Manifesto 3.0, The Manifesto Strikes Back: A Semi-Fantastical Vision of the 2022-2023 Devils
It's another summer in the ongoing saga that is the New Jersey Devils' rebuild. Now clocking in at more than seven years -- and counting -- without much progress in the standings to show for it. The Devils finished ??th in the standings this past season, marking the fifth time in the past six seasons that they have been a Bottom Six team. (Or worse.) This despite the progress shown by a number of young New Jersey Devils.
It has been more than two years since John Hynes and Ray Shero were served pink slips and the Devils as a team still seem to be spinning their wheels. Ownership has demonstrated patience with this lengthy rebuild, but even that patience has to exhaust itself at some point if there aren't tangible signs of progress (in the standings). So the pressure has to be rising on the power couple of Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald.
Continued failure is not acceptable. There are a myriad of problems with this team, but those problems can be addressed and fixed to some degree and the Devils should not be spending much more time wallowing at the bottom of the standings and wasting the best efforts of their young core. And, yes, its a (mostly) young core. And it's (mostly) locked into place at this point; now the challenge becomes building a better supporting cast around that core as opposed to the previous task of trying to identify the players around who the team should be built.
Five years ago, the first Manifesto looked at a team that might have taken better advantage of an Expansion Draft to build themselves up. That team squandered said opportunity; sure, they made the playoffs that season but it was a rapid ouster from the postseason and an even more rapid decline back to the depths of the NHL standings.
Three years ago, the second Manifesto looked at a team that had some urgency based on the length of the rebuild and a(n ostensibly) star player in his prime being poised to walk away as an Unrestricted Free Agent if the team around him wasn't improved. That team made aggressive moves to try and improve things and promptly imploded, with a bunch of people getting fired and a bunch of players getting traded away for futures over the subsuquent months. All that before the world itself went to pot.
So how should Tom Fitzgerald go about his team? What issues does he have to address, and what can be done to fix them?
(Okay, okay. It might be faster to list those things Tom Fitzgerald doesn't have to address. But we're not doing that version of the list.)
The two biggest problems with this team are the Coaching Staff and the goaltending.
The Coaching Staff has been completely inadequate for the job and a lot of the results demonstrate that. Many of the mistakes witnessed by the fan base continue to be repeated, the Coaching Staff seemingly unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments. The systems, where they do seem to exist, simply aren't up to par. There's been some modification of how the Devils do things to suit their talent, but there are still gaping holes that are allowed to remain. While there are things that seem to be done correctly according to underlying metrics and numbers, there's insufficient translation of those underlying things to satisfactory on-ice performance.
The goaltending has been an ongoing problem, not all (or even most) of which is Management's fault, but the status quo isn't any more acceptable in that area. The Devils have suffered far too many injuries in far too short a time where their goaltending is concerned. Even when guys are healthy, they are all too frequently ineffective. The statistical performances have been trending downward for several seasons now and are now approaching numbers not seen by a Devils team in nearly four decades, back in an era before the play of the position was revolutionized.
But wait, there's more! The defense needs some work; the Top Four is satisfactory and perhaps even more than that, but the third pairing needs to be upgraded. The defense corps as a whole could use more "defense first" guys in the mold of the blossoming Jonas Siegenthaler as opposed to the strong bias towards "puck-moving" defensemen who are good in the opposition zone and shaky (or worse) in their own. There also has to be concern over the number of those defensemen who are pending Free Agents of one sort or another; while the prospect pipeline can fill some of those holes, the Devils do have to figure out where they're going in the intermediate future with that unit.
Even the forwards require some work and improvement. The offense is roughly "league average" right now and has been better than that when all the pieces have been healthy. But too often all those pieces have not been healthy at the same time, and the depth behind them hasn't been producing up to snuff. Some more firepower would be useful, and getting the depth to carry their weight would also help. The issues with the latter often come back to laughably low shooting percentages as compared to career marks from players.
But there are also a number of players within that group that probably will never work out in New Jersey. Or a number of players who are a similar archetype playing a similar style that just hasn't been producing the desired results in Newark. As such, there are a number of forwards who could and maybe should be swapped out for other players who just might be part of the answer.
In short, it's a case where the core has probably been identified and (mostly) solidified, but the supporting cast has to be figured out.
The Devils have a level of cap flexibility still available to them to utilize towards making changes. Not as much as in the recent past, and even less once Jesper Bratt gets paid, but the Devils have an admirably clean cap sheet going forward. There's a healthy amount of space already occupied, but the Devils don't carry the sort of millstone contract that so many other teams have to impede their rebuilds and/or sap resources to offload those deals. Mind you, fixing the litany of problems this team has will cost a lot of those cap resources, but it's easier to do so when those resources exist rather than trying to figure out what needs to be sacrificed to manufacture the appropriate space.
Among the hindrances to this summer's re-tooling project? The Devils don't have a ton of high-impact players that can filter into the parent club's roster from the farm system and lower Leagues. There are prospect defensemen who can can become part of the third pair next season, but almost exclusively left-handed and whose ceilings probably aren't as high as many fans wish they would be. Luke Hughes should be better than that, but he's at least another season away and therefore not a consideration for the upcoming incarnation of these New Jersey Devils. There's only one RHD prospect of any note, but Reilly Walsh projects as another "offense first / defense after that" type the Devils already have in quantity; that makes it questionable just how much internal help can be found on that side of the defense corps.
Outside of Alex Holtz, there doesn't appear to be an impact forward in the bunch; there are depth pieces who can fill out the Bottom Six but likely not much more than that. Nico Daws probably should get more time to marinate at Utica rather than being tasked with trying to hold up a starter's workload at the NHL level as he did throughout 2021-2022. So there probably isn't as much in the way of internal reinforcements as there needs to be for these Devils to return to prominence sooner rather than later. Which requires the Devils to seek those answers outside of the organization.
