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The Needs of the New Jersey Devils Heading Into Free Agency

Looking at moves both internally and externally that the New Jersey Devils can or need to make prior to the 2021-22 NHL season.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
Some help for this guy should be an obvious team need without us even needing to state it.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While I certainly agree with CJ’s introduction yesterday that the Devils aren’t exactly in line for an exciting offseason, I also agree with his point that there are things that must be done. Players are coming up on expiring contracts, the team still has pieces missing from their puzzle and if they hope to have an offseason soon where they’re making moves to be a Stanley Cup contender, then the steps to get to that point must be taken starting now. We will look today at some things the Devils can and/or need to do this offseason to continue pushing the franchise back towards relevance.

This piece will be broken down into two sections: internal and external needs of the team. By internal, this mean players who should be extended prior to their contract expiring next offseason. External is the more obvious: positions that the Devils should address with their free agency signings. A reminder too that this piece is setting the table for more of what is to come this month and into July, so if it seems like something is missing or addressed only vaguely, bear in mind this is purposeful, as CJ and myself will be addressing more aspects of free agency in the coming weeks.

Internal Needs

Looking over the Devils’ situation on CapFriendly, the team has a lot of RFAs who are either due for new contracts now, or will be due after 2021-22. In terms of UFA to be extensions, the time for to extend this season’s pending UFAs has come and passed and only two players on the roster right now could hit unrestricted free agency next season. Looking at possible extensions, for the RFAs, it’s mostly worth looking at what type of deal the Devils should give these players and for the UFAs, it’s whether or not the Devils should bring them back.

The RFA group is quite a bit larger, so let’s start with some names everyone wants to know what will happen to this offseason. I see the team re-signing Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen easily; I would expect both to get bridge deals, possibly similar to what Miles Wood got when his ELC expired. If either were to get locked down for longer and/or more money, I think we would all agree it on it being Yegor; he had an excellent rookie season (with a few growing pains here and there) and looks like he could be an important scoring forward for the team’s future.

Next we have Nick Merkley and Jonas Siegenthaler; I expect these two to get a slight salary jump (breaking into seven digits but probably no more than $1.5 per season) as there’s still a lot of question marks about both players. Merkley didn’t have any regularity to prove himself and Siegenthaler came over via trade after playing sparingly early in the season. I could see both of these players only receiving a short-term deal as well to see if they will be part of the future or not

Then we have the pair of Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, the two buddies that comprised a very good energy line with Wood this season. These are the tough ones to nail down; I think the Devils would like to extend both, but the possibility that Seattle takes one (if left unprotected) certainly exists. If both return, I see a bit more money than Merkley/Siegenthaler but probably not the money/term that Janne/Yegor could get.

As per the RFAs to be after next season, I think Jack Hughes needs an extension of some sort in place prior to this coming season; while he has not had superstar numbers yet, Jack continues to show that he is one of the most talented Devils on the ice. Right behind him should be Jesper Bratt; I don’t see Bratt costing as much as Hughes long term, but he’s still a prevalent, creative player that the Devils should lock up long term. I could also see Miles Wood getting an extension, though I would assume the cost would not be much higher than what he is making now.

The polarizing extension candidate of the “bigger names” on the Devils would have to be Pavel Zacha. Zacha had himself a fantastic 2021 season, and finally started to silence some of his most vocal critics with his play, especially after being moved to wing. The concern here has to be that 2021 was an anomaly and Zacha regresses a bit to what his norm prior to 2021 was. As such, I could see the Devils waiting until the summer of 2022 to lock up Pavel depending upon whether or not he continues to perform at a high level.

Finally in the RFA category, between both this offseason and next, we have the guys who are currently role players for the team, such as Jesper Boqvist, Mikhail Maltsev, and Marian Studenic. There’s many more names to this list (basically every RFA not mentioned yet) and all of these players have a role with the Devils, be it in the majors in the minors for the time being. These are not players needing to be locked down to long-term deals at least not yet with what they have (or have not) proven in their professional careers. All will be re-signed more than likely, with those whose current deals expire next summer being re-upped at that time.

As per the upcoming UFAs, let’s start with Will Butcher, who may or may not find himself still a Devil after the upcoming expansion draft. Due to how he is falling down the depth chart, and how his skill set has been upgraded upon in the form of Ty Smith, I think the Devils might be wise to not offer an extension here. The same can be said of the other UFA in P.K. Subban, but for different reasons; Subban needs to show 2021 wasn’t a one off season, and since extensions are signed prior to the start of the season where there is one year left on a player’s current contract, I don’t foresee either player being extended.

Now this isn’t to say that if both are still on the roster for 2021-22 that it will be their last season as a Devil. Rather, they would need to prove their value to the team in season and re-up with them after their current contracts expire in the summer of 2022.

External Needs

I hate to be the writer that beats the dead horse here, but addressing the gaps on the back end has to be a pressing need this offseason. While I don’t think anyone expects the Devils to be a serious contender one season removed from finishing with the third worst record in the league, being more competitive should be a realistic outlook. For this to be possible, the Devils will need to somehow conjure up two to three NHL caliber defenders.

Damon Severson and Ty Smith are locked in as building pieces going forward. P.K. Subban had a decent season in 2021, but more wear and tear on those tires could see him fall apart again; let’s hope for the team’s sake he builds off of this past campaign. Jonas Siegenthaler could be a good addition to the team but we need a full season of him here to tell.

Ryan Murray is headed to unrestricted free agency; with his defending ability, the Devils could (and should) look to bring him back. Outside of him, and the hopes/expectations for Subban and Siegenthaler, the Devils still need more talented back end players. Who exactly should they target? Well, you are all free to guess in the comments, but for the picks that CJ and I are going to make, you’ll have to wait as this summer series progresses.

A backup/1B goalie should also be on the list of needs from elsewhere. The abrupt retirement of Corey Crawford last offseason really hurt the Devils going into a condensed schedule. MacKenzie Blackwood suffered from being overworked and ill, while Scott Wedgewood and Aaron Dell did not provide much in most of their outings. A healthy Blackwood will go a long way in 2021--22, but the Devils should look into getting him some help as well.

Lastly, and probably least important on this list, would be a veteran or two to help guide the team. The Devils are very young right now, and could use some successful players to help the mentality of the core players. While not a pressing need, a veteran voice or two in a young locker room wouldn’t hurt.

The New Jersey Devils 2021 Summer Checklist

To make things a bit more digestible, here’s the abbreviated list version of everyone we discussed above:

  • Re-sign this summer’s RFAs
  • Ge ahead of extensions for next summer’s RFAs/UFAs
  • Address the issues on the blue line
  • Get a backup/1B goalie
  • Possibly add a veteran presence

Your Take

In terms of the external needs of the team, this is simply a brief preview of what is to come in later weeks. For the internal needs, who do you believe (if anyone) the Devils should extend prior to the start of the 2021-22 season? Do you feel it is wiser to wait? Is there anyone you would rather see the team move on from, be it now, at the trade deadline or even next offseason? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!