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A New Jersey Devils 2021 Free Agency Frenzy Preview

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The third main event of the 2021 NHL offseason begins at noon on Wednesday, July 28. Free agency begins then and the New Jersey Devils have the cap space to make something happen. This post previews what the Devils can and need to do in free agency. And the Dougie.

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2021 NHL Draft - Round One
It’s time to shine, Tom Fitzgerald
Photo by Andrew MacLean/NHLI via Getty Images

The Seattle Expansion Draft came and went. The 2021 NHL Draft wrapped up on Saturday evening. The third main event of the 2021 NHL offseason is up next: Free Agency Frenzy. At noon on July 28, unrestricted free agents will be able to sign contracts with whomever they want. It is called a frenzy because the signings can happen real fast. The announcements may be quick, but their impacts on a team can last for years. As such, it is best to take a look at the situation with the New Jersey Devils, the league since last Thursday, and what to look forward to when the clock strikes 12 PM on Wednesday.

For those who have been following the site throughout the past few months, CJ and Gerard have covered plenty of the bigger topics surrounding the Devils’ needs and what they can do in free agency this year. CJ even put this primer together back on June 9. Much has changed since then, but I will refer to their posts as needed throughout this preview.

The Day of Free Agency Beginning: July 28, 2021

The Time it Goes Down: Noon (12:00 PM) ET

The General Points to Know About Free Agents: A few key points that are worth recalling ahead of free agency beginning on Wednesday.

  1. The final say for unrestricted free agents (UFAs) to sign with a team is in the hands of the UFA. In general, they will want to sign with whomever offers the most money. But some UFAs may value the length of the contract (a.k.a. term) over the dollar amount. Others may want a team that is closer to competing, closer to family, or wants to fulfill some kind of desire. Money talks, but the final answer comes from the player and it is up to them.
  2. Free agency can get expensive real fast. When multiple teams are interested in a player, then the cost to acquire them can get much higher. Usually beyond how much the player is worth. Additionally, free agents tend to get paid for what they have done but not what they will do in the future.
  3. Typically, the majority of spending on free agents takes place within the first day or two of the free agency period opening up. A big name may opt to wait a little longer, but most of the free agents will be signed fairly quickly. This is to say if your favorite team wants to make a splash in the open market or get some particular types of players, then they need to act fast.
  4. Everything impacts everything when it comes to the roster. Especially this year, where the salary cap ceiling remains flat at $81.5 million. A signing this week could prevent a move next season, or force some additional action later on. This is why a lot of the signings today may be made quickly, but their impact will last much longer than the 2021-22 season.
  5. Restricted free agents (RFAs) are not bound by this. Teams need to tender a RFA player with a qualifying offer. If they do, then the team has their exclusive signing rights. If a team does not, then they become UFAs - and not particularly attractive ones since their team did not want to make a basic, routine offer that would keep the player. Some RFAs have arbitration rights, which may be invoked to force a new deal to be made sooner rather than later. When are the qualifying offers due? Today at 5 PM ET.
  6. The NHL minimum salary is $750,000 for 2021-22.

Those are six major points I want to emphasize ahead of Wednesday’s action. Let us now focus on the Devils.

The Devils’ Roster Situation: As of July 25, 2021 at 2 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have 8 forwards signed, 7 defensemen signed, and 2 goaltenders signed on their main roster. They have 8 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders signed to their non-roster - which includes Utica as well as a player’s junior team. They have 31 players signed out of a maximum of 50 standard player contracts. Of those 31, Dawson Mercer’s entry level contract is exempt from the 50-contract limit and Alexander Holtz’ ELC could also slide into next season to avoid the limit. In other words, the Devils have a lot of roster space.

The Devils’ Salary Cap Situation: As of July 25, 2021 at 2 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have a projected cap hit of $49,154,999. This includes all of their signed players plus $2 million in “dead space” for Cory Schneider’s buyout and a $250,000 cap recapture penalty for Ilya Kovalchuk. With the salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million, this means the Devils have $32,345,001 in projected cap space. This is the third most cap space in the NHL at this time. They are also $11,045,001 below the salary cap floor, so the Devils will have to use their cap space this season.

The Devils’ Internal Free Agents: The Devils went into this offseason with several internal free agents. Gerard wrote about what to do most of them in this post back in mid-June. Since then, the Devils did re-sign Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian (now with the Kraken), Jonas Siegenthaler, Scott Wedgewood, and Colton White. Each were to relatively small deals.

