Now that the 2022 NHL Draft is over, the focus for all NHL teams will be on free agency. Qualifying offers are due by today at 5 PM ET. Unrestricted free agency will begin at noon on Wednesday, also known as Free Agency Frenzy. The New Jersey Devils are no different from the other 31 teams with their own decisions to make internally and externally with respect to free agents. To wrap our heads around it, here is another roundtable post where I asked the other writers pertinent questions for the Devils’ pending restricted free agents (RFAs) and unrestricted free agents (UFAs) they may (or may not) go after.
I will point out that the questions were posed before the news came out that Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald announced before the draft he would qualify all of the team’s pending RFAs and before the Vitek Vanecek trade. So one about goaltending was removed, but the responses to the RFA-related questions remain valid. (It is also obviously before the recent Kevin Weekes rumor clip about Pavel Zacha.) Related to that trade, Fitzgerald already came out as being fine with a Vanecek-Blackwood tandem. Here is quote to potentially remember for the future:
Fitzgerald on Mackenzie Blackwood: "He's in a really good place and he knows how I feel about him as my goaltender and he wants to be all of that. We believe that he not only is going to rebound, but have a great year."— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) July 8, 2022
We can only hope.
I want to thank Jared, Alex, Stephen, Chris, Nate, and Brian for taking the time to participate in this free agency specific roundtable. Feel free to give your take on the questions in the roundtable and comment on our answers in the comments. Thank you in advance for reading; here is the roundtable post in full.
Internal Free Agents (Restricted Free Agents & Others to Re-Sign)
The Devils’ biggest restricted free agent this Summer is Jesper Bratt. He has arbitration rights, so he can force a deal to be done sooner rather than later. How much and for how long would you want the Devils to re-sign him? Why?
Jared Moore (JM): I’d like for the Devils to sign Bratt to something in the neighborhood of $7M over 7 or 8 years, as I mentioned back in my RFA column back on June 1. What concerns me is that Frank Seravalli and now Elliotte Friedman are mentioning he might be a trade candidate, which seems counterproductive to what the Devils are trying to build here. Usually when there is smoke, there’s a fire not far from there despite the denials of Tom Fitzgerald, and I don’t think those two are the types to make up something. I think the arbitration deadline will be telling, as nobody should want this thing to go to a hearing or have to settle for a bridge deal. If Bratt and the Devils actually go to an arbitration hearing, I think that’s a major red flag. Make no mistake, it is a colossal organizational failure if the Devils fail to agree to terms with Bratt on a long-term deal.
Alex Potts (AP): I would prefer a longer deal, one that eats into as many of his UFA years as possible. A short, bridge deal that says “prove you can keep up the all-star play” is safer, yes, but I don’t see the need. He’s a beast, and he will continue to be so. Go with a longer term, 5+ years, and in that way, you can get a more reasonable AAV [Averaged Accrued Value, a.k.a. the cap hit] while also making Bratt happy. It’s a win win. As for AAV, Nico [Hischier] gets $7.25 per year. I can’t see Bratt getting more than Nico. So maybe $6.5-7 would be acceptable to both sides? I’d be happy with anything in that range.
Chris Fieldhouse (CF): I would give Bratt the full eight years, and preferably around $7 million for the cap hit. Since Bratt is only turning 24, I have no qualms about giving the max extension. You’d rather give that type of term to an internal RFA than a 30-something UFA, anyways. A bridge deal would only hurt the team long-term, so I would avoid that.
Stephen Schnoor (SS): I’m on the record as a big believer in Bratt, and even prior to this season said I thought he’d be worth a lot of money. Then he had an even better season than I thought. I think somewhere in the 6.5 - 7.5 range would be fair given it’s right around where Nico and Hughes’s contracts are. At Bratt’s age, the team should obviously try and maximize term, so 7-8 years would be ideal.
John Fischer (JF): As cute - and favorable - as a $6.3 million cap hit would be for seven years may be, I have to echo Jared’s suggestion that Bratt will command $7 million plus. And why would he not? In spite of a terrible power play, Bratt was an offensive machine on the scoresheet, per the underlying numbers, and even by the old “eye test.” Tom Fitzgerald’s pre-draft press conference invoked the names of the principal owners of the team in terms of an offer given to him. I do not think that means it is a short or a relatively small deal. If Bratt comes in at $7 million for 5 years or thereabouts, then I’m OK with it. Anything less is a big plus. I am anticipating more both in terms of dollars and term, though.
