Free agency is always a challenge for all organizations to deal with. It is how a team can improve their roster and address holes in the lineup for the short term. It is often a way for teams to hand out contracts that are either worth too much, last too long, or both to get the players they think will help in the short term. Which is not a guarantee. Still, hundreds of millions of dollars are paid out during the first day of free agency - which is why it is known as Free Agent Frenzy. And the last thing a team wants to be is left out. We’ve discussed it, you’ve discussed it, so now let us look at the New Jersey Devils’ situation with respect to their roster, their cap space, their needs, and who may be out there.
The Day of Unrestricted Free Agency Begins: July 13, 2022
The Time it Begins: Noon (12:00 PM) ET
The General Points to Know About Free Agents: A few key points that are worth recalling ahead of free agency beginning on Wednesday.
- The final say for unrestricted free agents (UFAs) to sign with a team is in the hands of the UFA. In general, they will want to sign with whomever offers the most money. But some UFAs may value the length of the contract (a.k.a. term) over the dollar amount. Others may want a team that is closer to competing, closer to family, or wants to fulfill some kind of desire. Money talks, but the final answer comes from the player and it is up to them.
- Free agency can (and does) get real expensive real fast. When multiple teams are interested in a player, then the cost to acquire them can get much higher. Usually beyond how much the player is worth. Additionally, free agents tend to get paid for what they have done, but not what they will do in the future. Beware of those who are coming off amazing 2021-22 seasons as they may not be able to repeat it in 2022-23 or beyond.
- Typically, the majority of spending on free agents takes place within the first day or two of the free agency period opening up. A big name may opt to wait a little longer, but most of the free agents will be signed fairly quickly. This is to say if your favorite team wants to make a splash in the open market or get some particular types of players, then they need to act fast. This also means you should pay attention to this day among any others this Summer.
- Everything impacts everything when it comes to the roster. The salary cap ceiling for next season is $82.5 million - an increase of $1 million over last season. It is unknown how much the cap would go up in the future - if it does at all. A signing this week could prevent a move next season, or force some additional action later on. This is why a lot of the signings today may be made quickly, but their impact will last much longer than next season.
- Restricted free agents (RFAs) are not bound by this. Teams needed to tender a RFA player with a qualifying offer. If they do, then the team has their exclusive signing rights. If a team does not, then they become UFAs - and not particularly attractive ones since their team did not want to make a basic, routine offer that would keep the player. Some RFAs have arbitration rights, which may be invoked to force a new deal to be made sooner rather than later. Qualifying offers were due yesterday and there were some surprising names that will become UFAs today - if they are not re-signed before then.
- The NHL minimum salary is $750,000 for 2022-23.
Those are six major points about free agency to know ahead of tomorrow’s action. Let us now focus on the Devils.
The Devils’ Salary Cap Situation: As of July 11, 2022 at 6 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have a projected salary cap hit of $57,165,833. This includes $54,915,833 for players on the Devils’ roster (not the Utica or junior roster) and $2.25 million in dead cap space ($2 million for Cory Schneider’s buyout, $250,000 for the recapture penalty from Ilya Kovalchuk’s “retirement.”). The Devils have $25,334,167 million in cap space available. This is the sixth most space available. The Devils are currently $3,834,167 below the salary cap floor, but this will be addressed with their impending RFA signings. The main point is that the Devils have a lot of space to spend a lot of money - although they should be careful in doing so.
The Devils’ Roster Situation: As of July 11, 2022 at 6 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have 9 forwards signed, 5 defensemen signed, and 1 goaltender signed on their main roster. They have 7 forwards, 8 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders signed to their non-roster list - which includes Utica Comets on NHL contracts as well as a player’s junior team. They have 33 players signed out of a maximum of 50 standard player contracts. All 33 count against the 50-contract list. The Devils have some space at each position and much of it will be filled when they re-sign their RFAs.
The Devils’ Restricted Free Agents: Before the 2022 NHL Draft, Tom Fitzgerald stated in his press conference that all of the team’s restricted free agents would be given qualifying offers. Again, a RFA must be tendered a qualifying offer - which is based on the base salary of the final year of a player’s contract - for the team to keep his rights. Fitzgerald made good on his plans. All of the Devils that needed to be qualified have been given qualifying offers - including the newest Devil: goaltender Vitek Vanecek.
