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A Very Early Look at the 2022 New Jersey Devils Pending Free Agents

As the New Jersey Devils are close to the second half of their season and trade deadline is a little over two months away, this post takes an early look at the pending free agents on the team from Jesper Bratt to Brian Flynn.

Vegas Golden Knights v New Jersey Devils
“I wonder if I can ask for it in small bills? Or one of those bags with a $ on it?”
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils would be a little bit past halfway point of their regular season under normal circumstances. However, 2022 is not filled with normal circumstances. With six games postponed, they are a bit behind it at 37 games played. They are also in the midst of a break with their games on Saturday and today postponed. As we wait and the Devils being just close to that halfway mark of their season, it is fair to wonder about the future. Mike asked on Friday what is the goal for the rest of this season. For many players on the team and Tom Fitzgerald, it is to determine their future as a New Jersey Devil. The Devils have plenty of players who will need new contracts after this season. Let us go over each of them and determine where they stand and how much they can stand to gain after this season.

Quick Refresher on Contracts

In the NHL, a player who has served 7 seasons or is 27 years old is eligible for unrestricted free agency (UFA). Those are the players who are free to talk to anyone once their contract ends, which has been on July 1 in the past. (Or if there is a communication period the NHL will allow players to talk to other teams ahead of the first day of free agency.)

Anyone else is a restricted free agent (RFA), where the team has to make a qualifying offer to retain their rights. While other teams can still try to sign those players, they would need to submit an offer sheet to do so - which requires the player to sign it and the team to offer compensation to the original team and the original team to not match the offer sheet. RFAs that meet a certain amount of professional experience after the age when they sign their entry-level contract are eligible for arbitration. This is a meeting where an arbitrator decides on two offers based on the cases made by the team and the player. They tend to poison the relationship with the player and team, so they mostly are used to drive negotiations for a contract.

All NHL teams have a limit of 50 NHL contracts. While the focus is arguably on those with the NHL team, several players with the AHL affiliate and elsewhere could are on the books. They may not be expensive deals or involve significant players. However, this is an area where teams with good management are able to identify which depth players to keep in the system and which ones they can/should move on from.

Current and 2022-23 Cap Situation for the Devils

With that all said, let us go to CapFriendly. (Note: All contract information comes from them, and any 5-on-5 stats come from Natural Stat Trick.) As of today, the New Jersey Devils currently have 47 out of a maximum of 50 contracts on the books. They along with dead cap space (Will Butcher’s retained salary for this season, Cory Schneider’s buyout, Ilya Kovalchuk’s recapture penalty) have a projected cap hit of approximately $74.187 million. With a salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million, the Devils have about $7.3 million in cap space right now.

The Devils have 30 contracts committed for the 2022-23 season. These contracts plus the dead cap hit (which would no longer include Butcher’s $910,569) currently total $57.165 million. Assuming the salary cap does not go up for next season, the Devils are projected to have $24.334 million in cap space for the offseason.

However, the Devils have six pending UFAs and twelve RFAs after this season ends. Among the twelve RFAs, eight are eligible for arbitration.

Pending Free Agents Currently in Utica

It is common for NHL teams to use their AHL affiliates to develop prospective players. It is also common for them to sign AHL veterans or fringe NHL players for their AHL teams in order to keep them competitive and to avoid forcing the prospects to do more than what they can. It is a tricky balance to have a team filled with prospects playing significantly in order to improve and/or prepare for a NHL future and also have enough veterans and experience to provide support and help win games as needed. Fortunately, the Utica Comets have been very good this season. They have a good mix of youth and veteran support that has yielded a team that leads the North Division with a 20-4-3 record. There is a good argument to make that they should at least keep a good chunk of their core together.