An additional headache insofar as trying to address so many of these issues is the lack of talent that is likely to be available in Free Agency. There's a fair chance that an impact scoring winger will get there, but he'll be coveted and the Devils might not be able to convince the guy to sign in Newark; if that isn't the holdup, it may require a prohibitively expensive contract to do so.
There are depth pieces that should be available, forward and defense both, but price and term become a concern and selling the guy on toiling in New Jersey could be an issue with the team being what it has been in recent seasons. If the Devils are splurging on the requirements for the higher reaches in the lineup, there may not be the dollars to stretch for minor upgrades in depth roles when there are prospects available toiling on ELCs. There may also be the desire of current Management to fill those spots from within, to grant those opportunities first to prospects graduating from Utica before looking elsewhere for those answers. Perhaps inviting a veteran or two with the desired skill-sets in on PTOs for Training Camp, but that likely requires the Devils to dredge the bargain bin rather than skim what passes for the cream of the "supplemental forward" crop.
So, no, Free Agency isn't likely the panacaea for this team's ills. Secondary and tertiary players to fill particular roles is probably what Free Agency should best be used for, at least with this team. And that's where this document goes.... eventually.
So what does Your Author believe the Devils' roster needs? In specific?
Two right-shot scoring wingers, to pencil in on the top two lines. A depth center in the mold of Michael McLeod, but a guy who is better than McLeod and perhaps a player who can help with intangibles such as "veteran leadership". A third defense pairing with at least one of those guys being more stalwart defensively: think Ben Lovejoy, but a guy who is better than Lovejoy. At least one "NHL caliber" goaltender who can be part of a platoon in the crease if not better.
It's a lot to ask for. It may not all be possible for a broad range of reasons. But Tom Fitzgerald can get most of it done if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and start re-arranging things on this roster of his.
Without further adieu, here's how Your Humble Author would go about trying to repair things were it his job on the line:
Author's Note: The following two sections regarding the Coaching Staff were largely written in mid-April, prior to the end of regular season. They were amended following the Devils' decision to part ways with Alain Nasreddine and Mark Recchi during the first week of May. Roughly 36 hours prior to this document's publication, the New York Islanders fired their Head Coach, Barry Trotz.
This Author has chosen not to revise these sections on the Coaching Staff further. But This Author would offer his unqualified support to the idea that the Devils should take any and all reasonable steps to hire Barry Trotz as their next Head Coach, especially if Mitch Korn comes along as one of the Assistant Coaches. That being said, Trotz will be heavily pursued by a number of teams if he chooses to coach in the NHL next season, and the Devils shouldn't try and wait him out if they're following the blueprint below.
New Jersey fires Head Coach Lindy Ruff. New Jersey also fires Assistant Coaches Alain Nasreddine, Mark Recchi, Chris Taylor, and Dave Rogalski.
This is something that should have been done on April 30th or May 1st. It could have been a clean sweep on May 4th, when Recchi and Nasreddine were given their walking papers. And the remainder can still be done now without really impacting the timeline for getting other stuff done this off-season.
It starts with the gentlemen directing affairs on a day-to-day basis on the ice. They've all been various flavors of miserable in the past two seasons, the trend lines are every bit as discouraging, and it's fair to question if any of them can bend and change enough for the results to follow in the hoped-for direction.
The team's record with Lindy Ruff as Head Coach speaks for itself, and in words that probably should not be repeated within earshot of impressionable young minds. Lindy Ruff deserves a level of credit for the development of many of the young players, for instituting a style of play that seems to dovetail with the strengths of those young players, and for demonstrating the patience to allow those same young players to learn from their mistakes without continual banishment to the press box. The latter being the case even as players have been benched or scratched for some of those errors. However, the record has been among the worst in the sport and that frequently lands on the Head Coach, one coach being much more easily swapped out than a (double) handful of underachieving players. The goaltending usage patterns have been problematic; similar to Ruff's days in Dallas and Buffalo before now, there has been a tendency to "ride the hot goaltender" to an extreme, something that might explain the litany of injuries and ineffectiveness of the cadre of netminders to spend time between the pipes for the Devils these past 138 games.
The buck needs to stop with Ruff. But he's not the only one.
Alain Nasreddine's defense has been good in some places -- e.g., the Penalty Kill (mostly) -- and terrible in others. Nasreddine has been the constant with the Devils' defense going all the way back to 2015-2016, but the same issues keep cropping up every so often. The lack of discipline, with players running around out of position and puck chasing and blwoing assignments. The problems clearing the zone on a consistent basis. The seeming inability to properly defend a 2-on-1 against.
Mark Recchi deserves an amount of credit for the development of the young fowards. But the Power Play the past two seasons has been an atrocity upon all mankind, the team bleeds Shorthanded Goals Against as if they were hemophiliacs, and those sorts of Power Play issues similarly existed in Recchi's previous stop with the Penguins. There is little indication that a Power Play is being developed and tailored to the available talent, nor do there seem to be adjustments made when the opposition jumps all over what the Devils are doing.
Dave Rogalski has been the goaltending coach the past two seasons. While he's had an unexpectedly sizable amount of quantity to work with, he can be excused for the quality of that quantity. What he shouldn't be excused from is how every goaltender under his purview seems to have regressed in one way or another. Sometimes one way and another. The numbers for each and every goaltender have been somewhere between "below average" and "horrific". There are an alarming number of weak goals allowed. Rogalski is the one overseeing it all; the lack of talent isn't enough of a mitigating factor given the breadth and depth of the goaltending woes.
Chris Taylor is also part of this coaching staff, as an assistant coach with duties not defined publicly. So it's difficult to say what he's done well and what he's done poorly when there isn't a clear picture of his job responsibilities. It can be suggested that he was picked by Ruff to be part of their staff given their NHL crossover in years past. So he may as well be shown the door alongside the fine fellows with whom he shared a coaching staff.
Fire them. Fire them all. Clear the decks so that the next Head Coach can come in with a clean slate and pick the assistants he wants around. (Within reason.) Speaking of which....
New Jersey hires Rikard Gronborg to be their Head Coach.
