On Thursday, the New Jersey Devils announced that they signed 2021 fifth round draft pick, defenseman Topias Vilén to an entry level contract. As he was 19 at the time of signing, it is a three-season deal. According to CapFriendly, the ELC is worth a total of $2.75 million for a cap hit of $859,167. As with all entry level contracts, it is a two-way contract. If and when Vilén goes to Utica, that cap hit will not go against New Jersey and he will paid at a salary rate of $80,000.
The signing also signals that the 2022 offseason has begun for the Devils. There has been and will be a lot of discussion, argument, debate, and comments about bigger issues facing the Devils in this offseason. Issues such as the goaltending position, whether Lindy Ruff is going to be the head coach next season, whether or not the Devils should keep the second overall pick, who they should take if they keep it, and how much is Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood going to get paid this Summer. All important decisions. All ones that we have to hope that General Manager Tom Fitzgerald gets right. However, he has more to do than that. A team’s offseason is also filled with smaller decisions to be made. This was one of them. As Vilén was coming out of his contract with Pelicans of the Liiga, the Devils clearly liked what they saw from the young defender and opted to offer him an entry level contract to give him a shot in North America for 2022-23. He signed it and now he is on the books.
What this means is that Vilén will likely join what is an already crowded blueline in Utica next season. Shakir Mukhamadullin is now in America with a visa. The Devils have six defensemen signed to NHL contracts for next season already in Utica: Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh, Michael Vukojevic, Robbie Russo, and Jérémy Groleau. The latter two are not really prospects. Even if one of Bahl, Okhotiuk, or Walsh gets pencilled in for a NHL spot in 2022-23, that still leaves eight defensemen for a team that normally plays with six. This is barring any other moves that can be made later. This is what we can foresee with Thursday’s signing.
By the way, Vilén had himself an interesting season with Pelicans. He was thought to be a defensive-minded defenseman and that was the case as he picked up a mere six assists in 50 games with Pelicans. 47 shots on net - 47 saves. Needless to say, I would not hold my breath for an offensive bloom from the defenseman. The 19-year old defenseman finished tied for seventh on the team in average ice time with 14:03; which also included about a minute per game average on the penalty kill. When he was on the ice, Pelicans had a Corsi For% of 44.9%, which is not good but fifth best among Pelicans defensemen. While the team finished ninth in the standings, they finished next-to-last in Liiga in terms of team CF% at 44.8%. The Pelicans had a lot of defensive zone time in 2021-22. Vilén definitely got some minutes to work on his defense - and not by his choice. He was prepared to represent Finland at the WJCs, but that lasted for just one game before the tourney was postponed. We shall see if he can go back for the restated tournament in August. The Devils did say he will be at Development Camp - by the way, there will be a Development Camp this Summer - so there is that to look forward to.
Relatively Minor Prospect Decisions to Make by June
The Vilén signing brought to my mind that there are some other, less-visible decisions to be made soon. Specifically with prospects on the team’s reserve list. In the NHL, the team is technically drafting the rights to the player. This means that the player is able to go back to major juniors, go to college, or their club team in Europe or whatever. However, for several situations, these rights are not indefinite. Eventually, a team has to decide whether to offer a NHL contract to the player. Given that teams are limited to 50 contracts, there has to be some consideration as to whether a player is worth it. Likewise, the player has to be interested. If they can get more money elsewhere or want to join a different team if, say, the GM burns a bridge with the player (e.g. Will Butcher), then they can reject a contract offer and hit the free market. Or even re-enter the draft depending on their age. I know some have cried foul over some of these rules; namely with college players opting for free agency after graduation. But these are the rules the NHL deals with when it comes to prospects.
As a result of these rules, the Devils have three players who will need to be signed by June 1, 2022 before they lose their rights to the player and they can become free agents. Those players are 2020 sixth round draft pick Benjamin Baumgartner, 2018 seventh round pick Eetu Päkkilä, and 2020 fourth round pick Jaromir Pytlik.
I am fairly confident the Devils will not sign Baumgartner or Päkkilä. Mostly because both of them are under contract for multiple seasons with their current teams. Back in 2021, Baumgartner signed a four-season deal with Lausanne HC. Given that the 22-year old forward potted just 9 goals and 15 points in 45 games, he has not exactly done a lot in Swiss hockey that would make anyone want to him in North America quickly. Given that he is signed through 2025, it may not be possible. As for Päkkilä, he signed a three-season extension in 2020 with Ilves of Liiga. He has not exactly charged up the depth chart. Päkkilä played an average of 14:16, the 13th among Ilves forwards in 2021-22. He put up 7 goals and 12 assists in 51 games, which placed him 11th among Ilves forwards in points. As with Baumgartner, I do not see anything on the surface that would make someone want to see what he can do at the next level. As he is signed for another season, I doubt the Devils will offer him an ELC to see him try anyway.
Pytlik is a more interesting case. Since he was drafted from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2020, the Devils have had two seasons to sign him. The thing is that he did not go back to the OHL. In the pandemic-stricken 2020-21 campaign, Pytlik played four games on loan in the Czech second league and made some appearances internationally. In May of 2021, he transfered to KalPa of Liiga. In September, he was loaned by KalPa to IPK, a team in the Mestis or the Finnish second league. Then in December, he was transfered to Rytiři Kladno of the Czech Extraliga. You may know that as the team Jaromir Jagr owns and still plays for. There, it seemed like he got a chance to play regularly with an average of 14:41 per game for 30 games. However, the three goals, five points, and 49 shots on net do not inspire much confidence about his progression. It could be argued he did not get a real chance to progress between his largely inactive 2020-21 and playing for three different teams in 2021-22.