Pending RFAs: Fabian Zetterlund, Nathan Schnarr, Chase De Leo (arbitration eligible)

Pending UFAs: Frederik Gauthier, Brian Flynn

Starting with the UFAs, the Devils may be inclined to let both go. Gauthier won a job in New Jersey out of training camp and preseason. He played his way out of it to a point where he has not even been considered for the taxi squad. The 26-year old center has not even been all that productive with the Comets with just three goals and seven points in 18 games. I do not think the Devils will retain him, even if he does want to stay. Brian Flynn is a leader on the Comets - he wears an ‘A’ - and he did make the jump back from Switzerland to AHL hockey for the Comets. Still, the journeyman forward is 33 and has six goals and eight points in 18 games. I am not sure there is much value in keeping him around either.

The RFAs are a more interesting case. Zetterlund and Schnarr are coming off their ELCs. We have not seen Schnarr in New Jersey yet. I suspect it would take quite a bit of unavailability for the soon to be 23 year old center to get a shot. Still, Schnarr is having his most productive season yet in the AHL with 9 goals and 19 points in 24 games. He was highlighted recently on the Devils’ official website. Somebody is thinking about him. Zetterlund, on the other hand, did make his NHL debut earlier this season and appeared in three games. The 22 year old right winger has also set career highs in the AHL with eleven goals and 22 points in just 23 games. I think he is a bit higher up the depth chart than Schnarr given his position, but I also am unsure about his future. Those three games were not particularly notable. As both are RFAs without arbitration rights, the Devils could retain both for fairly cheap salaries and at the least keep the good times going in Utica. The same could be said for Chase De Leo. De Leo is Utica’s leading scorer as of this writing with six goals and 27 points in 19 games. He did make two appearances in New Jersey. The 26 year old center / left winger is deep on the depth chart as well, but that he has received a little action shows that the organization does not think he is Utica-only. He does have arbitration rights, but I cannot imagine negotiations would go that far. I will point out that he was a productive player for San Diego and Anaheim let him go free; but I do think De Leo being a scoring leader for a really good Utica team helps his cause for sticking around for a little longer.

All three pending RFAs in Utica have a simple goal for the remainder of this season. Play well, keep producing, and make the most of any opportunity they get at the NHL. I think all three will be re-signed and for relatively small amounts.

Pending Free Agents Currently on Injured Reserve

Pending RFAs: Miles Wood (arbitration eligible), Tyce Thompson

If anyone has a goal for the remainder for this season, then it is simply for these two to get healthy enough to get into games and do enough to warrant a significant contract after this season. It is not guaranteed either will play. Thompson underwent shoulder surgery in November and is out for months. He played just two games in New Jersey this season and seven with Utica (four goals, three assists). Thompson is coming off his ELC. His next deal was not expected to be lucrative short of a breakout season in the NHL. That is easy. Still, I would like to see him get some action this season in either New Jersey or Utica to make it clearer for both sides what the future will hold. I think a short deal is in line for Thompson and a healthier campaign can help determine what his future is in this organization.

What is not is Miles Wood. Stephen wrote back on Wednesday that the Devils miss Miles Wood. I think they do to a point. I would whole heartedly agree that Wood being healthy would be an upgrade over some other players who have been in the lineup. He has been out after hip surgery, which may have a negative impact on the up-tempo (with the puck), rough-and-tumble style of play he performs. Wood did skate last week but he is still “months from return.” With February, March, and April remaining for 2021-22, it is going to be a stretch for Wood to get into enough games to be in form much less show off he is deserving of a bigger contract. The Devils and Wood may need to negotiate more over prior seasons and hopeful futures. This is especially tricky as this will be Wood’s last season as a RFA and this final season of his contract paid him out the most at $3.5 million. Since he is a RFA, bringing Wood back is fairly simple. Only if Wood demands to leave, then I do not see him leaving. For how much and how long is the real challenge.