A bit of an "outside the box" hire, given it has been roughly two decades since an NHL team hired a European Head Coach. But Gronborg is a talented coach, and a guy that NHL teams have sniffed around in recent years -- including the Devils, who spoke with Gronborg during their previous coaching search, having obtained permission from his employer to do so even though Gronborg could not be hired due to his contract in Switzerland.
However, it is believed that Rikard Gronborg is now available, that his contract in Switzerland contains an "out" clause to take an NHL head coaching job this off-season if one is offered to him. And there are several reasons why the Devils (or a number of other teams) should be offering him a Head Coaching job.
Rikard Gronborg is a successful coach. He's winning in Switzerland; the ZSC Lions club that he coaches has been a playoff team three years running and has had success in the postseason as well. Gronborg also has had receent experience and success on the international stage as the coach of Team Sweden, having coached the country on multiple levels from the World Juniors all the way up to the Olympic Games.
Gronborg also has a substantial amount of experience with European players. Most obviously with the Swedes he's had under his stewardship, but he can relate to players from across that continent. With the growing percentage of European-born players in the NHL, that's something that should be an asset.
Finally, Gronborg isn't cut from the same mold as other NHL coaches. In his public statements and his coaching practice, Gronborg has demonstrated a willingness to break from the copycat nature of the profession, to try new things when the old ones don't seem to be working very well. He's demonstrated a level of adaptability to the talent he's been provided, and he has a reputation for clear communication with his players and assigning them roles and tasks to fulfill and improve.
Gronborg would be a bold hire, especially for a National Hockey League that often seems to be quite insular when it comes to Coaching and Management. But good coaches are good coaches and the NHL should be looking to Europe for more than their players. And the Devils could do much worse than Rikard Gronborg.
Also, allow Gronborg to pick his assistant coaches. Within reason, of course, but Tom Fitzgerald or Ownership should not saddle the guy with assistants he doesn't want or retreads left over from previous regimes.
New Jersey trades Pavel Zacha (RFA rights), Jesper Boqvist (RFA rights), Ty Smith and New Jersey's 2022 2nd round pick (#37 overall) to Vancouver for Brock Boeser (RFA rights) and Vancouver's 2022 3rd round pick (#79 overall).
Why is New Jersey making this trade? Brock Boeser is a bonafide NHL goal-scorer; he has 23+ goals in each of his full NHL seasons and was on pace for roughly 20 goals in the pandemic-shortened season in spite of a career-low shooting percentage. His numbers are down this past season, driven heavily by a low shooting percentage plus an On-Ice Shooting percentage that has cratered -- the latter suggesting that in addition to Boeser not finishing as well as he has in past seasons, his linemates aren't finishing for him either. But bring his numbers back up in line with his career rates and the productivity should follow. (I know, this seems to be a common argument with a lot of New Jersey Devils these days.)
Boeser is relatively young -- he just turned 25 near the end of February. He's a right-handed shot and something of a volume shooter, something that would be welcome alongside the top forwards on this team who trend more towards a playmaking role than a finishing role. And he's been very productive with the man advantage, another area where the Devils need help.
There are risks to acquiring Boeser, even before the trade price is considered. Boeser needs a new contract, with the artificial pressures of a high Qualifying Offer and Salary Arbitration likely to push the timetable to get that done and to increase Boeser's leverage. But Boeser checks off a lot of the boxes that the Devils ought to fill.
As for the outgoing players and why New Jersey would unload them?
Pavel Zacha falls into the category of supporting cast members that simply haven't panned out the way one would like them to. He's talented, and he's flashed productivity at various points during his career. But those flashes are too frequently few and far between, often leaving fans feeling like they're viewing a player who either can't put it all together or who is "going through the motions". And the Devils seem to have a surplus of that particular type of Middle Six forward. Add to this Zacha's contract situation, with him being an Arbitration-eligible RFA who is one year from Unrestricted Free Agency. He's almost certainly going to get a raise from what he's making now, perhaps a substantial one, and it probably necessitates a multi-year contract to keep him under team control if there's belief that Zacha is part of the medium-term future for this club. Which This Author does not believe to be the case.
Jesper Boqvist has taken a notable step forward this season, growing from a fringe roster player to a guy who seems like he could hold down a third-line center role with supplemental special teams duties as a possible extra. But as with other forwards on this roster, Boqvist has been prone to disappearing at times, to not showing up on the score sheet with regularity, but flashing those attributes on occasion. If Boqvist can sustain his second-half performance, that's one thing. If the belief is that he can't or won't, now might be the time to "sell high" on him and open up the spot for other players, whether prospects or veteran acquisitions. Also, Boqvist's future at center in New Jersey can be questioned with Hughes-Hischier-Mercer already down the middle.
Why is Vancouver making this trade? For starters, the Canucks have some cap-related issues, with a healthy chunk of roster to fill out and not a ton of cap dollars with which to do so. Trading Brock Boeser and receiving multiple viable pieces in return while also saving some money helps towards the effort to fill out those empty spaces and provides them increased depth as compared to their present position. There have also been questions about Brock Boeser's long-term fit in Vancouver, and this is an opportunity to sell him off while the Canucks still have enough leverage to extract a reasonable package of pieces for him.
Vancouver's defense is also getting a little threadbare. The Canucks have Quinn Hughes to serve as their centerpiece and have recently acquired a solid supporting cast member in Travis Dermott. But their other two defensemen of note are a declining Oliver Ekman-Larsson, an aging-and-declining Tyler Myers, and something called a "Tucker Poolman". The Canucks need defensive help, and the Devils can provide some of that by parting with a prospect in an area where New Jersey has depth. Ty Smith is a mid-1st round pick of relatively recent vintage who has struggled the past season in Newark; the Devils are "selling low" to an extent on Smith, but the Devils also have Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk ready to step into that void and Luke Hughes probably no more than a season away. They can afford the hit.
