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UFA Preview: Andrew Copp & Justin Braun

With unrestricted free agency inching closer, we take a look at a pair of pending UFAs from the Rangers in Andrew Copp and Justin Braun. This post dives into why I think both players make sense as potential Devils targets, to varying degrees.

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Andrew Copp would be a fantastic fit for the Devils, but he’ll likely be one of the most highly sought after free agents
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Gerard and I started to take a look at players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next month and if they might be a potential fit moving forward for the New Jersey Devils. I wrote about why I preferred Mason Marchment over Ben Chiarot from the Florida Panthers while Gerard looked at a couple forwards I like from the Carolina Hurricanes in Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck.

Today, we continue this series with a couple pending UFAs from the New York Rangers, as Andrew Copp and Justin Braun are slated to hit the open market in a few weeks. Are either one a potential fit for the Devils? Let’s dive in!

Who is Andrew Copp and what would he bring to the table?

Andrew Copp is a 6’1”, 205 lb forward who was taken in the 4th round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets. Having already playing one season at the University of Michigan prior to being drafted, he played two more before signing his ELC with the Jets. He made his NHL debut late in the 2014-15 season, recording an assist on a goal scored by former Devil Lee Stempniak and burning a year on his ELC in the process.

Copp made the Jets roster in training camp the following season and has been an NHL regular ever since, mostly playing on the Jets 3rd and 4th lines the first few years of his career. He put up relatively modest stats over his first four NHL seasons, with 84 points over his first 293 games but has generally been regarded as a good, defensively-sound player in the Jets bottom six. Copp and the Jets went before an arbitrator after the 2018-19 season and Copp won, earning a 2 year contract extension worth $2.28M annually. Copp’s stats were ok once again in the first year of that deal, but he enjoyed a quiet breakout season in year 2 of that deal with 15 goals and 24 assists in 55 games during 2020-21.

With one year of team control remaining, the Jets and Copp agreed to a one year deal for the 2021-22 season worth $3.64M. Copp had another solid campaign for the Jets with 35 points in 56 games. However, it became apparent that the pending UFA wasn’t going to re-sign in Winnipeg. With the Jets in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference standings, Copp was a hot commodity at the trade deadline this past March. The New York Rangers stepped up and acquired the versatile forward (along with a 2023 6th round pick) in exchange for prospect Morgan Barron, a conditional 2nd round pick that became a 1st when the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final and Copp played 50% of their playoff games, another conditional 2nd round pick, and a 5th round pick in 2023.

Copp made a good first impression for his new team with a goal in a 5-1 win over the Penguins. He played 16 games for New York down the stretch, mostly on a line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, and recorded 8 goals and 10 helpers. He cooled off a little bit as the Eastern Conference Final rolled on, but still finished with 6 goals and 8 assists in 20 playoff games.

Via Hockey-Reference
Via Natural Stat Trick

The soon-to-be 28 year old forward brings a lot to the table though aside from secondary scoring. He has proven to be versatile with his ability to play either center or winger at a high level. He can play in a Top Six role with skill players, but he can also play a heavy style and create opportunities due to his forechecking prowess. He has some playmaking vision, with 92 points in his last 127 NHL games. He had solid underlying numbers at 5-on-5 with the Jets and has been even better in New York. He can get to the front of the net and make things happen. He is a strong penalty killer who can also contribute on the power play.

If it sounds like I’m gushing, remember that there’s a reason why it seemed like half the league was in pursuit of Copp around the trade deadline. He does a lot of things really well! He was a big part of the reason why the Rangers got as far as they did this postseason. Chris Drury deserves a lot of credit for acquiring him. He was a perfect fit for the Rangers.

If there are any negatives with Copp’s game, I don’t think he’s the greatest skater. He’s adequate and good enough to get the job done, but I don’t think he’s an elite skater by any means. I also think the heavy play-style doesn’t exactly age the best, so I’d be leery of any term over five years. You’ll probably have to live with it though with this being unrestricted free agency and needing to offer that term to get the player’s services. Copp would be another left-handed shot for a Devils team that desperately needs more right-handed shots at wing to balance out their lineup. Rangers beat writer Arthur Staple also noted that Copp said his preference is to be a center, so he might not be looking for a situation where he’s asked to play anywhere but center in the lineup. When you look at the total package though, I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives and he would be a player worth pursuing.