Nate Pilling (NP): I would prefer a seven- or eight-year deal that locks in Bratt through (what is hopefully) the team’s contending window, but I could see his camp desiring something a little shorter given the cap projections over the next few years. As others have mentioned, something in the vicinity of a $7 million cap hit is fine by me. I’m not completely convinced we’ve seen Bratt’s peak, so I don’t mind giving him the bag here.
Brian Franken (BF): I would be thrilled if the Devils could sign him for 8 years on a deal worth around $7M per year. I’ve always been impressed with Bratt and now that he’s had a breakout season, I hope they can lock him into the core up front with Hughes and Hischier. They might as well try to go as long term as possible with the soon to be 24 year old.
The Devils’ other major RFAs this year are Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood. Unlike Bratt, both are in their mid-20s and are pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get players. What contracts would you give Zacha and Wood and why?
JM: I think the Devils qualify both Zacha and Wood, but I question their long-term futures here. I think its more likely Wood is on the team next year than Zacha since the Devils view him as a locker room leader and, when healthy, he brings a different element to the table with his speed and physicality that last year’s team sorely missed. Hip injuries can be tricky though and Wood has a lot of work to do to show he’s still the same player he was two seasons ago. I’m concerned that Tom Fitzgerald said last week that he hasn’t skated yet, as his last NHL game was three months ago and he just missed essentially an entire season. [Note from JF - Fitzgerald reiterated this at the pre-draft press conference about Wood not skating yet.]
AP: While both players have their flaws, they both should and probably will be qualified. With Zacha, the Devils get a winger who can get some bottom 6 points, pushing close to 0.5 points per game. That isn’t anything to write home about, but he will be fairly cheap, he knows the system, and 40 points from a bottom 6 winger isn’t bad to have (even if it’s from a former 6OA). I wouldn’t be against a 2-3 year deal here, and he should be cheap. He got a 3 year, $5.325 million cap deal last time around. Seems to be similarly appropriate this time around if you ask me. Maybe $6 million this time around? As for Wood, he has a more defined bottom 6 role, he’s an assistant captain, team leader, and still has that speed. Again, I don’t see why a similar deal to his last one isn’t good. He got 3 years, $2.775 million last time around. Maybe he gets 3 for $3.5 this time, given he is an assistant captain and team leader? Reasonable for a bottom 6 guy who helps in the locker room, at least if you ask me.
CF: I don’t really think there’s a significant age difference between all of these guys. Bratt turns 24 at the end of the month and Zacha just turned 25 in April. The person I’m worried about here is Miles Wood, as his second departure at the end of the season was rather concerning to me. Wood will be 27 when the season starts, so he’s definitely “what you see is what you get” at this point. People are talking about giving him term and at least the same salary, but I’m wondering whether he’s even going to be ready for the season again. I guess it doesn’t really matter - the cap is practically a myth these days with LTIR [Long Term Injured Reserve]. But Wood is not skating right now, and I would not offer him any more than $2 million. As for Zacha, since he is not coming off a possibly-reinjured major hip surgery, I would go ahead and give him 3x3. That way, he stays tradeable and can provide value to the team as a guy that can hang around with Nico and Bratt (fun fact: they outscored opponents and outchanced them by a wider margin with Zacha than any other third linemate) or play a depth role if the team is properly constructed and healthy.
SS: I tend to think the Devils will value both of these players more than I do. Wood is a unique player and I enjoy watching him when he’s on his game. That said, who knows if he’ll be the same player as he was prior to his injury, and it’s not like he was that effective to begin with. I think the Devils should be cautious and sign him to a 2 year deal with somewhere between a $2-3 million AAV. Zacha is a harder one because ideally they don’t re-sign him and instead find a trade partner for him. Preferably someone who really hates analytics and will give up way more for him than he’s worth. If they do re-sign him, I wouldn’t give him more than $3.5 million on a short-term contract.
JF: I personally think the Devils should move on from both. I know Wood has his fans outside and inside the organization, but he’s a bottom-six winger who adds nothing to special teams. He is coming off a $3.5 million base salary last season and I would expect he would not want a pay cut. Yet, that is too much money for that kind of player. Especially as the Devils have their “pillars” on or going to be on big contracts. Given how his injury knocked out his whole season, I think he may be OK with a one season deal at that base salary. If he wants less, then I’m making side calls on the side to Edmonton or Tempe, Arizona among other places. As for Pavel Zacha, his base salary was $3 million last season and he really did not show anything consistently good to warrant anything more. At this point, I don’t think he’s going to turn a corner and stay turned on it even if he has more use than Wood given his past special teams experience. With Dawson Mercer emerging , Alex Holtz coming in soon, and potentially a free agent forward, the top 9 is going to be awfully tight for Zacha to figure into. As with Wood, I offer him a $3 million by 2 year deal and if he is unhappy, then I’m making calls on the side to others.
