his contract has him receiving a $6 million signing bonus and a salary of $2 million. If there is a team that needs cap space but does not want to pay a lot in actual salary, then Subban becomes attractive to them after New Jersey pays out the signing bonus. A trade may not happen until the deadline, but once the bonus is paid, then you can begin the trade. Butcher could very well be sacrificed in the Seattle expansion draft given that he was not given regular minutes until after the trade deadline. That was a sign that he may not fit into New Jersey’s plans regardless. Should Seattle pass on him (or Subban, for that matter), he too could be a deadline deal away.
So the Devils could see either walk or get dealt away and that’s $13.73 million extra to spend. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that money will be used up real fast for the RFAs. Especially for The Big Deal. Yes, 2022 is that summer.
The Devils’ pending RFAs from New Jersey last season are the following, in order of least critical to most critical: Jesper Boqvist, Mikhail Maltsev, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, and Jack Hughes. With all due respect to those in the AHL, those six are going to command a ton of money combined.
Cap Space & The False Sense of Security
I think I know what you, a member of the People Who Matter, may be thinking. You may be thinking I am worrying about too much too early. The Devils have over $37 million in cap space for 2021 and over $60 milion for 2022. This is more than enough room for the Devils to keep all of these players, right?
Not necessarily. That $60 million figure at CapFriendly is as of May 24, 2021. That number is assuming the Devils sign no one in this Summer. They will absolutely sign players; they pretty much have to with only 13 roster players signed. Each signing Fitzgerald makes in the next few months will eat into the cap space available for 2022 and future offseasons. In yesterday’s post, I highlighted the issue with the contract limit involved with all of the free agents. For 2022, the bigger concern is having enough money available.
This concern will get eased if the NHL earns enough money in revenue next season to warrant an increase to the salary cap. It is expected it will be flat for 2021-22. While the Devils can certainly take advantage, each expensive deal they bring in at the expense of another team will likely be on the books beyond next season. That would cut into the $60 million figure you see today at CapFriendly for 2022-23.
The reality if that even the cheapest players are not as cheap as they once were. The minimum NHL salary will get bumped up to $750,000, or three-quarters of a million. And plenty of the Devils on ELCs are a bit above that. On their own, it is not a lot of money. As you add them all up, it becomes a more significant sum. While some of those minimum salary players will end up being in Utica (or elsewhere) and therefore will not be on the books, they will be should they break through to New Jersey.
And, of course, if the Devils go out and get the backup goaltender they need, the defensive help they need (a skater, maybe Dougie Hamilton, maybe someone else), and the other areas of improvement, then that takes up cap space for 2022 and beyond.
If there is any point you should takeaway, it’s that whatever Fitzgerald does in this Summer will absolutely impact next Summer. If he splashes the cash and wins the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes, there may be more work for Fitzgerald to do to keep the six pending RFAs alone. If he chooses to retain the 2021 free agents on one-season contracts, then he will end up having more free agency decisions in 2022 on top of the six RFAs he already has. If he decides to trade away players in 2021-22, then he needs to identify which ones are worth moving on from and have a backup plan on who can serve their roles. Tom Fitzgerald has to make his decisions this year with next year in mind. If only so he does not back himself into a corner ahead of negotiations with Wood, Zacha, Bratt, and especially Hughes.
An Expensive Six Pack
Out of the six pending RFAs out of New Jersey, it is easy to see who will get the cheapest deals short of a massive breakout campaign in 2021-22. Boqvist and Maltsev should be able to be retained for fairly modest deals. However, if both provide more value and the coaches use them more, then that only raises the potential cost of a new deal both in terms of dollars and length. One of the areas that trips teams up in cap management is over-paying for depth positions. Boqvist and Maltsev were used in depth roles last season. I would expect them to start as the same, pending any other moves made in 2021. The concern here for management is to avoid over-valuing either to a notable degree. Especially as to not take up space away from the other four. Even so, a NHL-minimum deal for both (which is unlikely, that would be a pay cut for both), would add up to $1.5 million against the cap.
2022 is the year where Wood, Bratt, and Zacha each need new deals. Each has arbitration rights, which will force Fitzgerald’s hand to come to terms with agreements ahead of a usually-nasty-and-relationship-killing arbitration hearing. Each have cap hits below $3 million. Each will likely have an argument as to why they should earn more.
For Wood, the argument is simple: production. Wood earned his current contract on the back of a 19-goal campaign in 2017-18. While Wood did not meet that amount - shocking to no one, his shooting percentage dropped big time - in the following two seasons, he arguably had his most productive season yet in 2021. With 17 goals in 55 games, Wood was tied for the team lead in goals. The achievement is more amazing since he primarily played in the team’s bottom six at forward. Wood’s rate of goals and points were each higher than what they were in 2017-18. Wood would have surely broke the 20-goal plateau and set a new career high in points in a normal, 82-game season assuming he would maintain those rates. Wood was even more disciplined as he took just 29 PIM last season - a new low of 0.53 penalty minutes per game. His on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 were not awful for a change. While Wood’s off the puck play sometimes leaves something to be desired, another productive season from Wood like last season and he will want more than a deal worth a $2.75 million average accrued value.