Since I mentioned that Copp’s preference is to play center, it’s fair to question where exactly Copp would play in the Devils lineup. Do you play him as the 3C, shift Dawson Mercer to wing, and explore a sell-high trade on Jesper Boqvist? Or do you put Copp at wing and play him wherever you need him in the Top 9? I have little doubt after Copp meshed brilliantly with Artemi Panarin that he’d be able to play with Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, or Nico Hischier. Adding Copp would give the Devils options moving forward, and you’d always rather have too much flexibility than not enough.

What type of contract will Copp get and should the Devils have interest?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Andrew Copp will not come cheap. Throughout his time in Winnipeg, he took three bridge deals to get to UFA as quickly as possible. Half the league wanted to trade for him at the deadline, and the other half who weren’t playoff contenders this year have seen that he took his game to another level in New York. Frankly, if I were Rangers GM Chris Drury, I’d prioritize retaining Copp over fellow pending UFA Ryan Strome, assuming I’ll be able to keep either of them. It might be tricky for the Rangers to retain Copp with only $13.4M in cap space, several big RFAs after next season and other offseason business to address now, but there will be plenty of interest in Copp either way.

The first player I thought of when looking at the things Copp does well was our old friend Blake Coleman. Coleman went on to win two Stanley Cups in two years after the Devils traded him to Tampa in February 2020. He cashed in big time with a six year deal worth $4.9M annually with the Calgary Flames before this past season. It’s not a perfect comparison as Copp’s 53 points this year tops Coleman’s best individual season, but they do check a lot of the same boxes in terms of style of play. Solid 200-foot game? Check. Good penalty killer? Check. Comes up big in big games? Check. Can play with skill guys if necessary? Check. Versatile? You bet.

Zach Hyman is another player I thought of in the same vein as Copp. Both players have a similar frame, although Hyman is a little heavier and I think he’s a little more physical than Copp. Both players have a nose for the front of the net. Both players can be moved up and down the lineup as needed and fill specific roles. Hyman averaged .67 PPG over his final 165 games and three seasons in Toronto, while Copp is a little off the pace with .62 PPG over the last three seasons. Hyman signed a lucrative, seven-year deal with the Oilers worth $5.5M AAV immediately after the market opened last summer, which tells you that players of this ilk will be in high-demand.

Alex MacLean of Dobber Hockey projects Copp to get just over $4M annually, but I think that price tag will be higher with Copp producing in the postseason. Luke Fox from Sportsnet believes Copp can get $4.5M annually. John Gilroy of Pro Hockey Rumors compares Copp to TJ Oshie (8 years, $5.75M AAV) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (6 years, $5M AAV), and while I don’t necessarily agree with those specific player comps, I think that’s about where the money will be. Arthur Staple of The Athletic guesses that Copp will cost around $5.5M AAV for five or six years, while Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman echoed those sentiments on SportsNet. That sounds spot on to me.

I think Copp easily gets a six-year deal on the open market. I’d be ok with it if the Devils offered him five years at around $5.25M annually, but I think they’d need to be willing to go the extra mile with term to have a realistic chance of competing here. Ultimately, I’m going to guess he either stays with the Rangers or goes to one of the other dozen or so teams closer to contention and with cap space to burn at the moment. As much as I would like to see the Devils sign Copp, I think he’ll have plenty of suitors to pick from.

Who is Justin Braun and what would he bring to the table?

Justin Braun is a 12 year NHL veteran with 791 regular season games worth of experience under his belt. Listed as a 6’2” and 205 lbs right-handed defensemen, he brings a little more size to the table than the player he’d likely be replacing in the Devils lineup in P.K. Subban.

Braun is a defense-first defenseman who played primarily a Top 4 role in his heyday with the Sharks, averaging over 20 minutes of ice time a night for six straight seasons. He was traded to the Flyers before the 2019-20 season, the final season of a 5 year contract worth a $3.8M AAV he signed with San Jose back in 2014. Braun liked his new surroundings in Philadelphia enough to forgo unrestricted free agency with a 2 year extension worth $1.8M annually. With the Flyers out of the playoff mix in the final year of his deal, they traded him to the Rangers at the trade deadline this past March in exchange for a 2023 3rd round pick.

