We are less than a month away from the start of the 2021-22 season. Preseason for the New Jersey Devils will begin this week. Plenty of players are looking to be competing for roster spots and specific roles amid the roster. There is no shortage of players who have something to prove. Combined with where the team as a whole, I would like to think that many of them also want to show that they have improved over past seasons. As this is professional hockey, money is always a factor and that will be another incentive for a good chunk of the roster. The Devils have plenty of players who have contracts that end after the 2021-22 season. Their situations and futures with the Devils - and perhaps in pro hockey - are different. Yet, they all have something to earn with this upcoming season. The season may be weeks away, but let us review who is in a contract season and what they stand to gain.
The Cap Situation at a Glance
The Devils’ cap situation is remarkably healthy right now. After spending loads of money for Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, and Tomas Tatar, the Devils have the fifth most cap space in the NHL with approximately $12.08 million. The Devils only have two players signed beyond 2024 - Hamilton and Nico Hischier - so the Devils stand to have a lot of space for the future. That could even increase as NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly stated that the league expects the cap to go up by $1 million for next season. So the cap may not be something to really worry about now.
However, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will still need to be careful during this season. Decisions made this season or in the 2022 offseason could plant the seeds for cap issues. Teams that end up in such situations are due to signings made years earlier that may be significant for players who cannot provide full value. As you will see who is up for new contracts, there are a couple of warning signs. However, the first man to know is someone who really does deserve a big deal now - lest the Devils risk having to pay much more later.
The Big Deal - Literally
This season is the final season of Jack Hughes’ entry level contract (ELC). This season will be the last one that Hughes will earn a base six-figure salary as a pro hockey player for a long time. Last season, Hughes centered the Devils’ top line and established himself as the team’s most talented, most skilled, and most offensively capable forward. On a 2021 team with limited options, Hughes made it work with Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich, two rookie wingers. The future for the 20-year old is very bright and this season could be a big one.
I would like to advise Fitzgerald to repeat what his previous boss did with Nico Hischier: give him an extension and give it to him early in the final season of his ELC. The more that the Devils wait, the more Hughes can sparkle on the ice, and that will only increase the demand for the next deal. Ownership and management have made it clear that the team is going to be built around the two young centers. The team has made a big deal about drafting Jack’s brother, Luke Hughes. The smart thing would be to lock in Hughes now instead of risking Hughes having an awesome season and then holding out for a very expensive deal before camp in 2022. He has little leverage between his lack of arbitration rights and restricted free agent (RFA) status; but he can do that. If Jack Hughes is willing to take an 8 x $8 million contract or similar, then that could end up being a bargain based on his potential future. And if Fitzgerald can manage to save a million or two during Hughes’ peak years as a player - which are coming sooner than you think - then that will only help him (or a future GM) improve the roster elsewhere.
The Big Deal is in line to get a big deal after this season. I think Fitzgerald should offer one real soon. Then he can prepare for the tougher decisions among the pending free agents within the team.
The Arbitration Eligible RFAs: Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha
The contracts that Ray Shero gave to Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Bratt are all expiring this season. As Wood is 26, Zacha will be 25, and Bratt is 23, all three will be restricted free agents. They have also been in the league long enough to be eligible for arbitration. What this means is that either of the three can force Fitzgerald’s hand to negotiate a contract by a certain date, or risk going through an arbitration hearing that typically wrecks a relationship between the player and the team based on the arguments given in arbitration for the offered salaries.
What makes these decisions harder is their roles on the team. Let me go over each in brief summaries.
Pavel Zacha is being used as a center in camp, he had arguably his best offensive season being split out to left wing last season, and some believe he turned a corner. Despite that, it appears his role on the roster may end up staying the same, which is somewhere on a third line. While he may be used on special teams to supplant his even strength usage, is he someone worth keeping around? Especially with the forwards coming through the system? And if so, what raise do you give him? He will get a $3 million salary this season, so expect that to be a baseline. Is it worth keeping a middle-six forward for $3 million or more?
