When building a team that will be able to compete year in and year out for strong playoff runs, most people will admit that the best way to do this is through the draft. Free agency, while it presents some tantalizing options, generally is not the ideal way to do this, as often you have to overpay for the best players that are out there, and if you need those best players, you are probably in trouble. However, that being said, free agency does have its place, and for the roster that is properly built, the right signing can really work to bolster the team and take it to the next level.
Since the start of free agency this year, Tom Fitzerald and the New Jersey Devils have not been shy at signing players, and have brought in a few different players to help get this team competitive in a hurry. That has truly been refreshing after what we have seen over most of the last decade. And with the possible exception of the very long contract given to Dougie Hamilton, all of the deals have been short and fairly team-friendly in the fact that they really do not hinder the future of this team all that much beyond a year or two.
When you take a look at the roster now, the interesting thing to notice is that after the signings, and after all of the deals that Fitzgerald has made since taking over as GM, the way the offense will shake up to start this year has been constructed quite differently when compared to the defense. Take a look at the current offense for the Devils as taken from Cap Friendly:
Going down that list, you have Tomas Tatar who was just signed through free agency, the only forward on that list who was brought in that way. Then you have Andreas Johnsson and Janne Kuokkanen, who were brought in through trades. Johnsson was brought in as a pro and expected to perform right away in New Jersey, while Janne was brought in kind of as a prospect on the bubble, and did play a little bit in Binghamton before joining New Jersey, where he cemented himself last season.
The rest of the offense, however? All acquired through the draft. Barring another trade or signing, the other 9 players who start the season for the Devils in October will have come to the team through the draft. That is pretty great, because it isn’t like it is a bad group. You have Nico and Jack, a star and an upcoming star. You have last year’s breakout candidate in Yegor. Bratt as a 6th rounder has been a really good piece, as has Wood as a bottom 6 piece. In that group, you have the makings of a quality offensive corps. Kuokkanen already bolstered that group last year, and Tatar should this year. And considering how young the group is overall, it should also improve just from experience as well.
Beyond that too, you have strong players in the pipeline who will do even more for that forward group. Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, and Nolan Foote could all become really strong, if not star players one day, and two of those three were drafted as well. In terms of the forwards on this team, the draft has paid real dividends.
The defense, however, is basically the polar opposite. Once again, the list from Cap Friendly:
In terms of drafted players who will start game one, you have Damon Severson and Ty Smith. That’s it. Otherwise, the team just signed Hamilton of course. Then you have Subban, Graves, Siegenthaler and Jaros. None were drafted, of course. The pipeline does have some names, now highlighted by Luke Hughes of course. You could also see Nikita Okhotyuk or Reilly Walsh, both drafted, but you’re just as likely to see Kevin Bahl, not drafted. This defense really has been a piecemeal creation for Tom Fitzgerald. Just back a couple of seasons in 2018-19, you only had Severson still there. Otherwise, the entire crew is new. Back then, the team had the likes of Will Butcher, Andy Greene, Connor Carrick, Ben Lovejoy, Mirco Mueller, Steven Santini, Sami Vatanen, and others. All gone.
The cool thing is that Fitzgerald has been able to put together the offense and the defense extremely differently, yet both squads might move in a positive direction this season as opposed to last. I wouldn’t be surprised if both the offense and defense produce better numbers this year. Fitzgerald has had to create these crews in entirely different ways, but it could work out. In the long run, it would have been more ideal if both could have been cultivated through strong drafting. However, you could also bring up that perhaps they just started doing that with the Luke Hughes selection, so there is that.
In the end, let’s hope that both the offense and defense do improve this year regardless of how they were constructed. But when looking at drafts moving forward, let’s hope that they can hit on more defensive prospects, Hughes being the first.