With New Jersey having won a Draft Lottery, it isn't reasonable to expect that Vancouver could swap picks with the Devils as an additional piece. But the 2nd round pick the Devils include as part of this trade makes up for the similar-ish pick that Vancouver sent to Arizona State as part of the OEL deal; New Jersey gets back a lesser pick and one that is pretty much an afterthought in terms of value after the other pieces flying around this trade.
The Devils improve themselves in the present; trading 4-for-1 most often favors the team getting the best player in the deal and Brock Boeser is that best player. But Vancouver gets several helpful pieces out of this deal as well and can address a number of areas of need in the Pacific Northwest.
Devils fans probably wish the price didn't seem so steep, but the alternative would be to give up pieces of much higher quality to keep the quantity down. Plus, many Devils fans are ready to be done with some or all of the players going West.
New Jersey signs Brock Boeser to a 4-year, $30 million contract. ($7.5 million AAV) This contract has a partial No Trade Clause (Boeser selects 10 teams to which he cannot be traded without his affirmative consent) in Years 3 and 4.
Boeser has a Qualifying Offer of $7.5 million. This proposed contract takes that figure and expands it into a multi-year deal that buys out the final two years of team control plus two seasons of Unrestricted Free Agency. Based on deals currently in existence, a $7.5 million cap hit would place Boeser roughly 60th in the League in average compensation and 40th when only considering forwards, this a figure commensurate with high-end forwards.
It's very possible that Brock Boeser could get a similar AAV award through Salary Arbitration. And the Devils need to be prepared to follow that route if a lengthier deal cannot be struck. But Boeser is also two years from Unrestricted Free Agency and thus there's some risk on his side playing things that way. Including the risk that an Arbitrator would award him less money based on his productivity and comparables.
The Devils are offering to trade the security of a longer-term deal in return for a (slightly) lessened AAV -- Boeser might be able to get more dollars in fewer years were he an Unrestricted Free Agent, either now or two years from now -- and a small level of trade protection that wouldn't straightjacket the Devils if there's a need for the two sides to "divorce". For a player like Boeser who missed some time in each of his first three full NHL seasons (but not the two most recent), this also has some value.
Is this contract an overpayment? Probably. Even though Boeser is a consistent scorer at the NHL level, comparable players usually don't make as much money. But most of those comparable players aren't in the tremendous negotiating position that Brock Boeser is, because Boeser has options. He could simply sign a Qualifying Offer, a one-year contract for $7.5 million and push himself to the brink of Unrestricted Free Agency in a year when the Devils would have an even less advantageous position from which to work. Or he could file for Salary Arbitration with the risk that the Devils could be on the hook for an even greater AAV, plus the "benefit" of going through an Arbitration hearing that might poison the waters between the two sides.
Better for the Devils that they lock Boeser down for several seasons, even at an inflated cost, with the intent that he can provide the Devils with another bonafide scorer as the team (hopefully) matures into something better.
New Jersey signs Jesper Bratt to a 7-year, $52.5 million contract. ($7.5 million AAV) This contract includes a partial No Trade Clause (Bratt selects 15 teams to which he cannot be traded without his affirmative consent) in Years 3 through 7.
Jesper Bratt has blossomed over the past year into a highly productive player averaging roughly a point per game. He has played his way into the young core of this team, and is young enough that he should remain an effective player for the life of this contract. Similar to Boeser, this contract pays Jesper Bratt among the better forwards in the game and does so for a considerable length of time.
Like Boeser, Jesper Bratt is two years from Unrestricted Free Agency. Like Boeser, this contract offers to buy out the remainder of Bratt's RFA years plus several seasons of Unrestricted Free Agency. Bratt is probaby worth more than the AAV on this deal, but the term of this contract plus New Jersey's increased leverage -- Bratt has a much lower RFA Qualifying Offer this summer and probably wouldn't receive close to $7.5 million through Salary Arbitration -- allows for the Devils to keep the AAV to a more tolerable level. At least below that of Jack Hughes, who should be the highest-compensated of New Jersey's forwards.
New Jersey trades Andreas Johnsson (New Jersey retains 50% - $1.7 million) to Florida for Patric Honrqvist, Radko Gudas, and Jonas Johansson (RFA rights).
This isn't entirely a "hockey trade"; rather, this is New Jersey utilizing their financial flexibility to push Florida into accepting a deal that seems rather lopsided when viewed solely through the prism of hockey abilities and likely could not be consummated without the salary cap coming into play.
Why is New Jersey making this trade? Because Radko Gudas checks off a lot of the boxes that ought to be filled by somebody on the New Jersey defense next season, most especially on the right side of that defense. Radko Gudas is a solid defensive defenseman, having proven adept enough on that side of the puck in his previous NHL stops. He's adequate on the offense, never productive even going back to his youth days in Europe, but capable of chipping in some offense from the back end.
But more than that, Gudas has a nasty streak and is very physical, two things in high demand among much of the Devils' fan base. The proverbial "clear dat crease!" fellow that the Devils haven't employed among bonafide NHL-caliber players in quite some time. As opposed to some of the jetsam and flotsam the team has utilized in recent years, Gudas is a sound NHL player first with the truculence and physicality as additional benefits.
Also attractive to many of those same Devils fans is how Gudas could slide into the role of "enforcer", that what it is in the modern NHL. As opposed to many of the depth forwards that this team has cycled through and occasionally dressed in the role, Radko Gudas is a fine hockey player. Good enough to be in the lineup on a regular basis and to take regular shifts eating many minutes and a useful player even on those nights where the extra physicality and truculence is unnecessary. He can be deployed at the same time as whatever star is perceived to require some level of "protection" and not hinder the team while doing so.
Gudas has been utilized on the second and third pairings of NHL teams for years, and that's where he ought to slot in New Jersey. Gudas has also been a mainstay on the Penalty Kill for several teams and can help out there as well. He probably takes more penalties than most would be comfortable with, but that comes with the territory. Nor should the perception of Gudas being "a dirty player" be too much of a concern: Gudas has not come to the attention of the Department of Player Safety since his days in Philadelphia.