Miles Wood has been mostly used amid the bottom six of forwards. Some fans love him. Others, not so much. He can provide the vaunted “energy” at forward provided his line’s dump-and-chase methods are working. And you would want him on a dump-and-chase line given his straight-line speed is one of his best assets. He may take plenty of calls, but he can draw them too. Is this someone to keep? If so, his salary will be $3.5 million for this season. Would you keep him for that amount of money? What if he wants more? Is it smart for the Devils to keep a bottom six forward around for a potential cap hit of $3.5 million or more?
Then there’s Jesper Bratt. Out of the three, Bratt is set to be a top-six winger. He has been since he entered the league. He is shifty. He has offensive skill on and off the puck. He has been capable to make a line with Nico Hischier productive. The young man managed to put up 30 points in 46 games last season. This season may see him have more to prove among the wingers with the ascent of Sharangovich and Kuokkanen, the potential return of Andreas Johnsson (a long shot but go with it for the argument), and the addition of Tomas Tatar. In the distance, Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, and Graeme Clarke are coming through the system. The point is that Bratt needs to continue to show he belongs. Now, he does. I think he will continue to do so. I have little doubt Bratt is a top-six winger. I also think he could have a wonderful 2021-22 season. Which means he can stand to gain much more than the $3.45 million salary he will get this season. Then, the question gets trickier: how much value can Bratt provide? Can he keep that up for whatever term he is looking for?
Ultimately, these three combined could end up costing more than whatever Hughes may get in an extension. And only one of them is really set to play on one of the team’s top two lines. How Wood, Zacha, and Bratt will perform this season will definitely change the answers to the questions of whether A) the Devils keep them and, if so, B) how much will they be kept for and C) how long will be kept for. This is where the seeds of future potential cap issues can be sewn if Fitzgerald is not too careful. Still, all three have something to earn.
Jesper Boqvist & The Depth RFAs
At least we can be confident that Wood, Zacha, and Bratt will play quite a bit for the New Jersey Devils. There are others who are basically in a competition in camp for a roster spot or even a potential call up. These would be the depth players. They may not cost much or be too difficult to retain. However, those smaller contracts do add up and they do take up roster and contract spots that could be used on future players.
The biggest among them is Jesper Boqvist. He has not impressed in his first two stints with New Jersey. He did when he was in the AHL. However, his ELC is ending this season and his waiver exemption only lasts for nine more games. Boqvist’s spot in the Devils’ lineup is not at all ensured. He really needs to do well in training camp and in the preseason to stay with New Jersey. Then, he needs to actually show he can be a NHL quality player. His next contract is riding on it. It may end up being inexpensive but it could set the tone of Boqvist’s career. He’s 22 so it is not like he is a lot of runaway left from a development perspective. And it is not clear if the Devils have a lot of faith in Boqvist taking a spot. Zacha was announced to be played as a center; the team brought in Mark Jankowski on a PTO, and if Dawson Mercer ends up impressing in preseason games, then it is not unreasonable to think he jumps past Boqvist in the depth chart. Boqvist has a lot to earn right now.
There are other players in a similar situation to Boqvist where they have something to prove for ice time in New Jersey in addition to another contract to earn. Tyce Thompson and his entry level contract is ending. Marian Studenic is on a two-way contract and that is also ending. The Devils traded for Christian Jaros, who is on a two-way deal and is also ending. Each has to ward off competitors from Utica and the prospect pipeline to keep their spots. For now, Jaros may be safe to be a #7 defenseman. But if someone like Kevin Bahl or Michael Vukojevic or Nikita Okhotiuk impresses (or PTO Tyler Wotherspoon), he could end up on the outside sooner rather than later. Studenic and Thompson are far from guaranteed to have spots on New Jersey and, again, the likes of Fabian Zetterlund, Holtz, Mercer, Clarke, Foote, and the PTO wingers Frederik Gauthier and Jimmy Vesey. Jaros, Studenic, and Thompson would be wise to perform as well as they can. Like Boqvist, their futures depend on it.