The two biggest RFAs the Devils will re-sign this offseason are Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich. Both are coming off rookie seasons in the NHL where they mostly played on a top line with The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. It would be unlikely to expect Kuokkanen or Sharangovich to get paid on the level of McLeod or Siegenthaler. CJ went into detail about how much they should get paid in this post. A chunk of their $11 million needed to reach the floor will likely be taken up by these two. The trick will be for GM Tom Fitzgerald not to give Sharangovich or Kuokkanen so much based on their rookie seasons that they cannot live up to them and it hampers them in future seasons. One thing in Fitzgerald’s favor is time. Neither Sharangovich or Kuokkanen are eligible for arbitration so they cannot force the Devils to make an offer. All Fitzgerald needs to do is have them signed by training camp.

Other than Kuokkanen and Sharangovich, the Devils have eight other RFAs to decide on and almost all of them are depth players. They are Nick Merkley, Marian Studenic, Brandon Gignac, A.J. Greer, David Quenneville, Colby Sissons, Evan Cormier, and Gilles Senn. Senn has already signed in Switzerland, so I would not expect him to return. A couple may not be tendered qualifying offers. All together, it will not cost much to retain and most will be in Utica so they would not be on New Jersey’s books.

The Devils do have some internal UFAs, led by defenseman Ryan Murray. Gerard posed the question about whether he should be returned back in May. It may happen. In Fitzgerald’s post-draft media availability on Saturday, he did say that he has been in contact with Murray’s agent about a new deal per this tweet from Chris Ryan. After them, there is Aaron Dell, Ben Street, Mason Jobst, Connor Carrick, Matt Tennyson, Brett Seney, and Josh Jacobs. Like with the remaining RFAs, most of them are not on the New Jersey roster and would be in Utica if they are retained.

Would re-signing Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Murray, and the other RFAs be worth $11 million in total? Maybe. But even if it did, the Devils would still have over $20 million in cap space. They can spend money this offseason. And they do have needs to address that could be filled thanks to that money.

The Devils’ Needs: Gerard wrote about the team’s needs in June, CJ came up with a general gameplan on how to address them and what to expect a few weeks later, and Tom Fitzgerald spoke to them after the draft on Saturday. The Devils are aiming for the following:

  • A “1B” goaltender to form a tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood
  • A “top six” forward.
  • Another “quality defenseman”

These are appropriate needs. The Devils had the goaltending piece filled in before Corey Crawford announced a surprise retirement before last season. The 29th place Devils had issues at both ends of the rink. Some strengthening at both makes sense rather than waiting for the prospects to fill them in and hopefully be the answer in 2021-22.

Who Is Available?: Let us go by position.

In terms of goaltenders, the choices available are not particularly enticing per Gerard’s list of who is available. The list is also a little smaller from when that was posted. The 39-year old Mike Smith was signed to a two-season extension during the second day of the draft. Jonathan Bernier was sent to Carolina because the Canes did not want to re-sign Alex Nedeljkovic for reasons; I doubt he hits the market. The big name may be Antti Raanta amid a group of mostly backups and 1Bs - which may suit the Devils’ need just fine. The Devils may opt to sign someone from this list - think Petr Mrazek or Linus Ullmark - for a season or two until a better option comes along in the future. If not this way, then a trade has to be made before Blackwood is backed up by Wedgewood for another season.

For forwards, there are more interesting names still available. Based on CJ’s post, only Taylor Hall is off the market as he re-signed with Boston for four-seasons at $24 million. Not based on CJ’s post, Zach Hyman and Alex Ovechkin are UFAs too. However, all indications are that Ovechkin will stay with Washington. Hyman is incredibly likely to sign with Edmonton for seven seasons after a potential sign-and-trade with Toronto fell through.

Still, there are wingers available that could help support the Devils’ offense if the internal options to step are not ready. The big name is Gabriel Landeskog, who seems to be set to hit the market from Colorado. Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Brandon Saad, Phillip Danault, Andreas Athanasiou, and Alexander Wennberg are also notable names available. Veterans like Nick Foligno, Paul Stastny, David Krejci, and Tyler Bozak will also be available. Reunions with Kyle Palmieri or Blake Coleman are entirely possible. However, I do not know if the players want to return and seeing that Barclay Goodrow just signed with Our Hated Rivals for six seasons with a ~$3.6 million cap hit last week, Coleman could be more expensive than you may think and/or want.