The cost is not small. The contract itself isn't very much: Gudas has one year left on his current deal at a cap hit and salary of $2.5 million. He provides good value for that money, so Florida shouldn't be inclined to deal him away without good reason.
As for Jonas Johansson? He's something of a "throw-in" for the deal, a guy the Devils can sign to be their third goaltender, the "veteran depth" teams frequently stash at the AHL level in case of emergency. He's comparable to the Scott Wedgewood types that will be available and who often fill that role. He won't break the budget, and there is the risk that he'd get claimed at the end of Training Camp if/when the team attempts to put him through waivers, but the same is true of a good many alternatives for the same role. (For example, Wedgewood has been claimed on waivers two separate times in his NHL career.) Getting a guy to fill that role in this trade alleviates the need to find somebody for that in mid-July and also should serve to slam the door shut on any chance that Andrew Hammond or Jon Gillies returns.
So why is Florida making this trade? The biggest reason boils down to cap economics in the modern NHL. The Florida Panthers have worked themselves into an uncomfortable cap situation while improving themselves to the point where they can be considered one of the best teams in the League. CapFriendly projects the Panthers as having less than $5 million remaining in cap space with a healthy chunk of roster yet to build, this because they've accumulated a fair amount of talent and some large contracts plus the extension for Alexander Barkov kicking in next season. Florida still has work to do, but not a lot of money with which to do it.
Enter the Devils and their ability to relieve some of that payroll pressure. For the right price, of course. To convince the Panthers to part with Gudas, the Devils agree to take on the last year of Patric Hornqvist's deal, a $5.3 million millstone clogging the Panthers' finances. Were it not for this trade or a similar deal, Florida would have to strongly consider buying out Hornqvist to manufacture some space, something the Panthers have been doing to kick the can of a "salary cap reckoning" down the road for a few years with players such as Keith Yandle. (Yandle is on Florida's books for another three years, including a buyout residue of $5.4 million next season.)
Patric Hornqvist seems to be a player archetype that the Devils have in abundance, a European "scoring winger" who is aging and declining and whose productivity and usage have followed. Hornqvist is 35 years old and has seen his statistical output drop every season for many years now; in 2021-2022, he tallied a mere 11 goals and 28 points while seeing his ice time reduced to fourth line levels with an occasional healthy scratch.
This isn't to say that Andreas Johnsson would -- or should -- produce any better, although moving from a lousy team like the 2021-2022 Devils to a loaded offensive club like the Panthers gives every reason to hope that the change of scenery alone would help. But getting Johnsson to replace Hornqvist and also having the Devils retain half the salary cap charge is a significant enticement to the Panthers, the swap saving Florida $3.6 million in cap charges while also providing a replacement for Hornqvist's roster and lineup spot. It's almost as if the Panthers bought out Hornqvist and got Johnsson "for free", "free" being a very good thing for a cap-strapped team even if Johnsson turns out to be nothing more than a Bottom Six winger for the Panthers.
Florida would still have to replace Radko Gudas, but they have his $2.5 million cap figure to lure somebody to South Florida and a good team to help with the recruitment. The Panthers can find a veteran wishing to chase a Stanley Cup who would fill that void, quite possibly for less money than Gudas was scheduled to make.
This deal favors New Jersey by a not-small amount when viewed in the absence of finances and the salary cap. Many Devils fans will tell you that moving Andreas Johnsson for nothing is still "addition by subtraction" and getting multiple assets for him -- even with salary retention -- is a winner of a deal.
Also helping Florida by making this deal is how the Panthers manufacture a little extra cap space for 2023-2024. Which can be very helpful when trying to keep the core of their team together, most especially MVP candidate Jonathan Huberdeau.
New Jersey buys out Patric Hornqvist. New Jersey is assessed a $1,766,667 charge on their salary cap for the next two seasons as a result of the buyout.
As mentioned in the section above, Patric Hornqvist simply isn't worth the remaining contract. While he's right-handed on a team that would be heavily biased in the other direction, he's still a small-ish European winger, one who is older and in noticeable decline. And this is the case even if Hornqvist could provide some of the intangibles lacking in the New Jersey locker room, such as veteran leadership, playoff/Cup experience, and maybe some "gravitas" as well.
With the other spending this document proposes, it is needful that the Devils find some cap savings somewhere. Buying out Patric Hornqvist creates roughly $3.5 million in cap space for the upcoming season at the cost of cash and roughly $1.8 million in a cap charge for the following season. It also opens up a roster/lineup spot for young-and-hungry prospects with the hope that one (or more) of them steps up and seizes the opportunity. As for Patric Hornqvist, he still gets most of the money due to him but is also freed to head to a team of his choosing (if the interest is mutual) for a relatively low cost to contribute in a depth role without the expectations that come with a sizable cap hit.
In fact, a buyout may be necessary: Hornqvist has a limited (8-team) No Trade Clause in his contract. While it's unlikely that Hornqvist has New Jersey on that list, it's not impossible given the state of the Devils these days. The Devils can (and should) agree to buy Hornqvist out as a condition of the trade and to ensure the NTC doesn't get in the way.
But this also turns the Radko Gudas acquisition into a very expensive (financial) purchase. Gudas only makes $2.5 million (cash and cap), but retaining half the salary on Andreas Johnsson and buying out Patric Hornqvist leaves it an effective cost of roughly $6 million -- plus another $1.77 million for next season. Very expensive for a guy who is a third-pairing defenseman if the defense is healthy, but only for the one year. A price the Devils can afford, and without the need to try and sell a potential free agent on this team and this town and the term that likely would entail. Though it eats into the available cap space quite significantly as will be explained below.
New Jersey trades Jon Bernier to Toronto; New Jersey trades Janne Kuokkanen and a 4th round pick to Seattle. Toronto trades Petr Mrazek, Pierre Engvall (RFA rights), and Joey Anderson to Seattle; Toronto trades future considerations to New Jersey. Seattle trades Chris Driedger to New Jersey.
