The New Jersey Devils had four arbitration hearings yet to be determined among its six restricted free agents that needed to be signed this Summer. It was seven, but the Devils traded Pavel Zacha to Erik Haula. This morning, the Devils took care of business with one of the more important of the six remaining RFAs and remove the need to have a hearing. The New Jersey Devils announced that they have signed goaltender Vitek Vanecek to a three-season contract worth $10.2 million. Per the team’s announcement, Vanecek’s cap hit will be $3.4 million and his salary will not go any higher than $3.75 million.
Vanecek’s rights was acquired by the Devils before the second day of the 2022 NHL Draft began on July 8. He was a pending RFA for Washington, whom also not qualified Ilya Samsonov this month. As I pointed out in my post about the trade, Vanecek was objectively the better goaltender between himself and Samsonov. The Caps ran a 1A/1B tandem and Vanecek posted up the superior overall and 5-on-5 save percentages between the two of them. While some have raised an eyebrow at his not-so-great overall save percentage of 90.8% last season, I will continue to point out that Vanecek’s 92.6% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations was not only very good but among the better in the NHL. Specifically, within the top ten among goalies with at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey played last season at Natural Stat Trick. A percentage that put Vanecek in a rounded-up tie with Frederik Andersen, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Ville Husso. Special teams and non-5-on-5 even strength situations (e.g. overtime, 4-on-4) undercut Vanecek’s numbers last season. However, those situations are much more influenced by variance than 5-on-5. Vanecek should be seen as a capable goaltender and he objectively was really good among his peers in the NHL in the most common situation hockey. Which is exactly what the Devils needed.
Incidentally, the goalies in the top ten for 5-on-5 save percentage all have a cap hit of $4 million (Ilya Sorokin) or higher (maxes out with Vasilevskiy’s $9.5 million) for their respective teams. While those goalies had varying signing situations, it does point to the contract being a great bit of business for the Devils. I expected Vanecek would clear $4 million in averaged accrued value in a contract. He had quality 5-on-5 numbers. He is being signed by an organization he has never played for. The pressure at the position for the organization is clearly on MacKenzie Blackwood; his faltering would make the Devils more reliant on Vanecek - which could be spun into commanding more money. A slightly older Husso was traded earlier that day and signed a fatter contract at three seasons for $14.25 million on July 8. Yes, Vanecek was a RFA and Husso was an UFA but that does not mean a player and/or his agent is going to just accept less money because of that alone. Especially since Husso did not actually hit the market. Likewise, the goalie market was thin this year - which is why the Devils getting Vanecek at the draft was smart - and that means any one at least decent could command more money. I figured Vanecek would seek out something in the $4 to $4.25 million range and get it due to those factors. That he accepted much less than that is great news for the team and their salary cap.
The contract details have yet to be fully clarified (read: trade clauses), but the structure of the contract is also quite favorable for the Devils. There are no signing bonuses in the contract. Vanecek’s base salary will be $3.55 million this year, $3.75 million next season, and - curiously - $2.9 million in the final season. This seems to me that should Vanecek not work out as planned, this is a way to make him more attractive in any future trade. Of course, the plan (and my hope) is that Vanecek over performs this contract. Posing up a 5-on-5 save percentage in the 92% range will do that in short order. If he does over perform it to a degree to price himself out of NJ, they can let him go or move him in the final season as he will be an UFA at the end of the deal. This is a favorable contract from the Devils perspective.
This signing is also great news for what General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has yet to do. Having one less hearing to schedule and worry about actually happening is good. Having one less free agent to sign is good. The goaltender is effectively ready for training camp. With Vanecek coming in for under a $4 million cap hit, there is now just less than $9.6 million to give new deals to Jesper Bratt (who did file for arbitration), Miles Wood (whom the team is taking to arbitration), Tyce Thompson (who also filed for arbitration), Jesper Boqvist, and Fabian Zetterlund. The efforts can go to giving those five new deals.
It will be tight. Should the arbitration hearing happen for Wood, the least he could be awarded is still just under $3 million. I doubt Bratt is going to do the Devils a favor and command a cap hit of much less than $7 million. I also do not think Bratt should do the Devils a favor either after the season he just had. Thompson, Zetterlund, and Boqvist combined will be another $3 million. Only Thompson is ineligible for waivers (last season unless he plays in 64 NHL games), so they all cannot easily go to Utica. You may have figured out that sums up to much more than $9.6 million. Fitzgerald may opt to clear out some cap space - Tomas Tatar? Andreas Johnsson? - to make some additional breathing room. Especially if he thinks about moving, say, Damon Severson for a winger.
Still, I am happy with the business Fitzgerald has done with Vanecek. He secured a goaltender who has out-performed his former partner and any Devils goalie last season. Vanecek is an upgrade at a position of need for the Devils and made with a favorable contract to the team’s short-term and mid-term salary cap. I liked the trade for Vanecek back on July 8. I like it even more knowing the contract total and structure is good for the team. I will always like business being taken care of quickly after an arbitration hiring was filed. This was a very good signing by Fitzgerald and his staff. Now all Vanecek has to do is keep playing well and Blackwood to, hopefully, follow suit.
I like this signing quite a bit. Now I want to know your reaction. What do you think of the Devils signing Vanecek for three seasons with a $3.4 million cap hit? Do you think Vanecek will live up to the contract? Who do you think will be the next RFA to be signed by the Devils? Do you think Fitzgerald will create some more cap space to keep all five players? Or do you think he will make some other kind of moves to finish his major business in the offseason? Please leave your answers and reactions to the Vanecek signing in the comments.