BF: I like the way Miles Wood plays the game and the leadership he can bring to a young team. I do worry about his health going forward after missing most of last season following surgery on his hip. The Devils have plenty of young forwards that could fill a similar role on the wing in the bottom 6 so I’m not ready to give Wood anything more than a 2 year deal at most which would cover his age 27 and 28 seasons. His base salary last year was $3.5M so I’m not sure how open to a pay cut he would be. Ideally, I’d like to keep his cap hit somewhere between the $2-3M range. When it comes to Zacha, I’m not his biggest fan and wouldn’t be upset if the team parted ways with him. If they were to keep him, I’d try to make it a 1 year deal worth around $3M, as a final “prove it” contract. Even that seems a bit high for what he provides though.
NP: I am ready for the Pavel Zacha Experience to conclude in New Jersey, but it seems like there’s a decent possibility that he and the Devils figure out a deal. I’d guess they do something like two years, hopefully on the cheap. Hearing last week that Miles Wood hasn’t yet been on the ice makes me a little concerned about his status long-term. With that in mind, I’m probably not wanting to give Wood much more than a couple years with an AAV of around $3 million.
The more minor RFAs for this Summer are Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, and Tyce Thompson. Which of those three do you think will make the New Jersey roster?
JM: Boqvist would have to clear waivers to be sent down, so his spot is safe if he’s still on the team. I’d probably be looking to sell high on him though if I were Fitzgerald and continue Dawson Mercer’s development as an NHL center. I think Zetterlund has the edge over Thompson for a roster spot with how well his late-season audition went. He’s got a chance to carve out a role in the bottom six and bump someone else off the roster.
AP: Boqvist is coming off of his best season, and at 23, he might have a little more growth yet. And from a former second rounder who was considered a really good pick, I can easily see him being brought back and given another chance to cement a role in the NHL on this team. I like him to make the roster. Last season he had 0.41 points per game. I would look to give him a bridge deal, 2 years sounds good to me, maybe 3 max if it brings down the AAV, and I would think you could do it for maybe $1-1.25 million per season. I think it’s worth it to see if he’s a late bloomer, sort of like Blake Coleman was. As for the other two, I’m not sure they make the roster, it would take some serious growth to be shown in training camp.
CF: Fabian Zetterlund has to be on the team on opening night. There just are not a lot of internal options who provide a blend of physicality and skill - and Zetterlund brings that energy to the ice. Boqvist could be the third line center to start the season, but his presence on the team wouldn’t stop me from looking for a UFA center if I were Tom Fitzgerald.
SS: Both Boqvist and Zetterlund showed some promise at various points last season and I could see both of them making the opening night roster as bottom-6 players. I don’t think either has done enough to pencil them in right now though, at least not if Fitzgerald actually wants to keep his job. I think Thompson starts the year in Utica short of injuries or a major breakout performance in camp.
JF: I think all three will get long looks in camp. Personally, I pencil Zetterlund in because I think he is the kind of bottom-six winger the Devils should have. He plays with energy but with an actual sense of what to do with and without the puck. He can body up bigger defensemen, just ask Miro Heiskanen on Nico Hischier’s classic goal in Dallas back in the Spring. He really impressed me at a time of the season when nothing mattered; I think that should be rewarded. Jesper Boqvist is also closer than he was at this point before last season; but I think he has to prove his worth all over again among other forwards battling for jobs - like Tyce Thompson. I think the organization likes Thompson a lot, but I would need to see more from him to be convinced he’s ready for a NHL job. So Zetterlund, Boqvist, and Thompson, in that order.
BF: I expect Jesper Boqvist and Fabian Zetterlund to play for the New Jersey Devils this season on a full-time basis. I think Tyce Thompson will get some looks here and there, but will spend most of the season with Utica. Boqvist finally started to establish himself as an NHL player last year with 23 points in 56 games for the Devils. He finished the season strong with 10 points over his final 18 games so hopefully, he can carry that momentum over to the upcoming season. Zetterlund will fit in nicely in the bottom 6 with his physicality, work ethic, and secondary scoring ability. Thompson still has just 27 AHL games under his belt so I think some more time to play big minutes at that level will help his development at this moment in time.