Yes, the Devils got a goalie before July 13. They acquired the rights to Vanecek from Washington for picks before the second day of the draft kicked off. Vanecek was a pending RFA for Washington. The Devils needed a goaltender given the uncertain status of Jonathan Bernier and the uncertain performances of Mackenzie Blackwood. Rather than waiting until tomorrow, Fitzgerald made a move to bring in Vanecek into the fold. I think it was a good trade and given that he is a RFA, he will certainly be a Devil. He and the other RFAs will need to be signed.
This is how the salary cap floor will not be an issue. The Devils’ RFAs include Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood (more on him in a bit), Pavel Zacha, Jesper Boqvist, Tyce Thompson, Vitek Vanecek, and Fabian Zetterlund. Anyone with a base salary over a million dollars must be qualified at 100% of the base salary of the last season on their contract. Therefore, using CapFriendly’s qualifying offer calculator, Bratt’s offer is $3.45 million, Wood’s offer is $3.5 million, and Zacha’s offer is $3 million. Those three alone will put the Devils well above the floor and take up a chunk of the Devils’ $25.3 million in cap space even if they signed their offers. Which they will not as they could command more money. Bratt definitely will demand more than $3.45 million given his awesome 2021-22 season. As for the other four, their offers will be 105% of their base salary, so Boqvist, Vanecek, Thompson, and Zetterlund would combine for roughly $3.3 million. And they may command more money too. In total, the 7 RFAs on the Devils could very well take up half of the Devils’ available cap space.
Significant money will be spent on them. As they are qualified, the Devils have the rights to make a deal happen. The big one will be Bratt, as Jared explained back in June. Zacha being retained will not be cheap and that is a problem for someone who has yet to really establish himself as someone worthy of a top-six role or bottom-six with special teams help. Jared wrote about that back in May. A potentially large raise for Vanecek, who knows he is going to join Blackwood as the main tandem in the net for next season, will also be a factor. Those three are also eligible for arbitration, which could force the Devils to make a deal happen in a matter of weeks - which is common and fine. It will still be expensive. Add in keeping Boqvist, Zetterlund, and Thompson will be worth close to a million each and you can see how this adds up. It also fills in the holes at forward as three (Bratt, Zacha, and Wood) are locks for the NHL with Zetterlund, Boqvist, and Thompson having reasonable shots at making it either. It makes the forward lineup of the Devils a bit crowded.
That may be a reason why the Devils may opt to move a forward. Such as Pavel Zacha. Kevin Weekes reported on Sunday night that there are teams interested in the forward. Potentially saving $3+ million in a new contract from Zacha to spend on more consistent, better players would be helpful. Or even to have a little more breathing room after the new deals given out to the other RFAs. Or even to leave a roster spot or two open for a Utica Comet to make the jump such as Alexander Holtz. We shall see if it does come to fruition.
The Miles Wood Situation: Miles Wood has his own situation? Yes. According to Elliotte Friedman last night, the Devils elected to take Wood to salary arbitration. This is unusual. option a team has. Wood’s large qualifying offer plus his 2021-22 season being lost to injury also presented a challenge in terms of what a new contract may look like. This is something Gerard wrote about back in May. Rather than go back and forth, arbitration can force Wood’s hand in terms of accepting a more team-favorable deal. Which would be for less than his $3.5 million qualifying offer. Thanks to people online letting me know, Section 12.3(a) of the NHL Contract Bargaining covers team-elected arbitrations. In subpart (ii), an arbitration can award a ruling no less than 85% of the sum of his salary and bonuses in the final season of his contract. 85% of $3.5 million would be $2.975 million. It does not seem like a lot of savings ($525,000), but given that the Devils could be active tomorrow and need to think about their future roster, every little bit of extra space helps.
