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At Large Free Agency Commentary (2021): Expectations and Gameplan

Given what is available in this year’s free agency pool, what should the Devils expect to come out of it with?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The last time we did a piece like this, we were coming off a disappointing 2019 season ravaged by injury, but still feeling cautiously optimistic about the season to come. So, given what was available in the free agency pool, I thought it would be helpful to give a few quick bullet points on where the team stands, what is available, and what some different versions of the roster could look like. Let’s start out with a review of where the Devils are at.

How We Got Here

  • In Lindy Ruff’s first season as head coach, and Tom Fitzgerald’s first as permanent GM, the Devils finished with the 3rd-worst record in the NHL, missing the playoffs for 3rd year in a row and the 8th time in 9 years. The Devils were 26th in goals per game and 27th in goals allowed per game.
  • With the trading of Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri and waiving of Nikita Gusev, the oldest remaining Devils forward is Andreas Johnsson at 26 years old. After struggling to stay healthy all year, newly-anointed captain, Nico Hischier filled out the top 6 with all youngsters: Sharangovich(22)-Hughes(19)-Kuokkanen(22) and Bratt(22)-Hischier(22)-Zacha(23).
  • There was plenty of good news among the youth — Ty Smith looked like he belonged in an NHL top-4, Zacha led the team in scoring, Bratt finally earned the trust of his coach, Sharangovich looks like a true goal-scorer, and Kuokkanen a decent complement. But, most importantly, Jack Hughes took massive strides and looks like a future stud his draft position would lead you to believe.
  • Goaltending continued to be a problem for the Devils as Corey Crawford’s surprise pre-season retirement and Mackenzie Blackwood’s COVID diagnosis forced us to rely on sub-replacement backups like Aaron Dell and Scott Wedgewood, with whom the Devils went 4-13-3. Over his career, the Devils are now 46-41-12 with Blackwood (86-point-pace) and 32-59-17 without him (61-point-pace).

What Is Out There?

In Gerard’s piece previewing the needs of the Devils entering free agency, there were 3 components that could be addressed by adding UFA pieces — a 1B/backup goalie, veteran presence, and addressing the blueline. Given those needs, I want to summarize what this year’s FA crop looks like.

  • Among defenders, it’s Dougie Hamilton and then everyone else. There might be a 2nd tier depending on how you feel about guys like Alec Martinez, Ty Barrie, and/or Brandon Montour. After them there are 15 other defenders who are projected by Evolving-Hockey to receive multi-year deals.
  • Among forwards (ignoring Ovechkin), the top tier is Gabriel Landeskog, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — all are U30 top-tier forwards. There is a huge 2nd tier here including names like Danault, Saad, Granlund, and even some ex-Devils like Coleman and Palmieri. In total, 39 forwards are expected to receive multi-year deals with 15 expected to clear $4M AAV.
  • Among goalies, those searching for a starter will have a tough time. Phillip Grubauer is likely the top prize while less-proven guys with some encouraging performance this year like Chris Dreidger and Linus Ullmark would probably make up tier two. After them it’s “take a shot on [insert veteran here]” featuring the likes of James Reimer, Frederik Andersen, Petr Mrazek, Jaroslav Halak, etc.

So given this landscape, what could the Devils do? I’m going to give a couple different versions of what this offseason could look like depending on how Tom Fitzgerald & Co. think they should approach things. Remember that, in all of these, one starting roster player will likely be chosen by Seattle barring a trade of some kind. Assume that, whoever that is will be replaced by either a training camp winner or a UFA acquisition.

Possible Approaches toe Lineup Construction in Free Agency

1) The “Do-Nothing” approach (a.k.a. “Pain for Shane”)

In this version of things the Devils put off the big moves for one more season. Depending on your philosophy, this could be the best option for a team that is very young and has yet to lock up several of those key young pieces (ex: Bratt, Hughes, Zacha) long-term.

In this version, we keep the same top six that finished the year in encouraging fashion. We beef up the 3rd line just a little bit with a veteran center like, say, Nick Bonino. He’ll play with Mango and one of the camp spot winners like Boqvist/Foote/Thompson. The defense may add someone to the bottom-4 like Jani Hakanpää or they could just roll with what we have and re-sign Murray (let’s assume the latter). The goalie in this situation would be a shot in the dark on someone like Laurent Brossoit.