Even if Wood is able to come back and play like his best from past seasons, Fitzgerald does have to think carefully about what he provides. Wood, at his best, is still a bottom-six player who is energetic, physical, very fast in straight lines, not very fast in backchecking or when turning, does not normally play on special teams, and has not been particularly great in 5-on-5 situations in his career. And this is presuming his hip injury will not force him to change his game. I question whether Wood is someone the team should want to keep around for a long time. But the more pressing question is whether he can play this season. I hope he can. If only so there is a little more clarity when Wood’s people and Fitzgerald talk about the next contract this Summer. Personally, I can understand a one-season deal at about the same amount of money as his cap hit just to see what he can do. Anything more in terms of money and term could become an issue - especially if he does not return to form in 2022-23.

Pending Free Agents Currently with New Jersey

Now the meat and potatoes of this year’s group of free agents. It was led by The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. He was a pending RFA as this season is the last one of his entry level contract. He came off the board when he signed a big deal back on November 30, 2021 before his first game back from injury. There is another RFA who has taken over as someone who can stand to become really wealthy really soon. I think you pick his name out from among the list, too.

Pending RFAs: Jesper Bratt (arbitration eligible), Pavel Zacha (arbitration eligible), Marian Studenic (arbitration eligible), Jesper Boqvist, AJ Greer, Christian Jaros (arbitration eligible), Colton White (arbitration eligible)

Pending UFAs: P.K. Subban, Jimmy Vesey, Jon Gilles, Mason Geertsen

Let me go over some of the “smaller” names first.

Mason Geertsen is not a NHL quality player. He is in the NHL because people in the organization thinks you need the Threat of Intimidation, and other things that do not help hockey teams win games. Geertsen has provided none of this. If Miles Wood never got hurt, he does not have a job in New Jersey. He should be gone now, much less after his contract ends.

Jon Gilles was brought in because the Devils badly needed a goaltender in the system. Gilles has done well in his two appearances for New Jersey. After Akira Schmid was released from COVID Protocol, he was sent down to Utica. With Jonathan Bernier out for the season, Gilles is now the backup to Mackenzie Blackwood. Bernier is still signed for another season and the organization’s depth is tied to Schmid and Nico Daws. However, if Gilles does well as the team’s #2 goalie this season and he wants to stay, then it is not completely out of the question the Devils keep him around. Someone may have to go first, though. Even if there is no room, Gilles can absolutely help himself on the open market by playing well in the remainder of 2021-22.

AJ Greer has largely played in the AHL as a professional. With Utica, he has put up four goals and 15 points in 22 games. He made his Devils debut this month and has appeared in two games. Unfortunately, he left Thursday’s game with an apparent injury after being checked to the head by Ross Johnston. Per Lindy Ruff via Amanda Stein, Greer will be out for “serious time” and Johnston was suspended for three games for it. This means he will miss out on opportunities to play for his next deal. And when he does return, it may take some games to get back into a form. Greer was not among initial call ups at forward due to injury. He was a taxi squad member, so he was fairly deep in the depth chart for wingers. Given that he is a RFA, retaining him would be easy. But I could understand if the Devils do not qualify him and instead pull in another forward with AHL experience.

Colton White has become a regular at being a defenseman who gets a cup of coffee with the NHL team. He has appeared in a handful of games in each season from 2018-19 to current. He actually has played in more games with New Jersey this season (8) than with Utica (5). White is definitely not pushing for a top six role. Certainly not with these numbers at 5-on-5. With Utica still being quite young on the blueline, I can see the Devils bringing White back to be that #7 - #9 defenseman in the system at age 25 to support the Comets.