This is where the Devils (and also the Maple Leafs) get creative in an attempt to address their goaltending issues.
Why is New Jersey making this trade? First of all, the Devils get a replacement for what Jonathan Bernier was supposed to provide, and they do so while also moving Bernier's salary off their cap and not placing themselves in a position where there are expectations for Bernier's play and performance next season. Driedger struggled to some degree in Seattle this past season, but he finished strong and his two previous campaigns in Sunrise were good. Assuming Chris Driedger isn't struck by the same miasma of poor luck, health, and performance that seems to have inflicted every New Jersey goaltender the previous two seasons, Driedger is fully capable of providing a competent half of a timeshare in the crease. Maybe only 30 or 35 games, based on his past history, but the team has to start somewhere.
The other gain in this construct is the Devils gaining some breathing space with their Salary Cap. Moving Janne Kuokkanen off the books and clearing a little payroll without having to give up very much for the privilege. Kuokkanen is a marginal NHL player on the fringes of the roster; his play last season was frequently not inspiring of confidence and he'd probably have to play his way into the lineup in 2022-2023. Rather than pay more than $2 million (and more than $1.8 million in salary cap) for that, paying a lesser figure on the NHL salary cap for Kuokkanen to toil at Utica, or buying him out entirely, the Devils as a result of this trade can simply replace him with a less expensive player, bank the savings, and in turn grant Kuokkanen a chance to latch on elsewhere.
The Devils also save a few cap dollars by swapping Jon Bernier ($4.125 million) for Chris Driedger ($3.5 million). It's not a ton, not even enough to cover a single minimum-salaried player, but every little bit helps. And with the neighborhood of the Devils' payroll, every little bit really does help.
Why is Toronto making this trade? The Maple Leafs have tried to get somebody to take Petr Mrazek off their hands, Toronto having decided that the signing of Mrazek to be part of their goaltending timeshare hasn't worked out. If healthy, Jon Bernier has a sound track record and has had previous success in Toronto; if not, Toronto can stash him on LTIR and find another body to throw on the fire.
Toronto also creates a little breathing room in their salary cap by moving Pierre Engvall. Engvall had a breakout season -- 15 goals and 35 points -- and is an Arbitration-eligible RFA likely to see a healthy bump in salary from the $1.5 million cap figure he had this season. For a team as top-heavy as the Maple Leafs, he could be an expensive third-line center; moving him out and finding a cheaper replacement can only help the Leafs with their cap management.
Why is Seattle making this trade? Swapping Chris Driedger for Petr Mrazek is a "change of scenery" sort of deal for their backup goaltending. And it's one they're being paid well enough to accomodate. Seattle gets four pieces out of this construct: two roster players in Janne Kuokkanen and Pierre Engvall, another player in Joey Anderson who simply hasn't been able to break through to Toronto's lineup, and a draft pick to add to their stockpile. They're probably worse off in the crease for this deal, but not likely by a tremendous margin. Plus they're getting enough else out of things to justify the deal. Especially for a near-expansion team that can use all the additional help they can get while trying to build towards something.
With the 2nd pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, the Devils select Simon Nemec.
The Devils use this draft pick to address the area of greatest (perceived) organizational need, grabbing the top available RHD to bolster their prospect base and ranking Nemec ahead of fellow European defenseman David Jiricek.
The plan isn't for Nemec to step into the lineup immediately; with the Radko Gudas trade, the Devils have a quality defenseman to slide into that role with Reilly Walsh available as an injury fill-in; this would allow the Nemec to develop at a lower level for another season. Ideally, the Devils would buy out Nemec's contract in Europe and assign him to Utica of the AHL for a season as to get adjusted to playing in North America and in a stronger league than his native one in Slovakia.
It would be a reasonable alternative to select winger Juraj Slafkovsky with this pick, the hope being that Slafkovsky develops into the power forward that every franchise craves. But the Devils don't have as severe a need at scoring winger with the trade for Brock Boeser and the hoped-for development of Alex Holtz. Also, because Your Humble Author has (small) fears that Slafkovsky inspires parallels (to him) to Kaapo Kakko, the Rangers winger selected #2 overall in 2019 who still hasn't risen to expectations after three NHL seasons.
New Jersey signs Miles Wood to a 1-year/$3.5 million deal.
The Devils are in a complicated spot with Miles Wood. The number above reflects the Qualifying Offer due to Wood in order to retain his RFA rights; unlike several other situations, the Devils simply don't have sufficient leverage to bring the number down very far -- if at all -- and Wood has no trade value given the Qualifying Offer and also after Wood missed nearly the entirety of the 2021-2022 season due to injury.
Miles Wood is not worth $3.5 million and would struggle to get close to that much money on the open market. Particularly for a player who is a depth forward, who does not play and produce to much of a Middle Six level when lifted higher into the lineup, and who doesn't have a whole lot in the way of "plus" attributes. He's very fast, at least in a straight line. He's willing to get physical and mix things up. He does have a scoring touch, and has produced even in a Bottom Six role without a lot of Power Play time to supplement his opportunities. He's said to be very popular in the locker room and may have some leadership qualities, at least if one attributes his occasionally sporting an alternate captain's letter to that.
But the Devils have a binary choice of paying him like this or setting him loose on the open market. With the rest of the team construction contained within this document -- mostly above these paragraphs -- the Devils can afford this for one season. As such, This Author is inclined to "hold his nose" and pay the necessary price.
It would be very defensible to non-tender Miles Wood with the idea that the roster/lineup spot could be put up for competition and the cap space utilized elsewhere. This would particularly be a sound decision if the Devils select Juraj Slafkovsky with this pick with the idea that Slafkovsky could "learn on the job" starting in the Bottom Six and using the additional cap space as ballast against performance bonuses. But this document does not go there.
New Jersey tenders Qualifying Offers to Tyce Thompson, Fabian Zetterlund, and Jonas Johansson.
This is as much the "routine maintenance" part of the off-season as anything else.
