At this point, with 11 games to go, the New Jersey Devils are in full tank mode. You cannot play Montreal like you did the other night and not be in that position. At this point, the Devils are only three points out of being 31st in the league, and 5 points from being 32nd. The odds of them getting a top 5 pick this year are fairly decent, and that should land another quality long term prospect for this team, in the same vein as Luke Hughes. And there is no doubt that this organization needs it. If they can already get huge production from the likes of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, also Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer and the other players under 25 producing, there is no reason to think someone drafted in the top 5 could not be a productive NHL player for New Jersey in the next 3 years.
However, in terms of this specific offseason, even with a tank and a potential top 5 pick that could help to solidify this franchise’s rebirth for years to come, you might argue that what Tom Fitzgerald does in free agency is going to be more important. I usually disagree with this sentiment. Free agency is to get guys to help immediately, and this usually makes people overweight how important it is in the long term for a team, when in reality, it pales in comparison to how important the draft is. The Devils themselves are perhaps the best example of this. In the 2000s, Lou Lamoriello did not draft well, and this team’s perennial playoff contender status relied on him finagling the free agent and trade markets, on top of having Martin Brodeur in net, to keep this team competitive as long as he could. But it could not last, the lack of quality draft picks in the pipeline eventually caught up to this team, and the last decade of mostly incompetence has instead taken place. Had he drafted better, perhaps this team would have competed well into the 2010s instead of falling off a giant cliff after 2012.
But when looking at this team, and what needs to be done, there actually is a serious argument to be made that free agency, and not a top 5 pick in the draft, will be more important for the Devils. Before I get into why, let me first say that I do not take this to mean that the top 5 pick is unimportant. To the contrary, it is vital that the team get it right and get someone who will be great for this franchise. It should not be spent rashly, and should not be traded away without major compensation, if at all. But that being said, there are two major reasons why free agency will take center stage this offseason, as opposed to that pick.
1. Goaltending Need
Even with a top 5 pick, or even a top 10 or top 15 pick, the glaring goaltending need that this team has is not going to be solved by taking someone in the draft. For one, goaltenders rarely go that high. Last season, Jesper Wallstedt went 20th overall to Minnesota, the highest goalie taken. The year prior, you had Yaroslav Askarov go 11th overall, but he was considered to be a generational talent, one that some suggested could have gone 1st overall. Even then, he still fell to 11th. No one takes goalies that high anymore, not like when Marc-Andre Fleury went 1st overall in 2003 or Rick DiPietro went 1st in 2000. Plus this year, there is no one considered to be a generational goaltending talent that everyone is ranking inside their top 10. The top ranked goalie from Central Scouting is Tyler Brennan, but as Dobber Prospects notes, he might not go until the third round. That means the Devils can still take the top goalie talent outside of their first selection. This won’t help them in the immediate future, and this is a team that desperately needs goaltending help now. And that point also brings me to #2…
2. Wasting Prime Years is Painful
While they are definitely still young, you cannot deny that it hurts seeing excellent years from Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt go to waste. And that is exactly what has happened this season. Hughes will end the season over a point per game. Hischier is not far off, and at the rate he has been playing recently, don’t put it past him to manage it by season’s end. And you have Bratt who is also over a point per game right now. Three dominant years from three all-stars, gone to waste with a team that cannot even muster a .400 point percentage. Yes, Hischier and Bratt are only 23, and Hughes younger, but no matter how old, a waste is still a waste.
Next year, with improvements from young players, you have to think that Dawson Mercer can also reach the level of these three as well, so you can potentially have four players next year put up dominant performances. Wasting these years cannot continue to happen, Fitzgerald needs to do whatever he can to put a competent team around them and win some games. Hischier and Hughes are locked up long term thankfully, and Bratt is a RFA and Mercer is on his ELC, but if you do not help your top guys to win, why would anyone else want to play here? You have to make a commitment to these guys that you will help them win now, and that has to happen in this upcoming free agency.
To that end, obviously the most important find will be a goaltender, as that answers both #1 and 2 above there. Even with someone league average next year, the Devils could have a shot at the playoffs. If Fitz can actually find someone above average to start 60 games, then forget about it. Who knows what will be with Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood, but I think everyone would be excited if the team had someone new in net come October, someone who has showcased success, is not 40 years old, and can really backstop this team into contention behind the young guns.
After that, complementary pieces will be important to find. As of right now, Cap Friendly says that the Devils have around $24.5 million in projected cap space for next season. That is a lot of wiggle room to do something. Bring in another defender to shore up the second or third pairing, not to mention someone to replace P.K. Subban. Secondary scoring has still shown itself to be inconsistent, and getting someone who can consistently play alongside Hughes, Hischier, and Mercer would be a huge add. And finding solid bottom 6 wingers to chip in some points and help to tilt the ice in a positive way would go a long way.
Add that all up, and if you believe that making use of some key years from the top guns is important, then this upcoming free agency could be even more important than the potential top 5 pick that NJ will get from tanking the rest of the season. And that could even end up being the top pick given they will have pretty decent odds at the #1 overall pick. But when you have some all-stars already on your team, and you need to make sure they are happy and you are not wasting some amazing seasons from them, you need to have a successful free agency, and in my opinion, a lot of pressure will be on Tom Fitzgerald to make that happen.