Okay so the title here is a bit of a misnomer because this isn’t a full-on tank, but the entire top 6, top 4, and top goalie remain unchanged from the roster that finished 3rd from the floor so it’s also certainly not a lineup anyone expects to make the playoffs even with some additional seasoning.

Potential UFA additions: Nick Bonino, Laurent Brossoit

2) The Halfway Approach (a.k.a. “Will somebody help Jack Hughes?”)

One of the biggest complaints from fans last season was that Hughes kept setting up teammates but no one was there to finish. He needed true scorers to take advantage of his next-level playmaking. That’s the feature of this option.

Whereas the first option clearly delineates 2022-23 as the initial contention year, this one is a little more ambiguous. Let’s assume that this is a narrow problem (Hughes lacks shooters) with a narrow solution (get him guys that convert). That said, I think the same logic that would be used to make this move could be used to argue Ty Smith should be given a developmentally-advantageous partner as well.

So they could get Jack one, or even two shooters that are cheaper because they’re less impactful elsewhere on the ice — players like, say, Mike Hoffman and Corey Perry. That bumps the Sharangovich/Kuokkanen duo down to the third line where they’re a more natural fit and they can be centered by either an acquisition or whoever wins the camp battle.

And then they do a half-measure on the defense by adding someone like Alex Goligoski to short-term deal as the steward to the Age of Ty Smith hoping he can help Ty the same way he helped Jakob Chychrun in Arizona this year. A more ambitious version of this move would be getting Alec Martinez.

Since the theme of this approach is “helping the kids”, let’s say that we add a goalie who is experience as a 1B and playoff chops, but probably cant handle a half-season workload anymore. Jaroslav Halak seems like a natural fit here.

This approach puts the most important pieces around our most important assets, but doesn’t go any further yet.

Potential Acquisitions: Perry, Hoffman, Goligoski, Martinez, Halak

“Go For It” approach (a.k.a. “Teach me how to Dougie”)

%&@$ it we’ll do it live! This is the “we’re tired of waiting” lineup. The reason for this lineup is that, if you do go out and get the biggest UFA prize — Hurricanes defender, Dougie Hamilton — your contention window becomes “now” and so you should probably add other pieces too. The Hoffman/Perry duo is good enough to give Jack some toys, but not good enough to be 23 of a contending top line, so you’d need at least one legitimate producer there. We could bring both Hall and Palmieri back, reforming what was an elite line in Jack’s rookie season. A cheaper version could guys like Granlund, Saad, or Hyman. The third line needs to not look like an AHL unit anymore in this hypothetical too, so you could throw a good play-driving acquisition like, say, Sam Gagner in with whoever is the best in camp and put them with a scorer like Sharangovich to produce a threatening 3rd line.

We add our stud 1D in Dougie Hamilton who munches minutes along with Ty Smith and making life easier on everyone down the lineup, including whoever we add to the left side to flush out the top 4 — let’s say Jamie Oleksiak since we know Fitzy likes his big bois.

And we finish the home run derby by adding a legit 1B goaltender. I think the Devils would love to add a goalie that tormented them this season in Linus Ullmark.

Potential Acquisitions: Hall, Palmieri, Granlund, Hyman, Saad, Gagner, DOUGIE, Oleksiak, Ullmark

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t genuinely think the Devils will do the “go for it” option here. I think it’ll probably be somewhere between options #1 and #2. My guess is we add 1-2 veteran forwards (one who’s a shooter for Jack), 1-2 veteran defenders (1 top 4, 1 bottom 4) and another Crawford-esque goalie. It’s also worth remembering that this team historically likes to make at least one or two trades in the offseason so one of them may be acquired through that route. Also Seattle will likely take someone out of the lineup barring a weird trade agreement, so the bottom-6/bottom-4 probably won’t look like I have here either.

What Gerard and I are going to aim to do over the next few days is break down each position and who we think the Devils should/will add, starting with Goalies tomorrow. Then in the last week of this series, we’ll talk about who not to draft, and lastly, we will have an entire article dedicated to The Museum Man himself: Dougie Hamilton.

Continue to tune in Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11am EST to see us break down 2021 free agency by position, aptitude, and narrative. Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.