The Minor Leaguers
The Devils have some Utica Comets on NHL contracts that will need some decisions after this season. Among them, Fabian Zetterlund and Nate Schnarr have their ELCs ending. Both are 22 for this coming season, so I would look to both to see how they do in camp. They will be RFAs after season so keeping them is not a big issue. They may stick around for the AHL for a little while longer after that, but their shot at making the New Jersey roster is only getting longer and longer. This camp will be crucial for where they will be playing in the future beyond the next season.
For Colton White, calling a chance to play in the NHL a long shot would be generous. The fourth-round pick from 2015 is seeing his second contract with the team end with this season. He may be a veteran among the young Comet blueline, but with just 11 NHL appearances over the last three seasons, he is just that. An emergency call up. We shall see whether the Devils want to keep him around or let him released to explore options with other organizations. How he performs this season will help or harm his cause. The same applies to other acquired AHLers like A.J. Greer, Chase DeLeo, and Brian Flynn (who is a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA)).
Scott Wedgewood’s situation does warrant a special mention. He is 29 and he is the only experienced goaltender set for Utica among Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, and Marek Mitens. Given how young those three are and how they may perform in their first seasons in pro hockey, the Devils may opt to retain him to provide some sort of experience in the crease. The choice will be in his hands, but if Fitzgerald asks early enough after this coming season, then it should not be a huge problem. And if he leaves, there is no shortage of AHL goalies on the market. Of course, there is one more significant UFA than Scott Wedgewood or Brian Flynn.
The Only Major UFA - Does He Last throughout the Season?
P.K. Subban. The Devils have no other pending UFAs. Subban is it. He is 32. His play has not warranted the $9 million cap hit his contract carries. Is it worth a $2 million salary? That is what Subban will actually make over the course of the 2021-22 season. For pending UFAs, there is a question of whether the team should trade the player ahead of the offseason to get something back if they do not think the player will return to the team or if the team does not want the player back. Is this possible for Subban? Absolutely. His contract paid out a $6 million signing bonus back in July. What this means is that Subban is more affordable than his cap hit suggests. A team with loads of cap space but does not want to pay out a lot of real money may be interested. By the time the trade deadline is coming up, more teams may be able to take on the remainder of Subban’s cap hit.
The wild card would be how Subban plays and how the team performs. If the Devils are still in the mix for the postseason by March, then they may opt to keep him. Likewise if Subban is playing well and expresses interest in re-signing with the Devils. The Devils do not have a lot of right-sided defensemen in their system right now. A short-term deal for a lot closer to $2 million in salary may be more viable than finding a replacement in free agency. Of course, this requires Subban to play well enough to warrant bringing him back and Subban wanting to return. For Subban himself, he has the incentive to show that he can still be an asset in this league as he enters his mid-30s. Hopefully, he responds to it. That would be the best for himself and the team. If it does not happen or Subban does not want to return, then a trade may be the smarter move for Fitzgerald. Keep that in the back of your mind as the season goes on.
The Devils are fortunate cap-wise in that Tom Fitzgerald has a lot of cap space now and only two long-term contracts. So far, Fitzgerald has been wise in using the space. Again, New Jersey was one of the higher spending teams in the Summer and they still have roughly $12 million in space as of now. Still, how the eight RFAs up with New Jersey, five RFAs with Utica, one UFA with New Jersey, and two UFAs with Utica perform in this coming season will go a long way to determine what contracts they can earn after this season. Hopefully, this incentive will further help the Devils and Comets elevate to new heights in this coming season.
Now I want to know what you think. Would you give Jack Hughes a contract extension sooner rather than later? If so, what do you think he would get? What do you think Wood, Zacha, and Bratt could command after this coming season? How would you handle the depth players? And do you think Subban gets traded during the 2021-22 season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the pending Devils free agents after this coming season in the comments. Thank you for reading.