Of course, it could blow up in the Devils’ face. If there is an actual hearing in front an arbitrator, then the relationship between the team and Wood could end. The hearings can be cut-throat and cause a lot of friction. Further, the team has to accept the ruling in a team-elected arbitration. If the arbitrator rules more in favor in Wood, then they have a contract they likely do not want and a player who is likely unhappy with them. That is a bad combo. It has become rare for the actual hearing to take place. Given that Wood is coming off a season he mostly missed due to injury, he may be willing to take a cheaper deal for a season and both sides can happily focus on 2022-23. I think that is what will happen.
The Devils’ Internal Unrestricted Free Agents: The Devils’ UFA list is not that impressive. There is P.K. Subban, followed by Jimmy Vesey, Mason Geertsen, Colton White, Jon Gillies, and Andrew Hammond among NHL players. Among the non-roster UFAs are AHL veterans Chase De Leo, A.J. Greer, Frederik Gauthier, and Brian Flynn. Given that the Devils would add 5-6 forwards back just from RFA signings, there is no need to have Vesey or Geertsen return. The awful goaltending performances of last season mean that Gillies and Hammond should not return.
The Utica veteran forwards were useful in Utica and it may be worth keeping them around; but they would need to be interested in returning and it is common for those kinds of players to look elsewhere for a potential opportunity. There could be an argument for keeping Subban on a cheap deal or retaining White just for defensive depth. However, the Devils also have had Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, and Nikita Okhotiuk cooking in the AHL for a while. They may opt to leave some room for them.
This a lot to say that we may not see any of these guys return except for maybe some of those four guys in Utica.
The Devils’ Needs: The Devils addressed their goaltending with trading for Vanecek’s rights. Fitzgerald has stated he is content with a Vanecek-Blackwood tandem. You can cross off goaltending as a need. Unless management wants a veteran #3 option instead of calling up Nico Daws or picking someone from waivers, I do not think they will sign anyone. So what else is there?
- Depth defenseman to replace Subban, provide veteran option in case Bahl, Walsh, and/or Okhotiuk are not ready for the jump to regular hockey in the NHL.
- Wingers. Namely to improve upon Zacha, Andreas Johnsson, Tomas Tatar, Janne Kuokkanen - all three who have shown to be “limited” at that role. Some want a scoring winger, others want someone with more strength to play off Nico Hischier and/or Jack Hughes.
- Players to facilitate future moves.
For a team that missed the postseason by 30+ points, the list of needs does seem a bit short. The Devils are in a unique position where they only have 3 players signed long-term. Seriously, only Dougie Hamilton, Hughes, and Hischier are currently signed beyond the 2023-24 season. This means the Devils can re-structure their roster a lot after next season - which depends on what they do this year.
The immediate need on defense is to replace Subban if he is not kept and add some depth so the #6 - #8 options on the blueline are rookies who have had just handfuls of NHL experience. The slighly-longer term need is to figure out what to do with the futures of Ty Smith, Damon Severson, and Ryan Graves. The latter two are UFAs after next season and Smith’s awful 2021-22 season may justify the Devils wanting to move on if they do not think they can salvage him. I think they absolutely can and they should try. However, the Devils may need to plan for life after Severson and Graves beyond throwing Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec in to the NHL in October 2023 (although if they are ready...). If the Devils go out and sign a significant defenseman tomorrow, then you may want to expect someone on the blueline to be moved.
Winger is a more problematic and pressing issue for the Devils. A quick summary of them last season: Bratt was amazing. Dawson Mercer has looked fine at wing last season, although he started off as a center. Yegor Sharangovich rebounded from a rough, cold start to 2021-22. As much as I liked the acquisitions of Andreas Johnsson and Tomas Tatar, both have not really lived up to expectations to make the Devils stronger at those positions. Johnsson was hot to start last season and cooled off. Tatar just struggled. Good underlying numbers by both, but they did not reach the surface. Janne Kuokkanen took a real step back last season, which also did not help. Zacha remained an inconsistent player where I remain confused where he should be on this lineup. Miles Wood was hurt all season, Nathan Bastian proved to be an OK fourth-liner, and Fabian Zetterlund had an awesome April amid a dreary end of season. This is a team that really could use more successful wingers.