Some significant trades happened last week involving forwards of teams moving on from players and/or to make cap space. Our Hated Rivals sent Pavel Buchnevich to St. Louis for fourth-liner Sammy Blais and a pick. Buffalo shipped out Sam Reinhart to Florida for goaltender Devon Levi and a pick. Philadelphia and Columbus swapped Cam Atkinson and Jakub Voracek, which gives Philly some cap relief. There could be others dangled in deals ahead of free agency beginning just so a team can get “something” ahead of losing them for nothing.

Ahead of Wednesday, there are two big names floating around among trade rumors. The proverbial bridge between Buffalo management and Jack Eichel may have been burnt. The current conflict is over the kind of procedure Eichel wants to take for neck surgery. Buffalo wants a lot for their star forward, who has a no-movement clause starting next season. Expect these rumors to swirl until a deal is done or if a new bridge is built. Similarly, Vladimir Tarasenko may be done in St. Louis. He requested a trade after shoulder surgery earlier this month. He was left exposed and not-taken in the Seattle expansion draft. He has two seasons left on contract that carries a $7.5 million cap hit; his base salary for this coming season is $9.5 million; and that shoulder surgery is his third straight one. Oh, and he’s 29. Will teams take on an expensive forward knowing he may not be the terrifying scorer he was as a Blue? If he returns to his previous form, it could be worth the risk. But it is a risk.

Then there’s the defense. Oh, the defense. Gerard went over the options from July, which remain largely in place. If you like veteran defensemen, then the FA group was bolstered by the buyouts of Ryan Suter and Keith Yandle. A group that lost a little luster when Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak signed with Seattle. Otherwise, this year’s crop is led by Alec Martinez, Alex Goligoski, Brandon Montour, Travis Hamonic, and Tyson Barrie among others. Teams looking for a right-sided defenseman on the open market are going to have few options. Ex-Devils Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen are also available, although I cannot imagine there will be a big need to have them return now that the Devils have Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, and potentially bringing back Murray.

Defensive needs have led to some rather significant and outright strange moves ahead of the NHL Draft. Edmonton decided to give actual assets to Chicago for a washed up Duncan Keith. Philadelphia decided to give away Shayne Gostisbehere and then acquire Rasmus Ristolainen for two picks and Robert Haag. I still do not get how anyone would think this would make the Flyers better. At least they got Ryan Ellis from Nashville as part of a three-team deal. Columbus knew Seth Jones was not going to sign an extension for a potentially re-building Blue Jackets team. They got a big return from Chicago for him (Adam Boqvist, nice!) and then the Blackhawks signed Jones to a humongous contract with the space that Keith cleaned up. Thanks, Edmonton?

There is one other player and he needs his own section.

The Dougie Hamilton Section: Dougie Hamilton may be the biggest free agent in 2021. And he very well could be a New Jersey Devil. CJ and Gerard wrote this piece explaining why he’s the “big fish” in this year’s free agent pond and also why the Devils should make a move for him. Unlike past years where one of us writes at length why the Devils should spend big for a big-name defenseman to make the Devils significantly better in the short-term, this one could actually happen.

Way back in June, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported that Carolina gave Hamilton permission to talk to other teams. During the NHL Draft, Elliotte Friedman did report that the Devils are making a push for Hamilton. Larry Brooks of the NY Post added further fuel to the fire, noting that the Devils have made pitches to the defenseman. His article suggests that it may take $63 million to make it happen, noting that Hamilton’s proposed contract could just take Subban’s place when it expires (or is moved) by the end of 2021-22. This clip from the 31 Thoughts podcast with Friedman and Jeff Marek from July 25 (yesterday) further confirms the Devils being in on Hamilton. Friedman referenced the Brooks’ article, notes that the Devils have the money Hamilton may be looking for, and the Devils are interested in making a splash. (Thanks to @domiadevaia on Twitter for the clip and r/devils for linking to it.) This is not simply wishing for Hamilton. We have proof New Jersey is at least trying to get one of the biggest free agents in a year.

Of course, nothing is set in stone and a lot can happen very quickly. Greg Wyshynski of ESPN also tweeted out over the weekend that Carolina is pushing to re-sign Hamilton. Under the NHL CBA, Carolina can offer Hamilton an eighth year on his deal whereas the most New Jersey can do (outside of a sign-and-trade) is seven. It is possible that the Canes let Hamilton talk turkey with other teams, he came back with his information, and the Canes can decide if he is worth retaining for about the same money.

