This offseason is not generally expected to be an exciting one for the Devils. That’s probably not a great sentence to start off this blog’s 5-week segment on free agency, but whatever — facts are facts. The two things that make offseasons exciting are if A) you are in a cap crunch and needs to sign key members in order to continue competing or B) you’re a team on the verge of competing and are expected to make acquisitions to push you over the edge.
None of the Devils core need new deals yet, and they team is not on the verge of Stanley Cup contention.
But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a hugely consequential offseason anyway. Every offseason we learn a lot about how management perceives the future of the team based on who is given long- or short-term contracts and what pieces they see the need to add from the outside.
Over the next month, while our AAtJ colleagues profile key draft prospects, Gerard and I will focus on the other avenue through which pieces could be added to the roster — free agency. This post will serve as a primer in which we review the Devils salary cap situation, who is already under contract, who is in need of a contract, and what outside help is potentially available to the Devils.
The Cap Situation
Using 2020-21 contracts, the Devils currently have the most cap space of any NHL team. But when we factor in expiring deals, the Devils fall behind Detroit in terms of money that’s already been earmarked for 2021-22. Assuming teams would put around 26 players under contract to start the season (league-median), that gives the Devils more money per remaining contract than anyone other than the Senators — they could fill the roster exclusively with $3.3M players and still be cap-compliant.
If you look at the positional breakdown, you’ll also see that we’re paying our forwards and goalies very little. The only big chunk is for defenders, the majority of which is going towards the $9M man entering the final year of his deal, P.K. Subban. Outside him, the only contract over $5M on the books is Nico Hischier at $7.25M.
In short, the Devils have plenty of room to either make moves for this year, or set aside for the looming extensions needed for several key members of the core. Speaking of which...
The Devils return pretty much everyone you might reasonably consider their core. Captain Nico Hischier is the only player on the team signed beyond 2023. The “top” pairing of Severson and Smith are locked in for 2 more years in their current prices. And, while they’re currently under contract, the intrigue will come next offseason when Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and (to a lesser degree) Miles Wood will all need new deals assuming that none are left unprotected and taken by Seattle.
Non-NHL Returning Players
There are also a lot of non-NHL contracts, all ELCs that are still in effect next year. Nolan Foote, Kevin Bahl, and Tyce Thompson all already got some time with the NHL team this season. It wouldn’t be shocking to see 2020 1st rounders Dawson Mercer or Alex Holtz make the jump. Same goes for last years AHL highest scoring forward (Graeme Clarke) and defender (Reilly Walsh).
Longer shots that are still technically under contract include Michael Vukojevic, Nikita Okhotiuk, Jeremy Groleau, Aarne Talvitie, Fabian Zetterlund, and Nathan Schnarr; along with goalies Nico Daws and Akira Schmid.
Free Agent Devils
The only unrestricted free agent that’s really even worth discussing is Ryan Murray who, after a pretty slow start that saw him fall to 6/7 on the depth chart, ended up being one of the best Devils in terms of on-ice goal results. The Devils scored 35 goals and allowed 28 when he was on the ice at 5v5 — that +7 differential was the highest on the team. His contract projection is basically 4x4, but that model uses age and minutes among its inputs. I think his TOI was inflated by being on a shallow blueline and his injury history makes him feel older than he is, so 4x4 may be a small overestimation. The only other defender on the list is worth extending is Siegenthaler, who will likely be re-signed after being good enough post acquisition. Carrick is a lockerroom favorite and Tennyson is a coach favorite, but if either returns next year it likely won’t be in NJ.
There is a little more worth discussing with the RFA forwards. Both of the wingers on the Devils’s year-ending top-line — Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen — are up for new deals. While Janne seems likely to be bridged given his use up and down the lineup, Yegor may earn a middling term deal as he played over 2 minutes per game more than Kuokkanen, killed penalties, and scored twice as many goals — finishing only one shy of team-leaders Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha. If Sharangovich had done this once already, he’d probably be considered part of the core.
There’s a chunk of other RFA forwards — McLeod, Bastian, and Merkley — that could be re-signed and return to NJ next season, even just for the purpose of exposing them to Seattle. Merkley produced points at an efficient clip, but was waived mid-season. McLeod and Bastian were effective penalty-killers and teamed up with Miles Wood to make a nuisance of an energy line.
Non-NHL Free Agents
If they want to keep any/all of the following players —
Mason Jobst, Ben Street, Brett Seney, Josh Jacobs, David Quenneville, Evan Cormier, Brandon Gignac, AJ Greer, Colton White, Colby Sissons
—they will need new deals as well. Street is a key AHL player that could make playing in Utica less painful. Seney was a fan favorite after 13-point 2019 rookie NHL season and 44-point AHL follow-up, but is now an afterthought after just 10 points in 30 games with Binghamton. Greer and White grabbed a cup of coffee in the NHL this year.
Big UFAs Around the League
There are a few guys that are “technically UFAs” that would be surprising to see in any jersey other than their own. Alex Ovechkin is the most obvious. It would be surprising not to see Gabriel Landeskog in an Avs jersey as well, although we still haven’t seen how this Colorado management team will handle extensions for post-prime core.
There is still a lot of talent in the forward pool, though, including many ex-Devils like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Blake Coleman (I’m not counting Zajac and Gusev as talent) along with another chunk of other late-20s/early-30s guys that grade out as middle-sixers like RNH, Danault, Hoffman, Hyman, Tatar, Granlund, Saad, Wennberg, and Schwartz.
The defensive end of things is far less attractive , which is a problem for the Devils since that’s their biggest organizational need. There is exactly one top-pairing defender available in Hurricanes blueliner, Dougie Hamilton. The consolation prize would be Alec Martinez, because after that you fall to Ty Barrie, Brandon Montour, and lower tier defenders. This, too, is littered with Devils present and past like Murray, Kulikov, Vatanen, Greene and Larsson.
After the Crawford debacle, you have to think the Devils will also aim to add another goalie. Their options there are plentiful with names like Grubauer, Rask, and Ullmark headlining things; but good gambles like Raanta, Andersen, Mrazek, and Halak being available as well.
The Devils free agency story will be much more engaging in 2022, but there are odds and ends that do need to be dealt with. Sharangovich and Kuokkanen need new contracts and we will need to decide if the other depth forwards have earned a spot on the team, or if addressing depth through the plentiful veteran FA pool is more optimal for this young squad. The blueline has to be filled/fixed/somethinged, but with a fairly shallow UFA crop, the Devils may just need to bring back some familiar faces (Murray, Kulikov, Vatanen, Greene, Larsson) to fill out the roster with competent NHLers until a trade or prospect reveal themselves. And it seems likely that neither Wedgewood nor Dell has done enough to secure their #2 spot so a UFA goalie is likely on the wishlist as well.
Even in a down offseason Tom Fitzgerald has plenty of decisions ahead of him. So, over the next month, be sure to check back each Wednesday and Thursday for continuing coverage of the Devils free agency options and commentary. We will start off tomorrow when Gerard will talk about what the Devils needs and priorities should be entering free agency.