As much as I know Holtz wants to make the team and others from Utica will put up a fight, the Devils could splash some cash to get winger to beef up that end of the lineup. The question is what type? Do they go after someone with a scoring pedigree to help finish plays from Hischier and Hughes as well as set them up? Do they go after someone bigger, stronger, and tougher to possibly complement Hischier, Hughes, Mercer, and Bratt? They can go in either direction. I would anticipate that if the Devils do spend a lot tomorrow and beyond, then it would be at this position.
Who Is Available?: Let us go by position, which had some interesting names added due to some surprising RFAs who were not qualified. There also have been some developments that have reduced/added to the pool.
Goaltender, again, is not really a need as Fitzgerald has committed to Vanecek/Blackwood. That stated, Ilya Samsonov - Washington’s other goalie - was not qualified yesterday so he is a free agent. (And Phoenix Copley is also a free agent. Who is in your net, Washington?) Darcy Kuemper has decided to hit the market after Colorado acquired Alexandar Georgiev. Jack Campbell is also expected to hit free agency too. Those two are the main names at a position that more teams need than there are capable names available. This explains why Toronto worked to acquire Matt Murray. Yes, Matt Murray. In 2022. Not 2017. I am glad that Fitzgerald opted to get Vanecek when he did instead of being left to talking himself into, say, Martin Jones.
Defense features no shortage of veterans who both played quite a bit last season (e.g. Ben Chiarot, Anton Stralman, Justin Braun, Thomas Hickey, Calvin De Haan, Josh Manson) and played more in a depth role (e.g. Justin Schultz, Jack Johnson, Troy Stecher, Jan Rutta). The biggest name of the bunch will be John Klingberg. The Devils do not need to go big, especially after signing Hamilton last year. So while names like Mark Pysyk and Michael Stone will not be exciting, they could be a depth replacement for Subban while also not needing to throw a Comet into the fire right away in the Fall.
For forwards, some of the big names already signed deals. Filip Forsberg will be in Nashville for eight more seasons. Valeri Nichushukin came off the market yesterday with an 8 year deal worth about $6.1 million in cap hit to stay in Denver. There were some surprising news, such as unqualified RFAs including the likes of Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Ondrej Kase, and Sonny Milano. The big news from yesterday was Penguins legend Evgeni Malkin stating he will test free agency tomorrow.
For those who want the Devils to swing big and get a premium scoring winger, the allure of Johnny Gaudreau is strong. He put up 40 goals and 115 points last season and was a scoring force for Calgary. The New Jersey native is both a winger and someone can do it all on offense. He will not come cheap, he may not be able to repeat his 2021-22 campaign, but he should be able to be massive producer for several seasons to come. Nazem Kadri, who put up 87 points last season, will also be in demand for his scoring touch although some Devils fans may covet him more for his aggressiveness. Kadri’s teammate, Andre Burakovsky, is younger, a fairly productive player, quite large with a 6’3” frame, and can play both wings. That is another “high end” option. Veteran scorers like Claude Giroux, David Perron, and, yes, even Malkin, have plenty left in the tank and already know what it is like to play in both the division and without being the main focus at forward. They would not be the worst options to splash cash on. Although, I would be more concerned with Malkin as he is usually out with injury for a significant part of the season - but the parts he is healthy for have been sensational. The point is that it is a little more than Gaudreau or bust.
If you prefer the Devils go after wingers who can play more in the middle of the lineup and/or be more physical and aggressive, then there are multiple options to be had as well. Kadri would fit that mold and arguably Burakovsky would as well. Ryan Strome and Dylan Strome would also fit the bills as both are large forwards who can put up a good amount of points to justify prime minutes. Mason Marchment and Nino Neiderreiter are bigger and while they are coming off different seasons - a hot one for Marchment, a cooler one for Neiderreiter - both would meet the desired role of beefy winger who can help produce on a line with Hughes or Hischier. Evander Kane also has that skillset, although his off-ice issues plus his potentially large contract demands (Remember: his previous contract that was terminated was a $7 million/season deal.) mean I cannot recommend him too highly. Andrew Copp, Vincent Trocheck, Ilya Mikheyev, and Ondrej Palat are not big but work very hard to provide plenty of contributions on and off the puck. These are just the main names I pointed out, there are plenty more, albeit depth options for wingers to improve the Devils at either flank (like the now available Milano or Kase).