Let us go back to the very first point I wrote under “ The General Points to Know About Free Agents.” At the end of the day, this is Dougie Hamilton’s choice. Carolina has a lot to offer. They’re a playoff team now and a dang good one if they can get some decent goaltending. The owner is rich and intending to spend that money. If he likes his current spot and anyone else (New Jersey) is not offering anything more valuable to him that Carolina cannot give him, then he may choose to stay. I do not know what is being discussed or offered; and I especially do not know what Dougie Hamilton wants.

All I do know is that the Devils have been and are making pitches to Dougie. Dougie may come to New Jersey for a lot of money and term that could go sour in 5 to 7 seasons, but he would be a fantastic upgrade to the defense, it would be a message sent to the fans that they may not need to wait another 3-5 years every year before the team takes a step toward being good, it would be a message sent to the rest of the NHL that the Devils are willing to spend, and it could help other free agents at least consider Newark when they may have not otherwise in recent seasons.

Like CJ and Gerard stated earlier in the months, the Devils should go for Dougie Hamilton. This is a Dougie to learn. We shall see in a few days whether or not they get him. Needless to say, the cap floor will not be an issue with Dougie signed and the Devils re-signing their remaining RFAs.

The Other Rumors: These are a bit older, so I would not put a lot of stock into them. But they are worth noting. On July 20, Andy Strickland tweeted that the Devils have been shopping P.K. Subban around. If they do so, then it may be a precursor to other moves (Dougie?). Subban’s signing bonus was paid out, so his contract carries $9 million cap hit but he will only be paid $2 million for this coming season. It is also an expiring contract. It is moveable. Who knows whether anyone wants it now.

The second comes from budding insider and former Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes. Weekes has broken news before, so when he speaks, people should listen. Right before the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft, he tweeted to keep an eye on the Devils and San Jose. I do not know if it was something draft related. If so, then something fell through as the Devils made no deals during the draft. But if it was not, then something may be possible. San Jose may be interested in moving Timo Meier before having to pay him $10 million in salary in 2022-23 or Kevin Labanc before his salary jumps up to being below $6 million as the Sharks enter a re-build phase. The Devils can take on big contracts given their cap space. Either would help fill in that “top six” need.

I do not think either will necessarily happen, but again, keep them in the back of your mind just in case something comes to fruition.

The 2022 Situation: To close out this preview, I do want to highlight that the 2022 Offseason will require even bigger decisions for Tom Fitzgerald and his staff. After the 2021-22 season, the following will happen:

  • Jack Hughes’ ELC will end and he will need a new contract. It is highly advisable that he is given an extension as soon as possible.
  • Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha will all become RFAs. And they will each have arbitration rights, so they can force the Devils to make an offer or risk a hearing that could kill the relationship between the player and the team. These three contracts could be really costly, especially if they have superlative 2021-22 campaigns.
  • Unless they are moved, P.K. Subban’s and Will Butcher’s contracts will end after the 2021-22 season. Even if the Devils let them walk, that is two holes on defense that will need to be filled in.
  • Scott Wedgewood’s contract also ends, which will preclude another goalie to sign or hope one of the young netminders can step up as a #3 goalie.
  • The ELCs of Jesper Boqvist, Tyce Thompson, Nathan Schnarr, and Fabian Zetterlund will also end. While these may not require extensions, they are four more contracts to deal with.

The first two points alone mean that the Devils should leave some cap space from this year’s offseason to help take care of Hughes, Bratt, Wood, and Zacha. I do not think the $13 million left behind from Subban and Butcher will take care of all four. And even if Fitzgerald does have enough space left behind, he may want to consider moving on one of those three RFAs to address other needs. The more minor holes from Wedgewood and the other ELCs could add up. This is all to say that just because the Devils have $32 million to spend, they do not need to spend all of it within this week.

The Plan Here for Free Agency Frenzy: We will have an open post for the day to discuss what the Devils and 31 other teams do on this day. I will make posts as the Devils do things. I will try to have a summary of the first day of action in the evening. Then we are in offseason mode. This is not to say we will be stopping or taking a break. Just that the main events of the 2021 NHL Offseason will be done with. Time will march on as we get closer to events like a prospect camp (which will at least feature one Biggar man than I) and preseason and we will begin anew with a new season. Hockey never stops at All About the Jersey.

Thank You: Please feel free to discuss what you want the Devils to do, what what the Devils really need to do, what you think the Devils will actually do, and what they should not do in this year’s free agency in the comments. Thank you for reading this preview of 2021’s Free Agency Frenzy.