NP: In order, I’d put the likelihood at: Fabian Zetterlund, Jesper Boqvist and then Tyce Thompson, with the first two being more probable. All three guys feel like the sort of player that would get attached to a trade at some point too, so I’m trying not to get too attached.
Do you think Tom Fitzgerald should seek to trade any of these pending RFAs? If so, who and why?
JM: I think Zacha is likely traded just to change up the dynamic of the roster and the room but that may come before the deadline to qualify him. I don’t think Wood has a lot of value off of a lost season. I wouldn’t trade Boqvist just to trade him but after he enjoyed something of a breakout campaign, I think it makes sense for Fitz to at least listen. I don’t think Zetterlund or Thompson have a lot of standalone value, and if it were up to me, Bratt is going nowhere. The longer this Bratt situation drags out though, the more likely it is that I think he ultimately is playing somewhere else. Maybe not next season, but I could see a trade in the next 12 months if the best the Devils can do is a bridge deal.
AP: I wouldn’t be against trading either Zacha or Wood. Zacha might do better with a change of scenery, and since he wasn’t a captain last year, I think he is the most likely to move. However, I don’t think it’s mandatory. As I wrote above, I’m good keeping him for decent value to provide 0.4-0.5 PPG. However, if you can bring in some other help, someone who also needs new scenery, maybe a decent defender to fill a spot until Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec make their way up to the bigs, that would be a good move if you ask me. I don’t think you would get much at all for Boqvist or the other two, so no reason there.
CF: Meh. I don’t know how other teams value anyone that would be available. Trading Bratt would be a terrible mistake. Trading Zacha would probably bring less value than whatever he brings to the team (and yes, he is better than the internal options that might replace him). Trading Boqvist would probably bring nothing of value, and nobody is offering anything for an injured Miles Wood. If it’s a roster space issue, Fitzgerald would probably have an easier time unloading one of his pending 2023 UFAs on a bottom-feeder like Arizona than achieving a worthwhile trade with one of his RFAs.
SS: Yes. I think the Devils should actively shop Zacha because there’s at least a few GMs who will value his frame and counting stats more than they should and the Devils could likely win that trade. Similarly, I’m not sure where Boqvist fits in the line-up. If Mercer is a RW then maybe he’s the 3C, but if they go that direction they are banking on him being much more consistent than he’s shown so far. It just doesn’t seem like a good move for a team trying to not suck. I’d also prefer to bring in someone with some better defensive chops since I think this is a major weakness. I think a Boqvist for Puljujarvi (yes, I know he’s a winger) trade would be a good move for the Devils since the Oilers are apparently set on trading him for less than market value.
JF: If Edmonton wants to throw Jesse Puljujarvi away and take Zacha back, then I’ll drive Zacha to Newark International myself. As stated earlier, I think he is increasingly becoming a barrier for other forwards for the Devils and I don’t think Zacha has done enough consistently to warrant a permanent spot in the lineup. Moving him allows someone else to get minutes - think Boqvist, Thompson, someone else from Utica (Nolan Foote?) - and the Devils can potentially save some dollars depending on the return. As much as I do not think much of a third/fourth liner who does not play consistently on special teams making nearly $4 million, I think Wood would be better as trade deadline fodder. If only to demonstrate he can play after the hip surgery, which is something I think other teams would want to know before dealing for Wood.
BF: I can’t see any team being that interested in Miles Wood given his hip injury. I think there could be a few teams out there that would be willing to take a chance on Pavel Zacha as a “change of scenery” guy. Former 1st round picks seem to get 2nd or 3rd chances before they’re out of the league. I don’t think the Devils would get much in return but it would open up a spot for one of the young forwards that are looking to make their mark.
NP: I really like the idea of a “change of scenery” trade that would send Pavel Zacha to the Oilers for Jesse Puljujarvi. Otherwise, the only guy I am dead set against trading is Jesper Bratt, and it seems like Tom Fitzgerald doesn’t have a lot of desire to deal him either.
The UFAs from New Jersey this year are P.K. Subban, Colton White, Mason Geertsen, Jimmy Vesey, Jon Gillies, and Andrew Hammond. Would you want the Devils to bring any of those players back for next season? If so, who, why, and for how much?
JF: No on Subban. Hell no for the rest.
JM: Fitzgerald may as well tender his resignation today if any of these players are part of the plan in 2022-23.
AP: Some might already be questioning Fitzgerald for not taking Shane Wright. Bringing any of these guys back would really take that questioning to the next level.