Christian Jaros, on the other hand, has not become a regular depth defenseman. I figured that would be his role when the Devils acquired him back in July 2021 in exchange for Nick Merkley. He has not had much of a chance between suffering from a hand injury, COVID, and having others available. Jaros has played seven games this season and averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time in 5-on-5 - which is fewer than White and even four games of Kevin Bahl. Jaros’ impact in 5-on-5 has been unimpressive this season and it is questionable what he brings to the table. Even though his 5-on-5 numbers are better than White’s, I think they are about the same level right now. They are guys in the lineup only because of necessity. Jaros is a RFA so bringing him back is easy. But I am not so confident he will be back. Fitzgerald did trade Merkley for Jaros instead of qualifying Merkley. Maybe he will do the same with Jaros this Summer. For both Jaros and White, their time is basically now and if they get another call-up after. So far, their performances will not yield any substantial contract - if at all.

Jesper Boqvist is in an odd spot. He appears to be the classic tweener of someone who is too good for the AHL but not good enough in the NHL. At least, not here in New Jersey. Boqvist started the season in Utica and a five-game point streak of two goals and six assists led to his call up to New Jersey. He did not do much in November, suffered an upper body injury, returned in December, went on protocol, returned later, went to the taxi squad, and got called up from the taxi squad. He has four assists in 15 games, which makes him now eligible for waivers. He has also not helped drive play positively when he takes a shift in 5-on-5 either. Given that he is 23 and could play all three forward positions, I could see a team take a flyer on him from waivers. A different organization and situation may help him. That said, I could see the Devils deciding to retain him for a season or two to see if a more “normal” season could elevate him. Depth players who can play all three forward positions can be useful in theory, at least. But there is just not a lot “there” there. If he was not a second round pick from 2017, would anyone clamor for his return? Unless he really impresses over the next three and a half months, I think he’s set to be a spare forward. Those guys do not get paid a lot relative to other NHL players or get signed for long.

Marian Studenic may be a better fit for that spare forward if you desire A) a right winger who shoots left handed, B) a speedy-ish player, and C) think he will get stronger. For all of the lamenting of the Devils being too soft and small and other stuff that Ken Daneyko alludes to, Studenic is arguably the easiest player to knock down. Good for him that it has not made him shy away from the boards, but some muscle could help the 23-year old winger. Studenic did have a good stint in Utica with 13 points in 10 games between November 2 and December 14. With New Jersey, he has just one goal (that odd one in Columbus back on January 8) in 15 games. Basically, he is in a similar spot to Boqvist: possibly too good for Utica but not good enough for New Jersey. Since Studenic signed his ELC at age 20, he is now eligible for arbitration - which I do not think means all that much. Like Boqvist, I think Studenic will likely be kept for a short while for not much money unless Studenic impresses in the remainder of this season. At the least, management and coaches are happy enough to give Studenic (and Boqvist) chances to try and impress.

Now let us discuss the more significant and interesting players on this list.

Jimmy Vesey

Jimmy Vesey came to the organization on a professional try out for training camp. He did well enough to earn a one season contract worth $800,000. The 28-year old forward was seen as someone to provide depth. Vesey has primarily been used in the bottom-six with a variety of partners. This is confirmed with his 11:47 per game average in 5-on-5 hockey, which is 11th on the team among forwards. This is further supported by that his most common teammate this season has been Michael McLeod. In 5-on-5 play, Vesey has been fine. When he’s been on the ice, the team’s on-ice rates are not too bad albeit not particularly productive. Vesey has chipped in a few points: three goals and four assists so far. More impressive than that is his work on the penalty kill. Vesey has emerged as one of the team’s go-to forwards for the primary penalty killing unit along with McLeod. Only the Devils’ on-ice rates during shorthanded situations are even better with Vesey than with McLeod. Some of those on-ice rates are rather good, too. I dare suggest he has been effective for the penalty kill. I think plenty of the People Who Matter would agree that Vesey has been an effective bottom-six player: 5-on-5 play that does not yield the Devils constantly scrambling in their own end and special teams support.

