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Spend Money, Acquire Dougie: New Jersey Devils Summary of the First Day of Free Agency

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After years of quiet first days in free agency, the New Jersey Devils spent significant money to sign Dougie Hamilton and Jonathan Bernier. This post goes over the five moves the Devils made today, where they stand in their cap, and what could be next.

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Dougie.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The first day of free agency in the NHL, also known as Free Agency Frenzy, is typically the day with the most action in the league. This year was no different. Ten hours after free agency officially began at noon today, all 32 franchises combined to hand out 156 contracts for a combined contract dollars of $779,850,000 per CapFriendly. If your team is not active on the first day, then the pickings are generally slimmer after the first day that they likely will not be. The New Jersey Devils have been quiet in recent years when free agency began. It was defensible given where the Devils were, but the Devils were often going into July 1 with a ton of cap space and ending July 1 still with a ton of cap space. This year, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald made an exception. Plenty of money was spent today, much of it to acquire one of the biggest free agents this year in defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

What the Devils Did Today: Five Moves Led by The Dougie

The Devils signed Hamilton to a seven-season contract worth $63 million. Out of all of the unrestricted free agents that signed today, this one has the highest cap hit at $9 million. It was second only to Braydon Point’s extension if you also consider all restricted free agents that signed today. Say what you want about Fitzgerald, ownership, and their propensity to just not use their massive cap space in the past. Today, they used it. Today, they made a large bet on a right-sided defenseman who is legitimately a first-pairing caliber defenseman for just about every team in the NHL. Today, they spent the money that we know ownership has and used the extensive cap space that we knew could easily absorb a $9 million cap hit without any issue. Today, the Devils made themselves better at a position of need as well as give the fanbase legitimate reasons to get excited for 2021-22 and show the rest of the league that the Devils are open for business. Expectations may be higher for it; but that is a good thing as the Devils really need to stop settling for bad seasons and compiling top picks for an indeterminate future. Fitzgerald has As indicated in my write up and in reference to CJ’s and Gerard’s post earlier this Summer about Hamilton, this was a very good move today. I really liked this signing and I am looking forward to seeing Dougie lead the blueline at the Rock this Fall.

The Hamilton reports initially came out before noon about signing with NJ and nothing was finalized in terms of term and contract amount until the early evening. In between, the Devils signed goaltender Jonathan Bernier to a two-season, $8.25 million contract. Fitzgerald indicated after the 2021 NHL Draft that the Devils needed a “1B goaltender.” Bernier is a 1B goaltender. He served in a tandem in Detroit and he played far better than what you may think. Bernier’s performances often dragged a real bad Red Wings squad to results that they may not have earned with other goalies behind him. Provided the soon to be 33-year old goaltender keeps his form, he should be quite fine in a tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. I will note that he is being paid a lot to be a 1B goaltender. Other veteran goalies were signed today for much less that could have been options. Then again, the Devils have had so much cap space that they can afford to give Bernier $8.25 million and a two-season contract means that the Devils are not too committed to him in case it does not work out. I am confident that Bernier can maintain what he has done with Detroit in New Jersey and that will also solidify the Devils in net.

Fun fact: Bernier let it slip during his media availability after his signing that the Devils added Dougie Hamilton and that was a reason why he signed with them. At the time, there was no confirmation from the team or any media pundit about his length and term. It turned out that Bernier was right.

The Devils also made two more signings that are likely to be for the Utica Comets. The Devils signed forward Chase De Leo and right winger Brian Flynn each to a two-way contract for one season. De Leo has been an AHL veteran. Despite being 25 years old, he has 365 games of AHL experience. He knows full well what it takes to produce and perform at the AHL level. Flynn is older at 33 and he is making his return from Swiss hockey to North American hockey. Flynn has actually been in the NHL for over 275 games with Buffalo and Montreal last decade, so he does carry that perspective with him. Given how young the Utica Comets are at forward, they needed to add AHL quality veterans. Getting those players usually requires a two-way contract from the NHL team. And so the Devils provided that for Utica’s benefit.