Fabian Zetterlund showed a little something in his late-season audition. Even without that, he would have been worth a Qualifying Offer -- especially given the absence of Salary Arbitration rights. But the difference is that Zetterlund could be part of the solution in 2022-2023 as opposed to a guy who would have to play his way onto the team in Training Camp or get waived otherwise.
Tyce Thompson still has potential, and there's little to fear from a Salary Arbitration hearing that isn't going to nudge his salary too much higher (if at all). He suffered an untimely injury when he was getting his first opportunity last season; by the time he returned, Nate Bastian had secured the lineup spot and role that was likely meant for Thompson. Thompson is still worth keeping around, and should have the opportunity to play his way into the Devils' plans for next season.
Jonas Johansson is also a Restricted Free Agent with Salary Arbitration rights, but also should not be in a position to "break the budget". He's organizational depth, but the hope needs to be that he's the guy sitting near the sign that reads "In Emergency Break Glass" and nothing more.
New Jersey offers Colton White a one-year/two-way contract, paying $200,000 at the AHL level and $825,000 at the NHL level.
Colton White is the sort of journeyman veteran who can have value as a 7th defenseman and practice fellow while other prospects with a higher ceiling can be left in the AHL to play on a regular basis.
Mind you, White is a Group 6 Unrestricted Free Agent this summer, that status being awarded to players who meet certain age and professional service time benchmarks but also fall beneath a certain level of career NHL games played. This permits him to "escape" early if he wishes to head to another organization (that wants him) seeking opportunities he hasn't really received in Newark. The contract numbers are a slight raise over his previous deal, but nothing that matters overmuch and can be easily buried if White re-signs but regresses to "organizational depth".
If he accepts this contract offer, fine -- park him in the press box in Newark unless there's a reason for a different player to be in that role and unwrap him for game use when circumstances warrant. If he chooses not to sign, whatever. The Devils have ample prospect depth on that side of the defense corps that losing Colton White would be an issue; it just may be better for the development of various prospects if Colton White is sitting in the press box in Newark and those prospects can play regularly in Central New York in larger roles and all situations.
New Jersey signs Derek Stepan to a 1-year/$1.5 million deal.
Derek Stepan has bounced around the League a fair amount the past few seasons; since his trade away from the New York Rangers, he's gone from Arizona to Ottawa to Carolina in the past couple of seasons. In the most recent campaign, the Hurricanes employed Stepan as a depth center with some Penalty Kill duties added.
Stepan is no longer the mild offensive force he was in his earlier days -- especially in Gotham -- but he's still a versatile player who can center a Bottom Six line and provide a myriad of contributions. He'll still chip in some points as a secondary or tertiary scorer; he shoots more and scores more than the players the Devils have iced on their 4th (and often 3rd) line in recent seasons. He can provide some veteran leadership, having played more than 800 regular season and 100 playoff games in his NHL career. His face-off percentages have improved every season in his career and he was well above 50% last season.
It's not a major movement of the needle, but Stepan would be an upgrade over the players the Devils are currently using in those positions and roles. The "better than Michael McLeod" suggestion from up above.
The Top Six forward group is largely set. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier center the first two lines, with Jesper Bratt and Brock Boeser and Yegor Sharangovich among the wingers. The last wing spot is earmarked for Alex Holtz, but that still requires Holtz to step up and take hold of that opportunity; if he doesn't, Dawson Mercer is probably the next one in line for that chance.
Assuming Holtz makes the leap to 1-RW or 2-RW, Dawson Mercer can settle in as the third line center, with Tomas Tatar on one wing and a prospect such as Fabian Zetterlund on the other. Derek Stepan centers the fourth line, with Miles Wood on the left side and a competition among the prospects and younger players for the other wing. Tyce Thompson, Michael McLeod, and Nate Bastian all have certain attributes in their favor to challenge for that role; one of them can be assumed to win the job with the other two serving as the 13th and 14th forwards.
The defense is also largely set. Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, Dougie Hamilton, and Damon Severson make up the Top Four on the blue line. It's an adequate or even above average group of defensemen, albeit one more inclined to the offensive side of things.
Radko Gudas was imported to be 3-RD; the other side is open to challenge from Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Colton White (if the latter re-signs). There's an opportunity there for somebody to grab hold of, and may the best player win that competition. If Colton White re-signs, he's the ideal guy to stash in the press box as the 7th defenseman; if not, one of the prospects can fill that role and rotate into the lineup as desired.
Mackenzie Blackwood returns as one part of the goaltending platoon. Chris Driedger has been imported to share the crease with him. In the absence of injuries or substantial ineffectiveness, Jonas Johansson can split time with the developing Nico Daws at Utica with Akira Schmid relegated to the ECHL.
Cap Picture for 2022-2023
With all the salaries added above, plus salary retention on Andreas Johnsson, cap recapture still on the books from Ilya Kovalchuk, plus the residue of multiple buyouts, these Devils are committed to a little more than $80.5 million in cap costs for the upcoming season. With the Upper Limit rising to $82.5 million, the Devils are left with slightly less than $1.8 million in remaining space. It's not a lot, and there's risk of overages kicking into the following season if the handful of players still on ELCs hit their bonuses, but it's not an incredibly likely proposition. However, the generalized lack of cap space would make it more difficult for the Devils to make in-season upgrades if necessary; there simply won't be enough money banked to accomodate significant additions.
One adage that Your Humble Writer has heard in regards to team construction and the Salary Cap is that a good team should be like a politician's fantasy: Pull together as many rich "whales" as possible, cram in a huge number of people down at the minimum end of the pay scale, and wipe out the middle class. This actually makes a fair amount of sense. In the current paradigm, good young players on their ELCs are the best bargains. The next tier down would be either veterans on small contracts -- either as a "one year / make good" sort of thing or because they're taking less money to chase a championship -- or the elite players at the top of the payscale who are not just worth their contract but elevate the players around them. It's that tier of players in between who make medium-ish (relatively speaking) dollars that frequently enrage their fanbase. Those guys make their money in Free Agency because they're solid NHL players; those guys are available in Free Agency because they're not the sorts of fellows to build around.