I also think they would agree that this is not exactly a difficult role to replace. Vesey will turn 29 by the time June comes around and the Devils have a plethora of forwards in the system. One can question whether they can kill penalties. However, some of them are going to need a chance to prove themselves. Having a veteran in the bottom six makes that a little more challenging. Plus, role players like Vesey are fairly common on the open market. Replacing him would not be terribly difficult. Likewise, Vesey can try free agency and probably leverage this season into a NHL contract elsewhere. Not for a large contract or a lot of money, but a NHL contract all the same. I can go either way on whether the Devils should try to retain Vesey. And it may not matter as Vesey is a pending UFA and may opt to test the market this Summer. All Vesey needs to keep doing is to keep doing what he has been doing so far. I say he does it.

P.K. Subban

The other pending UFA on the Devils is P.K. Subban. The man with the $9 million cap hit. His salary for this season is just $2 million as he was paid $6 million through a signing bonus last Summer. Despite the exorbitant cap hit, playoff teams and bubble teams often look to upgrade their blueline and/or add veteran presence by the trade deadline. Subban is a right-shooting defenseman who is 32, will break the 800 NHL games played mark, and has appeared in 96 playoff games. Add to the fact that New Jersey can eat some of the cap hit for a suitor and that teams will be able to add more to their cap as the deadline gets closer, and it is realistically possible that Subban gets traded this season.

There is an argument to be made against the Devils doing this. No, the Devils are not getting the Subban who won a Norris trophy. But Subban is on pace to have his most productive season in a Devils uniform yet with two goals and 14 points in 34 games. Short of a massive cold streak (or getting traded), he will likely beat the 19 points he put up in 2021. When Subban has taken a shift in 5-on-5 play, the Devils’ on-ice rates have been above 50% across the board - which is positive. His play on the second PK unit has been real good too. More importantly, with Dougie Hamilton out, the Devils’ right side of the defense is Damon Severson, Subban, and either Christian Jaros or Ty Smith on his offhand. With the Devils lacking anyone in Utica to step up to the RD spot and Ty Smith having a nightmarishly bad second season, keeping Subban for a little while longer at least helps the Devils stay competitive on the back end. It could be argued that Subban is having his best season yet as a Devil.

Unfortunately, a trade seems more sensible. Even if he is having his best season yet, the 32-year old is somewhat unnecessary now that the Devils have Dougie Hamilton and Severson for another season. Which is a bit sad. Subban entered the Devils with a lot of hype. A celebrity RHD who was thought to help the blueline and power play take the next step. That did not happen in 2019-20. It certainly did not in 2021. Throw in the facts that he is liable for some dirtiness (read: slewfoots), some Severson-like bad breaks (e.g. his sticks on slapshots), and he tries to play like he used to despite it being clear it is not that effective, and there is not a lot of sense of Subban staying in Newark for long. I hope he continues to play as he has done for the most part this season. It will help Tom Fitzgerald when it comes to taking inquiries by the trade deadline. It will help Subban if/when he hits the open market this Summer.

Pavel Zacha

Dealing with Vesey and Subban is a lot easier than what Fitzgerald will have to do with Zacha. Pavel Zacha signed a three-season bridge-like deal wherein his salary increased from $1 million to $2 million to $3 million in each season. The hope would be that this season would be the best of the bunch. It has not been. Zacha put up a lot of points last season with 17 goals and 35 points in 50 games. That is an average of 0.7 points per game and 0.34 goals per game. Over an 82 game season, that works out to roughly 27 goals and 57 points. If Zacha was producing like that, then he would have a lot more support. More would want him locked up long term. He has not been producing like that this season. His rates have dropped to 0.26 goals per game (9 in 34 games) and 0.47 points per game (16 in 34 games). That works out to about 21 goals and 38 points in 82 games. Not so impressive.