The Reading List: Amid our prospect profiles from May until July, Jared and Gerard wrote about specific RFAs on the Devils and UFAs from other teams. While not an exhaustive list of all options, I would recommend checking them out just to get a sense of what to consider with some of the more notable names hitting the market (or were hitting the market before signing before tomorrow).
- RFA profiles: Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist
- UFA Preview: Mason Marchment & Ben Chiarot
- UFA Preview: Nino Neiderreiter & Vincent Trocheck
- UFA Preview: Andrew Copp & Justin Braun
- UFA Preview: Ilya Mikheyev & Ilya Lyubushkin
- UFA Preview: Ondrej Palat & Nick Paul (Note: Paul re-signed with Tampa Bay)
- UFA Preview: Valeri Nichushkin & Andre Burakovsky (Note: Nichushkin re-signed yesterday with Colorado)
- UFA Preview: Johnny Gaudreau & Erik Gudbranson
- UFA Preview: Rickard Rakell & Evan Rodrigues
- Goaltending Roundup - which is now obsolete with the Vanecek acquisition, but credit to Jared and Gerard for identifying Vanecek as a RFA that may be available. And Samsonov too, although I don’t think they guessed on both leaving D.C. Also: Detroit getting Ville Husso, M-A Fleury staying in Minnesota, Georgiev being dealt and signing in Colorado. I’m glad the Devils are not going into tomorrow with a need to sign a goaltender.
The 2023 Situation So Far: To close out this preview, I do want to highlight that the 2023 Offseason will require more decisions to be made that could be impacted by what happens starting tomorrow. The following is what we know now:
- Mackenzie Blackwood’s contract ends. He would be a RFA. The bigger question is whether he will play well enough to warrant a new contract. Or even to stay in New Jersey. No pressure. Vanecek’s upcoming contract may be a tell.
- The defense could really open up and look very different by Fall 2023. This coming season is the last season for Ty Smith, Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, and Damon Severson. Smith and Siegenthaler would be RFAs and will likely get raises. Graves and Severson would be UFAs. Management needs to decide sooner rather than later what to do with Graves and Severson.
- Notable ELC’s ending: Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh. Smith needs to be salvaged. Bahl and Walsh really should be pushing for a NHL job now.
- Tatar and Johnsson are pending UFAs. All the more reason for the Devils to get wingers this week and try to move either soon.
- Pending RFAs at forward include Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod. Keeping them may not be too expensive; I could see Sharangovich demanding quite a bit if he has a big season. With the forwards in Utica, I could see the Devils move on from the others. Fun fact: All four are arbitration eligible.
- Regardless if he plays or not, Jonathan Bernier becomes an UFA after this coming season.
The good news is that the Devils could re-structure their roster significantly after this coming season. Which may be needed if 2022-23 is another lost season. Which would likely mean a new GM for Rebuild 3.0 and another wasted season of Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Mercer, and so forth. So let us not hope that happens. Still, the decisions made this week and with the RFAs will impact how much the Devils could do next season. This is mainly why the Devils could offer a big contract to a free agent like Gaudreau, and a big extension to Bratt, but they should probably keep Bratt and be a little more frugal elsewhere. There is no real need to rob next year’s Devils to pay for this year’s choices.
The Plan Here for Free Agency Frenzy: We will have an open post for the day to discuss what the Devils and 31 other teams do tomorrow. We will make posts as the Devils do things. I will try to have a summary of the first day of action in the evening. Then we are in offseason mode. This is not to say we will be stopping or taking a break. Just that the main events of the 2022 NHL Offseason will be over and done with. There will be other things to look for such as a re-scheduled World Junior Championships in August as well as other discussions about who should be in the lineup for 2022-23.
Thank You: Please feel free to discuss what you want the Devils to do, what what the Devils really need to do, what you think the Devils will actually do, and what they should not do in this year’s free agency in the comments. Thank you for reading this preview of 2022’s Free Agency Frenzy.