CF: These responses might be warranted if he brought back Hammond, Geertsen, and Gillies - but Subban, Vesey, and White are at least players that should have some place in the NHL. Vesey is probably pushed out by Zetterlund and Holtz, though. Subban is acceptable as any team’s 7th defenseman - but I would rather sign Colton White. Colton White is a fine 7th or 8th option, and I’m not really enthused about the UFA defenseman market even at that level.
SS: Yes. The Devils need another right-shot defenseman for the 3rd pair and Subban is near the top of the class of right-shot defensemen available on the UFA market that would fit this role. If he’s willing to take a big pay cut (and he’ll have to if he wants to keep playing in the NHL) they should seriously consider bringing him back on a short-term deal. I’d be ok with a 2 year deal with an AAV of around $2.5 million. And Colton White would be perfectly fine as your 8th or 9th defenseman on a 2-way contract.
BF: Colton White is the only player out of this group that I would have any interest in and even then, it’s not much. I think he’s OK as a depth defenseman though I would be fine if the team moved on from him to perhaps open up a chance for prospects such as Reilly Walsh, Kevin Bahl, or Nikita Okhotiuk to earn a roster spot.
NP: No, move on from the lot. Please.
External Free Agents (UFAs from Other Teams)
If the Devils do not retain P.K. Subban and/or Colton White, then would you want the Devils to sign a defenseman? If so, who and why?
JM: I think a veteran, defense-first, “tough to play against”, ideally right-handed defenseman for the bottom pairing is a must. The Devils need more adults in the room in general who have been through the grind and the battles, and I think its likely whoever they bring in will be paired with a youngster, whether its Ty Smith or one of the kids in the AHL. They’re not all right-handed, but Josh Manson, Justin Braun, Ilya Lyubushkin, Ian Cole or Brett Kulak make sense, as do a variety of trade or even offersheet options (he’s not a veteran, but Nic Hague would be an ideal fit for what Tom Fitzgerald is looking for from his blueliners)
AP: I wouldn’t break the bank, but a quality veteran who can eat minutes and wouldn’t be a net negative would be a good addition. Someone you could get for a couple years at decent value to hold a spot and provide guidance to the young players. Then, when the likes of [Luke] Hughes or [Simon] Nemec are ready, they can take the position. However, there really are not many pending UFAs in the $2-4 million AAV price range who are exciting. Do you want Alex Edler, Ian Cole, or Ryan Murray once again? So while the thought sounds good, the actual available players leave something to be desired.
CF: I don’t know if adding defensemen is necessary. I want to see Okhotiuk play, it seems Nemec will be available for recall from the AHL if he doesn’t make the opening night roster, and Reilly Walsh is probably overdue for his shot. I would not go for anyone who would command money or term. Perhaps Mark Pysyk would be a fit as an extra. I think Braun is too old.
SS: Yes, I think they need to at least bring in a right shot for competition for the 3rd pairing. If Bahl or Walsh or Okhotiuk win a spot, that’s great, but I just don’t want to count on it. As for who, I don’t know, that’s why I want Subban back. It’s not that I think he’s that good, it’s more that all the other options are even worse. Your options on the right side are 35 year-old [Anton] Stralman and Braun. Gudbransen, Pysyk, Colin Miller, Matthew Benning, Jan Rutta, Troy Stetcher, and Ilya Lyubushkin. Unless you think Josh Manson is coming in to play third pairing minutes on a short-term deal.
JF: I think this is the season for the Utica defensemen to sink or swim. This coming season will be the last one for Walsh, Okhotiuk, and Bahl on their entry level contracts. If they do not break though soon, I cannot imagine the Devils will keep them around for much longer after this season. To that end, I can foresee the Devils acquiring a veteran depth defenseman like Pysyk as Chris suggested or Jared’s suggestions on a cheap deal. If they go bigger than that, then it may be a sign that someone else is getting moved such as 2023 pending UFAs Damon Severson and Ryan Graves or 2023 pending RFAs Ty Smith and Jonas Siegenthaler. (Aside: This blueline could look very different in two seasons.) My prediction, though, is that we’ll see a defenseman come into camp on a PTO in September and see how that goes.
BF: I don’t think it’s a priority but I would like to see the Devils acquire a veteran for depth if they don’t retain Subban or White. I agree it’s time for Walsh, Bahl, and/or Okhotiuk to step up and try to earn a full-time spot in New Jersey. With that said, I do want the Devils to have some insurance should these young defensemen not work out or if Ty Smith continues to struggle to get back on track.
NP: I’d be fine with bringing in a veteran to eat some minutes or push for a bottom-pairing spot. This feels like the sort of thing that happens in a training camp tryout.