Of course, hockey is more than points. What happens when he is on the ice? The good news is that in 5-on-5 play, the team’s on-ice rates have been quite good. Especially when he is alongside Nico Hischier, his most common teammate this season. Thankfully, the coaches finally concluded that Zacha is better as a left winger than a center and kept him there. The bad news is his penalty killing work. As in, what penalty killing work. In the past, Zacha has been a very good penalty killer. This season, Zacha has not been a part of the penalty kill’s emergence from an awful October with just 10:46 total on the PK this season. Even Studenic has been on the PK more often than Zacha this season. What makes it more odd is that the penalty kill has been under Alain Nasreddine’s control. The same Nasreddine that chose Zacha in shorthanded situations in past seasons. I do not understand it.

Likewise, I do not understand what the right thing is with Zacha. As of this writing, he has been cold on the scoresheet and “subtle” in his play on the ice. Just when one thinks he turns a corner, he seemingly finds another corner that needs to go beyond. Zacha reminds me of the brief time Viktor Kozlov spent in New Jersey. Kozlov was a big winger that did not make a big impact in New Jersey but would occasionally flash his skills to a point where you, as a fan, wonder why he cannot just use them like that more often. For Kozlov, his intensity was always questioned. For Zacha, I question his initiative. Zacha is a pretty smart player on and off the puck. His shot is pretty good. He is capable of making some smart reads. He can play off skilled players well. He can play defense. He is not slow. Zacha has plenty of good tools to be a solid forward in this league. But he is not always utilizing them or utilizing them to their full extent. This is why some of the People Who Matter still debate and/or lament he was drafted at sixth overall despite being an objectively better player than 2016 twelfth overall pick McLeod. This is also why Zacha’s agent is lamenting that his contract did not end after last season where the production could have secured a larger bag.

Zacha will turn 25 this April, so the likelihood of Zacha getting much better is really, really low. So if you’re Tom Fitzgerald, what do you do? Do you sign him to another short-term contract, with a raise in salary to make it worthwhile, and hope he has more good runs of form instead of invisible ones? (What would that be? $3 million by 3 seasons? I guess?) Do you give him a deal like Miles Wood under the guise that he can be used in a bunch of different roles and perhaps a different coaching staff or team mindset gets him going? Do you try to move him in a trade? The latter would mean looking to Andreas Johnsson and Tomas Tatar to fill in at wing whilst looking for a prospect forward to trust for the future in Zacha’s spot? Do you do something else? I do not know. I am leaning towards the notion that as helpful as Zacha can be when he is “on,” they need someone who can be “on” more often to be more useful more often.

For Zacha’s own sake, he needs to pick up his play and hopefully hit some kind of hot streak. That would help his future contract, although it could make the terms more difficult for Fitzgerald to handle. Actually, what he really needs is to provide an impact on games when he is not finding the scoresheet. Given that he’s 24 and will be 25 in a few months, I am not holding my breath.

Jesper Bratt

You know who has been “on” this season? Jesper Bratt. Jack Hughes may be the team’s All Star representative, but Bratt has been the ace in New Jersey. He leads the team in scoring in all situations (ten goals, 32 points) as well as in 5-on-5 play (8 goals, 23 points). When he has been on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils have been very good - only Tatar and Hischier among regulars have superior rates. Bratt has contributed to Dawson Mercer’s emergence as a rookie as well as supporting the play of Hischier and Hughes as wingers. Bratt has been great this season. A great time for his bridge deal of $5.5 million over two seasons to end. While Bratt’s salary is $3.45 million, he will definitely command a lot more money provided that Bratt keeps up his rate of scoring and being a positive factor in 5-on-5 play. (Imagine if the Devils had a power play that was shooting from dangerous locations on the ice more often; Bratt and others could have even more points.)

Some perspective is needed. Here is a list of forwards at CapFriendly organized by total points in the NHL alongside their cap hits. As of January 16, Jesper Bratt is tied with Matthew Tkachuk (cap hit: $7 million), Alex DeBrincat (cap hit: $6.4 million), Jason Robertson (cap hit: $795,000, entry level contract), and Lucas Raymond (cap hit: $925,000, entry level contract). The only players with more points than Bratt in the entire NHL with a cap hit below $3 million are Jordan Kyrou ($2.8 million) and Troy Terry ($1.4 million). The majority of the players with more than 32 points right now have contracts with an average value of well over $5 million. I would get used to that number being around what to expect in Bratt’s next cap hit. Given that Bratt is also eligible for arbitration, time will not necessarily be on Fitzgerald’s side. And should Bratt keep up his torrid rate of scoring - which we all should hope he does! - the cost may increase.