Unlike Baumgartner and Päkkilä, Pytlik is out of contract at the moment. The Devils could offer him a deal without any kind of transfer to anyone. Would it be worth it is another matter. While it is not likely going to be a gamechanger in any sense of the word, it is a decision that Devils management will have to make.
Relatively Minor Prospect Decisions to Make for College Players
They are also likely going to at least discuss what to do with two more players on the reserve list. At least, I think they should. Both Case McCarthy and Patrick Moynihan have completed their junior years in college. The Devils will still hold their rights until August 15, 2023 - months after they graduate. However, the time to make the decision may be over the next few months. As a few prospective players in college have hit free agency instead of signing with the team who drafted them, NHL teams have decided to try to sign players out of college before hitting their senior year. For example, the Devils did this with Reilly Walsh and Tyce Thompson. They may want to do the same with either.
It does depend on the relationship the team has with the prospect. Are they close in communication? Does management think well of them? Did anyone do something dumb like Patrick Roy telling Butcher he would not make it in the NHL (Butcher’s 275 NHL games suggest otherwise)? Has either player suggested they did not want to play for the Devils or want to try their options elsewhere? Is there a sense they would be willing to sign a contract before their senior year? These are the questions the Devils would only know the answers to.
In the case of, uh, Case McCarthy, the Devils may opt to let him go have that senior year. The Utica blueline is already going to add Vilén and Mukhamadullin next season. McCarthy, who is another defensive minded defenseman, may struggle to get time in 2022-23. Unless there is someone more in tune with the college game, it does not appear that McCarthy has made big strides at Boston University such that he can go pro right away. Moynihan may be more likely to get a deal. The 21-year old forward has shown some real flashes of production as a freshman (13 goals, 21 points in 34 games) and sophomore (6 goals, 15 points in 17 games). As a junior, he certainly was not bad at 11 goals and 25 points in 38 games - fourth most among the Friars. It depends on how the organization feels he projects to the next level - if he does project at all. This one can go either way. I would hope the Devils are confident in the relationship they have with the player such that if he does stay in school, then they have a shot at keeping him should he have a glowing senior season.
Other Relatively Minor Decisions to Act On
But, wait, there is even more. While Russian players have their rights held indefinitely by NHL teams (example: the 37 year old Ivan Khomutov is still on the list!), the Devils would be wise to stay in contact with at least a couple of their prospects in the KHL. There is no transfer agreement between the KHL and NHL, so a player can really only be signed if they are not in contract with their KHL team. Unless Elite Prospects has some bad information, Zakhar Bardakov, Daniil Misyul, Yegor Zaitsev, and Arseni Gritsyuk are all signed for next season. Bardakov signed a two-season extension with SKA St. Peterburg back in May. Misyul still has a season to go with his deal with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Zaitsev also has one more season left on his contract with Dynamo Moscow.
The most interesting of the bunch is Gritsyuk. He not only played with Avangard Omsk all season, but he was one of their more prolific scorers with 16 goals and 28 points in 39 games. In the KHL playoffs, he added six goals and ten points in 13 postseason games. Gritsyuk even made it to Russia’s Olympic team and put up a goal and three points in six games. Gritsyuk had an awesome 2021-22. So much so that I actually do want him to give North American hockey a try. But he is signed with Omsk for one more season. Of all four Russians, I hope someone with the Devils is talking with him and making some kind of assurance that he will not take an extension with Omsk or a transfer to another KHL team. Ideally, when that contract ends in 2023, the Devils should have the ELC ready to go. The discussions for that need to happen now - if they have not happened already.
And, lastly, there are all of those “evaluations” that Tom Fitzgerald spoke about at his press conference. Obviously, the decision about the head coach, the remaining assistants, his own job, and such are big ones. But the “evaluations” of the other staff members behind the scenes have value too. Does the medical staff return as-is? What about scouts whose contracts may be ending soon? What of analysts, skill coaches, and other personnel in those sorts of areas? Do the Devils have the greenlight to add talent in the front office and in support staff, if the evaluations show they would help? Whereas we will eventually find out if the Devils do or do not sign Pytlik or offer a deal to Moynihan or if a KHL team keeps a Devil prospect even longer, we may not know these moves - if any are even made. Yet, it can have an impact on how the 2022-23 season may go.
The Larger Point
I will agree that the main focus of the Devils’ offseason are to determine who will actually coach the team if it is not Lindy Ruff, address the team’s biggest issues, lock up Jesper Bratt to a hopefully not-ridiculous deal, decide what to do with the second overall pick, and make moves to improve the team in July. They will decide the Devils’ fate in 2022-23. As well as Tom Fitzgerald’s fate as GM.
Yet, every GM of every team - even those in the playoffs - have these kinds of decisions to make within their organization. It is why you see a cavalcade of guys you may vaguely remember from recent drafts get contracts (Matthew Savoie with Edmonton! Pavel Novak with Minnesota! Calle Clang with Anaheim! Kirill Marchenko with Columbus!) And we can see how an even relatively minor ones like signing Vilen to an ELC can have an impact on a roster in the near future. This is why you should not be totally surprised if you get a random announcement from the Devils on, say, a Tuesday morning in May about an ELC or realize after June 1, some guys are no longer with the organization.
Welcome to the 2022 offseason. It is not all big names, big moves, and big contracts that a team makes. Minor as they may be, they are more than nothing-moves even if the eventual impact is minimal on the NHL level. Appreciate them for what they could be. Especially when we may go multiple weeks without anything new from the Devils. Thank you for reading.