And that's what the above document aims to do to a greater extent. The Devils can afford to give Jesper Bratt a sizable contract extension to join the core. The Devils can also afford to give out another sizable contract beyond that, but only if they move some of that disappointing Middle Class of players -- the Zacha / Johnsson / Tatar / Wood grouping. This document did a little bit of that, having moved out Pavel Zacha entirely but also effectively paying Andreas Johnsson to play elsewhere; he's off the roster, but he may as well be here in terms of payroll.
If the Devils don't make the above trade for Brock Boeser, it becomes much more difficult for them to add another significant contract and the hoped-for "really good" player attached to him. If the choice were to be made to pursue a winger in Free Agency, such as Johnny Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg -- assuming either makes it there -- the necessary contract to secure that player might require the Devils to shed even more salary, to do so without taking (much) money back, and perhaps in a situation where other teams know the Devils are obliged to make a move and can price their cooperation accordingly. Miles Wood could be non-tendered, but that's probably not going to be enough in that alternate scenario.
Cap Picture for 2023-2024 and beyond
The Devils will have largely shot their wad for the 2022-2023 season and the attempt to upgrade then. This doesn't mean the work is done, but the focus for the following off-season is an evaluation of who ought to be paid and who ought to be cut loose. The cap space simply won't be available for major upgrades.
The Devils will have six reasonably-well-compensated players whose contracts will expire at the end of the 2022-2023 season, three categories with two players apiece. There won't be enough salary cap space to pay everybody, so the Devils will have to make decisions as to who goes and who stays.
The easiest of these is at forward. Yegor Sharangovich will be a Restricted Free Agent in line for a sizable increase in compensation if he merely duplicates this most recent season in the next one. Miles Wood is a depth forward who will be eligible for Unrestricted Free Agency. The Devils should probably prioritize getting Yegor Sharangovich to sign a new deal; it doesn't make a lot of sense to add Brock Boeser to improve the offense, pay the price that the Devils did -- players and contract both -- and then to quickly cut ties with a player who provides similar production.
Next comes the right side of the Devils' defense. Damon Severson and Radko Gudas will both be Unrestricted Free Agents if not signed to contract extensions. Severson is four years younger and does more things well; so long as Damon is amenable to re-signing, the Devils ought to put their eggs in that particular basket even if Severson will command a significantly greater contract than Gudas going forward. Replacing Radko Gudas after next season has been made easier by the drafting of Simon Nemec; the Devils can slot Nemec in at the bottom of their defense with the confidence that Severson and Dougie Hamilton can soak up a lot of minutes and responsibility.
Then comes the left side of the Devils' defense. Jonas Siegenthaler will be a Restricted Free Agent and his development over the past year puts him in line for a substantial raise. Ryan Graves will also be eligible to walk as an Unrestricted Free Agent. Luke Hughes should be ready by the end of next season to make the leap to the NHL and replace one of those guys. The Devils should probably keep Siegenthaler and let Graves go; not only is Siegenthaler likely to be (a little) less expensive, but Siegenthaler also plays a role and has strengths that aren't in large(r) supply on the defense.
2022-2023 will also be a season for a lot of the bodies on the back end of the roster to play their way into their futures, whether in Newark or elsewhere. Teams always can use more in the way of quality, affordable depth. There are young players whose contracts will be coming to an end after that season, and decisions to be made as to whether or not those young players might continue in those roles or if they need to give way to the next batch of prospects.
The Expectations for 2022-2023
Even without a significant roster re-modeling, the Devils need to be better next season than they were in the most recent one. There are jobs at stake if they are not, most especially General Manager Tom Fitzgerald. It's not enough to make a series of moves that are well-received, both by the fanbase and around the rest of the League.
At some point, the results matter. At some point, meaningful games have to be played late(r) in the season. Because all the hope and promise doesn't mean anything if it doesn't translate to wins, and lots of them.
Would the team as constructed above be a playoff contender? One hopes so, especially when the new additions to the roster plus the continued development of the youthful core are included. The one thing that would not be acceptable is for the team to face-fault shortly after departing the starting gate and for the fans to have little to look forward to beyond the Draft Lottery before the turning of the calendar to 2023.
The Potholes for 2022-2023
For what seems like the umpteenth consecutive season, it starts with the goaltending. The Devils suffered through historically bad goaltending last season, playing seven different guys between the pipes (and dressing an 8th as an Emergency Back Up Goaltender once) and seeing none of them provide an acceptable level of play other than a game here and a game there. The previous season wasn't a whole lot better. If the goaltending isn't there, the results simply cannot follow. The document above has attempted to address that goaltending to some degree, but there's only so much that can be done and the options available in Free Agency are also problematic.
Chemistry, of course, is another issue. When one-third of the roster is turned over, it can take time for new line combinations to gel. When the Coaching Staff is overhauled, internalizing the new system can take time and some blunders can be expected.
A number of Devils fans see a lack of "veteran leadership" and similar intangibles on the club. It's not something that has been supplemented in this document, and it's one of those difficult things to acquire on the market without overpaying when a team is in the depths like New Jersey is. The hope has to be that the Devils can work through next season showing enough improvement and a team on the rise that it becomes possible to attract some of those veterans with the idea that they can play alongside the young core and contend for something greater in the not-too-distant future.
"Puck luck" is also a thing. A team can do a lot of things right and simply run into some of those "things that happen". Opposition goaltenders could stand on their head, or allied goaltenders can simply let in bad goals here and there. Shooters can go cold -- Devils fans have seen a fair amount of that from their supplemental cast the past few years, likely part of the reason why those same fans want that same supplemental cast gone. Based on the underlying numbers, the Devils probably should have received better results over the past two seasons. But it hasn't yet happened, and there's no guarantee that it will even out anytime soon.
If the Devils make all those roster changes, and a Coaching change? And the results don't improve? Chances are good that somebody new will be calling the shots and building this team in the near future.
Thank you for reading.