Several believe that the Devils should beef up at winger, both in terms of talent and physical attributes. Do you think the Devils will address this in free agency? If so, who do you think they should get?
JM: With Nick Paul off the market, I think it makes sense to kick the tires on Mason Marchment. He’d check a lot of those boxes and be the type of “pain in the neck to play against” player the Devils sorely lack. I think they should also be in on Val Nichushkin and Andrew Copp in UFA, and Nic Roy and Jesse Puljujarvi as trade options.
AP: If Fitzgerald trades Zacha, Wood, and/or Boqvist, then I think he needs to bring someone in to fill a gap. It just depends how expensive the team wants to go. I’ve always been a fan of Nino Niederreiter. But he made $5.25 per year on his last deal. He won’t be cheap, and he will want a longer term, which isn’t the best for the team considering he’s 29 currently. Too expensive? How about Valeri Nichushkin? He’s coming off a deal where he got $2.5 per year. But he also just scored 52 points in 62 regular season games. He’s due for a nice raise, so in reality, he won’t be cheaper than Nino will be. I’d love Nichushkin on the Devils, but will Fitzgerald pull that trigger? Who knows. I hope so.
CF: I have my doubts about whether Johnny Gaudreau would sign here. He could make a ridiculous line with Jack Hughes. But if we’re thinking about getting bigger, aggressively pursue Valeri Nichushkin and Mason Marchment. Nichushkin might re-sign in Colorado, though, so Fitzgerald would have to be quick to pull that off. Secondary to Nichushkin on my list is Burakovsky - he has a great shot, and I think Jack Hughes could get him past the 30-goal mark. An off-the-board option in my mind would be Claude Giroux. It would be hilarious to me, and it would improve the team at center and wing while giving our young players veteran leadership. The draw I could see is the Devils are near where he used to play, so it could be an easier sell to his family. Plus, a Giroux contract would come off the books before you have to give extensions to guys like Luke Hughes and Alex Holtz.
SS: I really hope so. I think they need to add at least one top-6 forward to the mix. Gaudreau is probably the name I’ve heard the Devils linked to the most, and that’d be really fun, but I’d prefer the Devils go after his RFA teammate in Tkachuk, but in that case it’d be a trade since offer sheets aren’t a real thing. I’d love Nichushkin, but if he even makes it to UFA he’ll be a big target for a lot of teams, meaning it’ll take a boatload of money to sign him and that’s just asking for trouble. In fact, most of the big free agent contracts are going to end up being big mistakes. I would be more inclined to take that risk on if the Devils were a playoff team looking for the last piece. But even though I believe they are closer to being competitive than they showed last season, I’d still like them to at least make the playoffs before overpaying a free agent that isn’t a star player. Otherwise by the time they are good they have a bunch of bad contracts on the books and their contending window is cut short because they don’t have the space to re-sign their key players. It probably is best to pursue trades instead. So essentially, my answer is either go big after Gaudreau or wait until the dust settles and go bargain hunting since that’s where most of the value is in the free agent market.
JF: I think the Devils will try to get someone with size, strength, and a reputation up front. Whether it would work with the current system under Lindy Ruff remains to be seen. Nichushkin does fit the type, but between his monster season on Colorado in a contract year and his past in Dallas, I think he is definitely a “caveat emptor” situation. Whoever signs him may be spending more than what they are going to get. I would prefer the Devils to chase after Marchment, Copp, or Neiderreiter. They may not be “top six” caliber on their own (well, Neiderreiter might be), but they would add an element to the team’s forwards that could play off well with the established young studs up front.
BF: I’m expecting the Devils to try to address this area though I’m not sure if it will be via free agency or a trade. If it is free agency, I like the “mid-tier” wings that have been named here such as Mason Marchment, Andrew Copp, and Nino Niederreiter. I’d also add Ilya Mikheyev as a possible option that could be worth exploring.
NP: I’d love a Johnny Gaudreau deal, but I have a feeling he isn’t going to end up in New Jersey. And so I’d also be fine with pursuing guys in the Valeri Nichushkin/Ondrej Palat/Claude Giroux tier.
The Devils have a lot of cap space and did splash the cash for Dougie Hamilton last Summer. There are some big name forwards hitting free agency this Summer, such as Johnny Gaudreau. Would you want the Devils to spend big on one of the top free agents this year? Do you think the Devils will do so?