I am still struggling to find a good comparable for Bratt. But it could be a similar situation to what Pavel Buchnevich just underwent. While he has been a more productive player and came off a more expensive bridge deal (two seasons, $6.5 million), his 20-goal, 48-point season in 54 games yielded a $23.2 million contract for four seasons from St. Louis after being dealt away. If the Devils believe Bratt can be an offensive force like this in the future and continue to be a very good 5-on-5 player, then a four or five season deal with a cap hit around $5.5 million may be appropriate as something to aim for. But it could be higher if the production sky rockets and/or other comparable contracts emerge with players earning even more money. Still, Bratt just needs to keep on producing, keep on being a great winger, keep on supporting whomever is his center, and he will become a richer young man real soon.

Concluding Thoughts

This is tricky because out of all of the free agents in this post, Bratt is easily the best among them and the most important to keep. While it seems like the Devils have a lot of space, this could eat into quite a bit of it. Throw in the Zacha and Wood contracts, as they are RFAs too, and a good chunk of that $24 million in cap space can be taken up by those three players if Fitzgerald is not careful enough. The other RFA free agents will also chip away at it too. The moves Fitzgerald has to consider over the next few months will not only impact this season but future seasons as well. The 2023 offseason will see Graves, Severson, Tatar, and Johnsson hitting UFA status and RFAs include Smith, Siegenthaler, Blackwood, Sharangovich, McLeod, Bastian, and Kuokkanen. Even if you do not think much of some of those players now, that opinion may change next season. And so will their cost. Ideally, the salary cap starts to go up again in future seasons to give New Jersey more space to make decisions how they want. The reality this coming Summer could get expensive even if the Devils let their UFAs walk (or deal them by the deadline). Fitzgerald has to make these free agent decisions beyond just the short-term future. The Summer may seem so far away, but with the Trade Deadline set for March 21, 2022, some of them will need to be made earlier than others.

One other factor is the team’s performance as a whole. As much as the Devils are at least better than the bottom five teams in the NHL unlike last season, their performances have definitely underwhelmed. As Mike wrote, the Devils really do not have much to play for in the second half of the season that would have just started had it not been for postponed games by the NHL. He wrote that on January 14, 2022. He could have written that on December 31, 2021. For an organization trying to convince the People Who Matter and whomever else that they want to be a winning organization, not being among the very worst teams in the league is not exactly a significant step forward. I would think they would want to be successful while Hischier, Hughes, and others are still young as to not waste their prime years like Edmonton is currently doing with McDavid and Draisaitl (among past picks by Edmonton). With all of this in mind, Fitzgerald may opt (and/or be told by ownership) to make more aggressive moves and change things up for a hopefully better 2022-23 campaign. It may mean moving on from some pending RFAs. It may mean moving a few players already signed. If you want an X-factor for all of this, then there it is.

Still, in short, a lot has to be done this Summer. If nothing else, one big reason to pay attention to the remainder of 2021-22 is to see how most of the eighteen players who are up for new contracts after this season perform in the next 45 games. Alternatively, watch Utica to see some other free agents perform as the Comets look to secure a winning campaign in their first season under Devils management.

Your Take

Now I turn to you, the People Who Matter. What free agents have the most to prove in your eyes? Who stands to gain the most in their next contract? Who do you think will step up their game and secure a potentially larger bag after this season? Who do you think the Devils will move on from as they consider these free agents? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these pending RFAs and UFAs in the comments. Thank you for reading.