So what does Braun bring to the table? He’s an adult in the room who has been through the battles throughout the years. He’s worn a letter. He is an effective defensive defenseman and strong penalty killer as long as he’s in a limited role. With Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson presumably ahead of him on the hypothetical Devils RHD depth chart, that wouldn’t be an issue. He’s not afraid to block shots, go into the corners, and drop the mitts if necessary.

As for the negatives, he won’t contribute much offensively with only 43 points in the last three seasons, but that’s also not his game. By comparison, Subban had 59 in the same timeframe and he was considered to be an offensive defenseman. There’s also a lot of tread on the tires for Braun with over 900 regular season and playoff games on the odometer. Braun turns 36 next season, so there’s always the chance that the wheels fall off at any moment, although he’s looked solid in a third-pairing role on the Rangers this postseason. There’s also an inherent risk if he signs a multi-year deal that, with it being a 35+ contract, the Devils would be on the hook cap-wise if its front-loaded or has a signing bonus in the season year and he suddenly retires. For more on 35+ contracts, CapFriendly lays out that information here.

Via Hockey-Reference
Via Natural Stat Trick

Braun seems like an ideal fit though for a team that could use a veteran presence and a little more toughness on the blueline. I don’t want to have to rush Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh or Kevin Bahl onto the NHL roster next season, and Ty Smith’s days on this roster may or may not be numbered. Bringing in a seasoned pro like Braun would allow the Devils to keep the prospects in the AHL a little longer and continue to marinate. He also might be the defensively-sound partner that Ty Smith sorely needs.

What type of contract will Braun get and what should the Devils do?

Braun is firmly in the Cup-chasing portion of his career, as the closest he has gotten was in 2016 when the Sharks lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. If he’s open to signing anywhere though, I think he would make sense for the Devils on a short-term deal. Frankly, I’d be stunned if he got more than one year from anyone.

Looking at some of the most recent 35+ deals for defensemen, Nick Holden signed a 1 year extension with the Senators for $1.3M during this past season. Alex Edler got $3.5M for a year with the LA Kings after spending parts of 15 seasons in Vancouver. Alex Goligoski signed on the same day as Edler, getting $5M for 1 year from the Wild, and he also signed a 2 year extension in-season for $2M per. There’s also a few contracts of the Cup-chasing variety with an AAV under $1M. Andy Greene, Zdeno Chara, and most recently, Mark Giordano all took a little less, so I wouldn’t necessarily use any of them as a comp.

The Devils probably won’t be a Cup contender next season, so they’ll have an uphill battle in convincing Braun to come here. I do think generally speaking though, the Devils need more players like him who have been through the battles and have been on winning teams that can be a positive influence in the room. Braun checks a lot of boxes in that regard. The things he still does well also happen to be the things the Devils could use some more of in their lineup.

Depending how the rest of the Devils offseason goes, Braun makes sense as a depth signing if he gets passed over in the initial wave of free agency. I wouldn’t go any longer than one year with him at this stage of his career, but he’d make a lot of sense in the $2M range.

Final Thoughts

Andrew Copp is a good, complimentary player who can wear a lot of different hats for an NHL team and is a bit of a “jack-of-all-trades” player. He does a lot of things well and would be a good fit wherever a team needs him in the lineup, whether its second line winger or third line center. Unfortunately, after another breakout season and with him being a prominent player on a Rangers team that went deep into the playoffs, I think his services will be in high demand. Copp would help the Devils become a better team, but I don’t see any reason why Copp should pick the Devils over a team closer to contention when he’ll have options this offseason. Unless the Devils give him a Hyman-like deal where they’re the clear top bidder, I’d expect Copp to sign elsewhere.

As for Justin Braun, I think he’s more of a stopgap signing that makes sense to fill a checklist of specific short-term roles. He’s a big, physical, right-handed defensemen who is defensively sound and can kill penalties. As long as the Devils aren’t forced to play him in a role he probably shouldn’t be doing anymore or giving him multiple years, he’d be a reasonable choice as a bottom-pairing defenseman to replace P.K. Subban while the Devils wait for their blueline prospects to develop.

What do you think of these two unrestricted free agents? Do you agree with me that you like Copp but he might be a smidge too pricey in terms of both money and term? What do you think of Justin Braun as a potential short-term option for the blueline? Please feel free to leave a comment below on these two players and thank you for reading!