JM: Gaudreau would certainly make the Devils better and I think the argument of having too many small skill forwards is nonsensical, but if he’s sitting on an offer of 8 years and $9.5M per from the Flames as has been reported, I’d shudder to think what it would cost the Devils to sign him. Because now we’re probably getting into that area where we’d be picking either Gaudreau or Bratt, not both. If Gaudreau is going to cost north of $10M a season, I think they should let Philly or Calgary make that kind of commitment, as much as I like Gaudreau as a player.
AP: See what I wrote previously about Nichushkin. I would prefer someone like him as opposed to a pure star like Gaudreau. He would be cheaper but still would be a really good add as a top 6 winger. However, if they want to grab Gaudreau for $9-$10 million a year? I wouldn’t hate it, he is a perennial all-star. But it makes the Devils a win-now team. Are the Devils a win-now team at the moment? I don’t think so. So the timing is a little off. Hence, the Nichushkin play makes more sense.
SS: For Gaudreau? Sure, he’s a superstar. I’m comfortable spending big on a superstar because generally they have a longer shelf-life and it’d be hard to massively overpay someone like that. I’d rather give him 9.5 million than give 6 million to Nichushkin (who’s excellent right now but isn’t in the same class as Gaudreau).
JF: The Devils have three players with cap hits over $7 million right now and could add a fourth real soon depending on what they offered Jesper Bratt. Tempting as it would be to go over the top with Johnny Gaudreau - and he would, you can never have too much scoring, just ask the defending Cup champs - I do not think he is worth a cap hit on par with or higher than Hamilton’s. And he would absolutely command a contract with a $9-$10 million cap hit as he is coming off a 115-point season in a career where, thanks to that season, he is now a career point-per-game player. I think Gaudreau will continue to be a point machine for years to come, but I fear he just had his peak season and paying guys after they peaked often ends with a lot of pain. I also fear that the Devils will swing harder for Gaudreau now that goaltending is seemingly sorted out - at least in Fitzgerald’s eyes - with Vitek Vanecek joining the organization.
NP: I am mighty tempted by the idea of Johnny Hockey riding shotgun with Jack Hughes for the better part of the next decade, but an AAV of $10 million makes me a little uncomfortable. I’d probably hold my nose and give it a green light. It’s time to move this thing forward in a significant way.
BF: On one hand, I hope the Devils aggressively pursue Johnny Gaudreau. They have the money, cap space, and need to get better immediately. Pairing him with Jack Hughes would be incredible. On the other hand, I do worry about how signing him to a massive deal would change their cap situation from uncomplicated to complicated rather quickly. Up front, they still need to lock up Bratt long-term and be mindful that Sharangovich will need another deal after this season as an RFA. On the back end, they have Severson and Graves facing unrestricted free agency after this season, as well as Siegenthaler and Smith needing new deals as RFA’s. At the same time, Tatar ($4.5M) and Johnsson ($3.4M) will be off the books following this season which will help as will the emergence of Luke Hughes and/or Simon Nemec. Can they sign Gaudreau? Sure, they may just have to make a couple of moves over this offseason and next to maximize the roster and cap situation. Should they sign Gaudreau? I’m conflicted. He’s coming off of an incredible season in his age 28 year. He should still have a few more seasons left in his prime but then I am concerned about how his play will hold up as he gets further into his 30s. With all that said, I say just go for it and try to get a deal done and worry about the rest later. They need to start winning games and he can be a big help in doing that.
Are there any free agents you want the Devils to avoid at all costs?
JM: Nobody really jumps out at me now that Ville Husso is off the market. I don’t think the Devils need to pursue John Klingberg after paying Dougie Hamilton last year, and as much as I like Evander Kane the hockey player, I can do without the extra stuff with Evander Kane. That said, I actually think this year’s free agent class has a lot of useful hockey players that I’d like to see the Devils pursue, provided the costs are reasonable.
AP: I can’t say anyone I absolutely have to say no to. It just depends on the contract. If they overpay someone? Then absolutely. It’s all about the contract.
CF: I imagine Nazem Kadri is going to be paid like the 100-point player he was this year instead of the 50-point player he was before that. At his age, I’d steer clear - but that’s just a money issue for me. Anything under $7M for Kadri would be acceptable, but I have a feeling he’s getting significantly more than that. I don’t think any big spending on defense would be wise, and I would be very unhappy with the team if they signed Evander Kane.