The fifth move the Devils made today was a subtraction. Amid the celebratory reactions to the Devils announcing they signed Dougie Hamilton, the Devils announced they traded defenseman Will Butcher and a 2022 fifth round draft pick to the Buffalo Sabres for future considerations. For the unaware, future considerations is nothing. It is not a player. It may be nothing more than a bag of pucks. It is a placeholder for the purposes of making the trade a trade. The Devils basically dumped Will Butcher on Buffalo and gave them a fifth rounder to have them go along with it.

This move was a bit baffling. On the one hand, I can understand the Devils wanting to move on from Will Butcher. After a very good rookie season, his performances suffered and his usage fell. Last season, he struggled to get into the lineup under Lindy Ruff and he only got into 23 games last season and mostly after other defensemen (Sami Vatanen, Dmitry Kulikov) were traded away. Butcher’s skating has never been swift at this level and it definitely was not going to work well with how Ruff wants defensemen to activate on offense. Rather than letting him languish as a scratch for the last year of his contract (where he would be paid a salary of $4.1 million), the Devils sought to move him and did so.

On the other hand, I do not get why this move was made today and why they threw in a sweetener like a fifth round draft pick. Other teams have been dumping players in intentionally one-sided deals last week to help make space. The Devils did not need to clear $3.733 million from their books. After signing Bernier and Hamilton, the Devils still had roughly $18 million in cap space. They were above the cap floor. With this move, now the Devils are just under it. They will clear it without issue. But if the Devils are planning to add salary and/or cap space, then they still loads of room. They did not need to dump Butcher for basically nothing. So why do it now on July 28? Maybe there are other, larger moves coming up? It seems too sudden. The fifth rounder is ultimately inconsequential. Those picks are shots in the dark and the Devils had two for 2022 anyway due to the Keith Kinkaid trade to Columbus. They had one to give. Still, on principle alone, why give a team a player and a pick for nothing? It may not be much, but it is a loss. The best you can describe this trade is addition by subtraction.

I wish Butcher the best in Buffalo. He is in the last year of his contract and he should be able to get much more of an opportunity with the Sabres than he would have with the Devils. Especially after the additions of Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton. I can understand the idea of dumping Butcher, but I do not know why they did it today.

Still, my complaints about that move being questionable is like complaining about a mosquito bite on a fantastic Summer day. I think Fitzgerald appropriately spent big money today. He got the biggest free agent to Newark, which addresses a big need on defense and secures a first-pairing defenseman for up to seven seasons. Fitzgerald spent plenty of money to get a 1B goalie and he did that with Bernier. I do not know how getting help for Utica rates in terms of priority, Fitzgerald and his staff did that too. And Butcher will not be languishing as a scratch or struggling on the ice.

The Devils Roster & Cap Situation After Day One

The Devils entered the day with $32.345 million in cap space. As of 9:30 PM ET, CapFriendly lists the Devils as having a little over $22.153 million in space for 2021-22. They are less than a million below the salary cap floor. The Devils qualified five of their nine restricted free agents ahead of today: Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Marian Studenic, Gilles Senn, and A.J. Greer. Just re-signing one of Sharangovich or Kuokkanen will put them over. The floor should be no one’s concern. The Devils have 35 contracts on the books. Even though the Devils had offered two of the 20 or so contracts worth higher than a $4 million cap hit, the Devils’ roster and cap situation is still very healthy. They could do more. Perhaps what Fitzgerald & Co. have in mind is why they Butcher was sent to Buffalo to make space for another move or two without cutting things close for the future.

Who is Still Available?

Based on what Fitzgerald said after the 2021 NHL Draft, the Devils met two of the needs he specifically stated. He said the team needed to get a 1B goalie. Check. He said he would like to add a quality defenseman. No one in this free agency draft class or any of the moves made in the last two weeks is a better defenseman than Dougie Hamilton. Check. The remaining need was a top six forward. Are any available?