For Zacha, the argument is whether he truly turned a corner. Zacha got hot in February, cold in March, and hot again in April and May to lead the Devils in points last season. He played in all three situations. As poor as some of his on-ice stats looked last season, leading the team in points and tied with Wood in goals was seen as a triumph. A sign that the oft-criticized former sixth overall draft pick of 2015 could be worthy of being a top-ten pick in that draft. Or at least kind of worthy. Players who serve multiple roles and can produce tend to get paid real well. If Zacha truly turned a corner, then he should be a significant contributor to next season’s team. I doubt Zacha will also accept a team-friendly deal.
For Bratt, the argument is that he truly is a top-six winger on this team. It is tempting to just look at his basic stats and then roll your eyes at the notion. However, he has been a top-six winger throughout most of his tenure as a Devil and often next to Nico Hischier - one of the two centers the team is building around. The main goal for Fitzgerald in 2021 and 2022 is to find wingers to best support Hughes and Hischier. He arguably has one already in Bratt. He is swift. He is slick on the puck. His point per game rate of 0.65 was the best of his young career so far; a full season would have yielded a more prolific stat line. And he was real good in the run of play last season. Should Bratt be even more productive or even maintain what he did for a full season next to Hischier, then that would further strengthen the argument that he is a top-six winger for the future of this team. And, again, that will come with a significant raise at the time of his next contract.
The biggest one will be for The Big Deal himself, Jack Hughes. Hughes may have fallen short of Zacha for the team lead in points. However, you would have to be a large Hughes-hater or someone who did not pay much attention to the Devils, to think that Hughes did not take a big step forward in 2021. He was the team’s top center. With Hischier and without Hischier, Hughes was drawing the big minutes. He was doing so with two rookies at wing in Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen. He was the team’s best skater in 5-on-5 play based on on-ice rates. This young man is special, players like him do not come around very often, and he is likely to get even better next season. The Devils have put their proverbial eggs in the baskets of Hischier and Hughes. Hischier got a hefty $50.75 million, seven season contract extension early into his final season on his entry-level contract. I would expect something similar provided that the Devils lock him up for a long deal. And the Devils should for the reasons I just wrote. It will not be cheap and it will be imperative that Fitzgerald ensure there is enough money to make it happen.
A lot can still happen between now and then. Maybe Fitzgerald trades one of these players away. Maybe Seattle claims one of them instead of a defenseman. Maybe another team wants one of those six and will make a great offer for it. But as it stands, retaining these six could easily take up well over $13 million combined. Even if Wood, Zacha, and Bratt accept something in the flat $4 range, that’s $12 million right there. Even re-signing Boqvist and Maltsev to modest deals can add up to close to $2 million. That is all without considering Hughes. Much less anything else the Devils want to do in the 2022 offseason, such as considering an extension for Ty Smith or leaving room for Mackenzie Blackwood’s next deal in 2023.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
One of the many challenges of being a general manager in the NHL (and any other pro sport) is balancing short-term and long-term gains. Sure, the Devils will be more free to spend money than most other teams this year. It may be to their benefit to do so for a fanbase that is aching for some success since 2018. Just retaining their internal free agents is not likely to lead them to the next level by themselves. The open market cannot be ignored like Ray Shero did for much of his tenure as GM. But they cannot spend so much money that they get into trouble for the 2022 offseason where several openings will need to be filled and four significant names on the team need new contracts - including the most important player on the team in Jack Hughes. There needs to be a balance between the two.
Likewise, there needs to be flexibility in terms of the roster. Maybe some of the players signed this Summer do not play as well as expected. Maybe some of the players struggle in the roles that they are given. Locking down for a multiple years may make sense for some of the 2021 free agents, but there needs to be some room to maneuver in case it goes awry. Given the amount of young players in the organization at multiple positions, this may not be that big of a concern. Of course, there is a difference between having a bunch of players in the pipeline for a role and having multiple NHL-quality players for a role.
Lastly, the 2021-22 season will be here before you know it. While the Devils are in their offseason now, the action will ramp up within the second half of this July. July 17 is when protection lists have to be submitted for the expansion draft. The actual expansion draft is on July 21. The NHL Draft is on July 23 and 24. Finally, Free Agent Frenzy will start on July 28. If the NHL does push for a more normal regular season schedule, then camp could still open in September and then the season would start in October. The actual offseason activities will come and go real fast. The “dead period” in August may be shorter than usual. The moves within the team may come before then - and those moves could very well impact what the Devils can do in the 2022 offseason.
In the meantime, I would like your take on this. Does knowing the 2022 offseason picture impact how you want the Devils to handle this Summer’s signings? Do you want them to be more aggressive, more reserved, or something else? While a lot can happen next season, how much do you think the RFAs can command? Should the Devils go all out on an extension for Hughes during 2021-22 like they did with Hischier back in 2019? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ 2022 free agents in the comments. Thank you for reading.