If the Devils are destined for contention sometime in the next 4-5 years, Wednesday will represent one of the most pivotal moments for them reaching that point. The Dougie Hamilton signing at the opening of this summer’s free agency was a coup for Tom Fitzgerald and one of the most substantial UFA signings in the franchise’s history. Unless I am mistaken, the 7-year, $63 million deal given to Hamilton is the largest contract the Devils have ever given to a player not already on the team and by a substantial margin, at that (it appears Volchenkov’s $25.5M deal is the previous high, at least in the cap era). Add in the signing of a solid tandem partner for Mackenzie Blackwood in Jonathan Bernier and the Devils had themselves a very nice opening day to free agency.
The work is not done to make this team a legitimate threat to make noise in the Eastern Conference, though. One Dougie Hamilton, as good of a player as he may be, and a 1B goalie cannot cure all the ills of a team that finished 29th in the standings. The defense, when you include the signing of Ryan Graves, seems largely set for now (though you could argue another above-replacement body on the left side might be a good idea), but with a look at the depth chart, it’s clear this team could use some help in the forward ranks still. Specifically, the Devils need a scoring winger(s) and a third-line center most of all. Fitzgerald needs to find a way to rectify these situations, whether via trade or through additional signings.
Let’s start at wing, where the Devils have lots of potential, sure, but not a lot of proven producers. Outside of Jesper Bratt, question marks abound in the winger ranks for New Jersey. Pavel Zacha ostensibly finally had a breakout season playing mostly on the wing, but he also shot close to 17% after shooting around 10% over his previous four years in the league. I suspect he’s just much better suited to the wing than center, but that type of shooting efficiency spike is tough to rely on. After them, the Devils have Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen, who both put up strong rookie campaigns but remain inexperienced with just 50ish games in the league. Miles Wood has a solid season as well, but is clearly more of a crash-and-bang bottom-sixer than someone to rely on to drive top-six offense. After those five, your hoping for a bounce-back that may or may not be coming from Andreas Johnsson or for one of your prospects from the Alexander Holtz/Nolan Foote/Dawson Mercer/Graeme Clarke group of wingers to step into a step up into a substantial scoring role as a rookie.
From the above list, it’s possible things could work out fine if things break the right way for everyone, but it’s a very thin group with a bunch of question marks. If Tom Fitzgerald wanted to head into the season with a much more solid group on the wing, even just adding a player like Tomas Tatar (who scores at a strong pace and drives play) could do wonders for the team on the wing. That’s not to say that Fitz should overcommit in term/dollars, but now that we are out of the “frenzy” portion of free agency, it seems like a reasonable deal is achievable for most of the remaining players. Beyond Tatar, the remaining impactful options are a bit limited but a guy like Nick Ritchie could at least provide middle-six depth.
The alternative to free agency could be to find a way to add Vladimir Tarasenko, whose price is reportedly falling and who the Devils have reportedly been in talks on. Tarasenko is a risky gambit with his surgeries, but he also just has two years left on his current deal and would represent a swing for the fences that, if it connects, could be a game-changer. Tarasenko had five straight 30-plus-goal seasons before his last two injury-plagued campaigns.
Overall, with Brandon Saad and a lot of the other top wings off the board at this point, the options are getting limited, but I think Tatar would be a great fit as long as the team doesn’t go overboard on the term and Tarasenko would be a welcome home run swing on a guy likely to be motivated after a frustrating end to his run in St. Louis.
Whatever your opinion of Mike McLeod’s trajectory at this point, I do not think it would be a good idea to run him out there as your 3C. Alternatives to that are moving Pavel Zacha back to center, something I would desperately like to avoid, or hoping that 19-year-old Dawson Mercer (or perhaps Jesper Boqvist) is ready for top-nine NHL minutes at center — which, hey, maybe! — but that would be foolhardy to rely on as a plan A. Simply put, the Devils should be looking at their options to solidify their depth down the middle, too, not just the wing.
With the team set in their top-six at center, the Devils have more of an opportunity to go bargain hunting here but a lot of the options out there are longshot reclamation projects. There are a lot of recognizable names out there at center but many of them may be too washed up even for a bottom-six role. Guys like Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, and Derick Brassard are all available but have highly questionable amounts of tread on their tires. Eric Stall (I know, I know) is just one year removed from a pretty solid 4-year run in Minnesota but was truly awful in 2020-21. One might chalk it up to a case of Buffalo-itis, but his effectiveness was limited in MTL as well.
One of the names I see making some sense for New Jersey is Tyler Bozak, who remains unsigned after St. Louis reportedly offered him a one-year deal. Bozak would basically represent a Travis Zajac replacement, which your mileage may vary on, but he’s still a half decent two-way center and is unlikely to command too much term at his age. A one- or two-year deal could make some sense for everybody. Another name that sounds crazy but could be a fit from a purely hockey standpoint is Joe Thornton, who is not ~Joe Thornton~ anymore but still has decent impacts and could be a reasonable one-year stopgap as a bottom-six center while the Devils wait for Mercer or someone else to be ready. Riley Nash is another option if the Devils want to go hard on the defensive side. Otherwise, they can toss a cheap one-year “show me” deal to one of the above mentioned reclamation projects like Brassard or perhaps Stepan just to give them options beyond what’s already in New Jersey. If it doesn’t work out, a cheap, short deal can always be buried.
My preference for the remainder of free agency is clearly for Tom Fitzgerald to add a few more pieces to the puzzle but it is clear that options are starting to get limited on the market. If he can land Tatar on a relatively reasonable 2-3 year deal and then snag a guy like Bozak on a 1-2 year deal, that would be the ideal scenario for me. I think it would address some of the more pressing needs remaining on the roster while still not tying up too much future money with the bills on Jack Hughes and others coming due in the next few years. I also like Tarasenko as a big swing as long as the team isn’t parting with prime assets to do it.
Fitz made the big splash with Dougie and now has to walk a line between improving the roster and tying up too much future cap in veteran players. There are still a few options if he can strike soon but the market is definitely thinning out at this point. The positive is that Fitz avoided a lot of the bad money that was thrown around on Wednesday but to solidify the forwards group, he will likely need to act within the next few days.