JF: Evander Kane has too many off-ice issues to deal with that his potential on-ice value would likely not be worth it. I think Nichushkin and Gaudreau are coming off such impressive campaigns that they are going to get paid for that instead of what they will more likely do going forward. The same applies for Nazem Kadri, too, now that I think of it. I’m glad the Devils did not go get Ville Husso as he reminds me too much of Scott Darling’s situation, which ended up real bad for Carolina. Lastly, unless Fitzgerald is planning to move one, I do not think the Devils should sign any of the “big name” defensemen hitting the market like Klingberg, Stralman, Leddy, Chiarot, Gudbranson, DeKeyser, and so forth. A depth guy? Sure. But after signing Hamilton last season, Siegenthaler’s emergence, with Severson, Graves, and Smith signed for 2022-23, and the potential additions from Utica and Simon Nemec, there’s literally no need to go out and get someone to play significant minutes. The blueline is full. Anyone of significance on defense signed better lead to someone getting traded.
NP: Hard pass on Evander Kane because of the character questions. Given the number Nazem Kadri is probably going end up at, I’m also probably out there as well. I love Kadri’s game, and he’s exactly the sort of guy the Devils need, but he strikes me as the sort of player that won’t age particularly well at a large number.
SS: Pretty much anyone except Gaudreau that wants more than 3 years. There are probably a few other players I’d make exceptions for if the AAV wasn’t too high, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
BF: Nazem Kadri had an incredible year but I would avoid signing him for what he’s going to command on the market. He just had a career year in his age 31 season that saw his points per game rate jump from 0.57 in 2020-21 to 1.23 last year. I think he’s bound to regress towards the player he was before this season and he’s about to leave his prime years. I just can’t see paying him big money and term working out well for a team that’s not contending. I’d also pass on Evander Kane given his off-ice issues and the fact he’s going to command too much money when he’s bound to be leaving his prime soon.
One Last Big Question
The majority of free agency deals are done on the first day of free agency. That is July 13 this year. Do you think Tom Fitzgerald will make the Devils better as of the morning of July 14?
JF: For his sake, I hope so. Acquiring Vanecek’s rights and his eventual signing does make them better - on paper. So he’s at least heading in the right direction. This needs to be the season where improvement happens on the ice, though.
JM: They’ll be better simply because of the Vanecek trade on draft day. But they have a lot of work to do to be a playoff team. That said, if on July 14th, the Devils have, say, Mason Marchment, Andrew Copp, Jesse Puljujarvi, and/or Ian Cole on the roster while jettisoning some of the dead weight off the roster, they’ll be a far more entertaining watch next season. I do think there are a lot of useful free agents and trade candidates on the market though and I’d like to see the Devils be more aggressive filling the actual holes on this roster aside from goaltending.
AP: They’re already better with the Vanecek deal. So it has to be yes. Even if he gives out an albatross contract, in the first year it probably still makes the Devils a better team, even if in the long run it makes them worse. So, yes.
CF: I think we’ve set ourselves up for disappointment, to some extent. There’s a solid chance Fitz just signs one guy and says that he plans on giving roster spots to younger players like Holtz and Zetterlund. I think this is a good year to start pushing the cap ceiling, though, and I hope Fitzgerald is ready to do that. I don’t know if he’ll survive another losing season.
NP: I think and hope so. For better or for worse, Tom Fitzgerald has to realize that his seat is starting to warm up, and I imagine he’ll look to make a significant signing that moves this rebuild forward in a big way.
SS: The last two times the Devils have “won the offseason” they’ve pooped the bed very quickly into the following season. Maybe if they do nothing they’ll finally take a big step forward. More seriously, free agency is often about short-term fixes and most of the big contracts dealt out on Wednesday will end up being anchors within a couple years. My hope is that Fitzgerald focuses on Gaudreau and otherwise stays clear of the free agent frenzy. There are usually a few good players left after opening day so if the Devils don’t land Gaudreau, they’d be better off conserving that money and going bargain hunting. Or going back to the trade market. Chances are we’ll see a few moves made, but whether or not those moves make the team better - we’ll have to see.
BF: I’m not going to hold out hope that he will pull off something big like a Johnny Gaudreau signing but I think he’ll try to make a series of smaller moves that should help. Perhaps a “mid-tier” free agent signs here or he adds some depth pieces for cover in case some of the young players don’t impress in training camp. I still think if he’s going to upgrade the team this offseason, it’s more likely to come from a trade or two at some point this summer than anything big in free agency. I’m excited to see what happens though.
Again, I want to thank Jared, Alex, Stephen, Chris, Nate, and Brian in this free agency specific roundtable. If you made it this far, then I thank you especially for going through the whole thing. Please feel free to give your take on the questions in the roundtable and comment on our answers in the comments.