Unless there are some late night moves happening, then there are some interesting names still available. Some of these names are not perfect fits as a “top six” forward. They may be more appropriate as middle six forwards or specific roles. But the following forwards are still available among others, in no particular order:

On defense, Fitzgerald has really restructured this defense with the acquisitions of Ryan Graves and Christian Jaros prior to the Dougie Hamilton signing. Given that Jaros was not that good and the left side of the defense is dependent on Ty Smith continuing to improve, Graves fitting in well, and Jonas Siegenthaler showing he does belong at this level, another LD may be worth taking a flyer on. It may even include bringing back Ryan Murray, who is unsigned and assuming he is fine with being a spare defender. If not him, the pickings are somewhat slim between Ben Hutton, Jon Merrill, Sami Vatanen, and Mikko Lethonen among others.

In terms of trades, both Vladimir Tarasenko and Jack Eichel were not dealt. Tarasenko had a trade request and the gap between Eichel and Sabres management still seems large. These are players that could be moved later. But it did not happen today. By the way, be on the lookout for what Tampa Bay, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Dallas. Technically, they are all over the cap now. Maybe a LTIR move (Brent Seabrook in Tampa Bay’s case) can relieve that. But they may be looking to make a little room and the Devils could very well be a team to help offer them a little room. Of course, Buffalo, Detroit, and Ottawa can offer even more given they are each currently over $9 million below the cap floor. We shall see.

Final Thoughts & Your Take

Generally, I am happy with how the day went. There have been increasing complaints and concerns that the Devils have had all of the cap space and multi-billionaire owners and they were not using their available resources effectively. Cap space is great to have when the team is not very good. But cap space also cannot play for a hockey team and help them be better. Today, the Devils splashed cash and addressed two short-term needs on defense and goaltender. Players like Dougie Hamilton rarely hit the market and I am very glad the Devils were able to use their available space and money to bring him here from Raleigh. While the money for Jonathan Bernier is high, if he performs as well as he did, then that is perfectly fine. The $4.125 million cap hit does not concern the Devils. If they can swing for a deal to bring in that top six forward or sign one of the remaining free agents even as a stopgap, then that addresses the third need. And for all we know, that third need could be addressed internally should a prospect or a young New Jersey player takes a big leap forward. Still, taking care of two big needs while still having oodles of cap space and money to spend is a successful day by any measure.

I am also happy about what this day could mean going forward. Getting Hamilton is also a sign to the rest of the league that the Devils are willing to pay and the Devils can be a destination. It is easy online to get down on yourself and declare that no one wants to come to Newark. How do you change that? You offer significant money for significant players and you sell said players that they are part of the future. Fitzgerald essentially did that and that can open things up for other moves down the line. Of course, the big factor will be an improved team in 2021-22. However, I am confident that they can be. The Blackwood-Bernier tandem should be more than acceptable to compete. The blueline led by Dougie Hamilton should be far better than last season’s defense. Forward remains a bit of a question, but further improvement from the young players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier (a healthy Nico Hischier), Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, and others should be able to make gains. I would not go as far as to say the Devils should be a playoff team based on what they did over the last week or so. I would say that they should be better than what they were last season. I will absolutely take that after years of quiet first days of free agency where nothing the Devils did would make you or me think that.

Now I want to know what you think of what the Devils did today in free agency. What do you think of ownership and Tom Fitzgerald now that they committed over $70 million between Hamilton and Bernier today? Is the Hamilton signing among the best signings in the league today? Do you agree that the Devils are better now than they were, say, a month ago? What else do you think Fitzgerald and his staff should do after the first day of free agency? Please leave your answers and other thoughts how the Devils did today in the comments.

Thanks to everyone who followed along throughout the day in the Open Thread and those who read through the different posts about the signings. Thank you for reading.