It has now been a week since the free agent market opened, and although the Devils made several moves to improve their team, I am left wondering if it is enough to make a significant impact in their position in the standings. Like many other fans, I am also curious as to whether or not Fitzgerald is done making moves this offseason. The Metro division doesn’t have the heavy hitters that the Atlantic does with the Florida teams Toronto, and Boston, but the division still boasted four 100 point teams last season, and that doesn’t include the Islanders, who previously went to two straight conference finals. The good news is that the front office has correctly identified and addressed their needs as an organization, from the goaltending position to the power play coach, most of the boxes have been checked. But if they want to make up ground from last season, they need those changes to be significant improvements, not more question marks. While I am confident that the defense is much better than last year’s version, it isn’t hard to envision a scenario where a tandem of Vanicek and Blackwood is a complete disaster. What I am most interested in talking about today however, is the forward position.
The Devils have made two significant moves at forward. First, they traded Pavel Zacha for Erik Huala, moving on from a player with a lot of talent but who never really put things together on an even semi-consistent basis. This move, along with Fitzgerald’s comments after the deal, help to clarify a few things, like the center position for the top 9, and that the Devils see Mercer as a top-6 winger for next season. The second move they made was signing Ondrej Palat to a 5-year deal with an AAV of $6 million. Like most Devils fans, I really like the player, but am not a big fan of the contract. This deal is about $1 million too high and 2 years too long for my taste, and the contract structure makes it difficult to get out from under this deal if it goes south (which it likely will at some point). On the other hand, it’s probably what had to happen to lure a player of his caliber to a team that finished near the bottom of the league standings. Palat is a versatile forward who can bolster the top-6 and adds championship experience and veteran leadership to the table (for whatever that’s worth). He’s also 31 and has exactly one 20+ goal season to his name. In a vacuum I love the addition of Palat, but his age, contract and let’s be honest, the sour taste of losing out on Gaudreau, thus making the Palat signing seem reactionary, make this a B- type of signing for me. Together, the two moves definitely improve the Devils forward group, but by how much is still a question.
The answer to this question will primarily depend on the development and progression of the Devils young forwards. Players like Hischier, Bratt, Sharangovich, Zetterlund, and Boqvist are in or just entering their prime and will need to maintain or improve on last season. Mercer, Holtz, and Hughes are at an age where further growth is expected, particularly for the former two players. Not all of these players will take steps forward next season, and some of them may even regress slightly, but for the Devils to make strides and no longer be a bottom feeder they need the sum of the contributions from these players to be more than it was last season. That doesn’t just mean they need to produce more offense, it means they need to be better overall. Whether or not that comes via defensive contributions, more offense, or a combination of the two is largely irrelevant. Maybe the additions of veterans like Huala and Palat will help some of these players round out their games; at least I’m sure that that’ll be one of the narratives if they do take a step forward.
Much like last season, there should also be some good competition for roster spots and playing time this season. Based on Fitzgerald’s comments, I think we can expect the following players to make up the Devils top-6 next season (provided Bratt is signed to an extension): Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Palat, Sharangovich, and Mercer. After this, there are about 10-11 other forwards fighting for 6 roster spots. Certainly some good motivation for these players to have a strong offseason and come into the season ready to go. This means that Fitzgerald could very well be done adding to this roster. As it is, at least one forward who should make the roster is going to be playing in Utica or for a different team come October. I’d be very surprised if one of Johnsson or Tatar aren’t moved to make some space for Bratt’s new contract. Overall, I like this forward group and think if anything it’s probably under-rated because players like Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier don’t get the respect they deserve. I think Mercer, even though he struggled at times last year showed the flashes of skill and smarts that I think demonstrate his potential to develop into an excellent hockey player within the next couple seasons. And if Holtz makes the team and starts putting the puck in the net, the Devils won’t really need anything else up front. They’ll have one of the youngest, most talented top-6 forward groups in the league.
Even so, it is hard to imagine that Fitzgerald is sitting comfortably on his throne. He went after Gaudreau for a reason, after all. There were a lot of ifs, I thinks, and mights in that last paragraph. In the last couple off-seasons, he has made aggressive moves to speed up the timeline of the Devils rebuild. I don’t fault him for this approach. I liked the Hamilton signing and I liked him going after Gaudreau, even if he missed on the latter. But does the same man have the patience to now wait for Holtz and Mercer to develop, knowing that that might not happen for another couple seasons? I don’t know that Fitzgerald even has another couple seasons as GM without a significantly better year than the last one. And to me, signing a player like Palat is a move you make when you feel you are only a player or two away. While I tend to believe a large portion of the Devils issues could be fixed with better goaltending/defense, it’s not like signing Vanicek and John Marino has me running out to buy a mission accomplished banner.
So where does this leave us?
For me, it’s with a lukewarm feeling of, “well, I guess this is fine. It could work out well.” But after a decade of looking up at mediocrity I’d be lying if I said I’m satisfied with the current roster. I want more than this, even if it takes some significant roster reconstruction to get there. But even though I hope Fitzgerald has his sights on acquiring another Calgary forward, at this point I am not convinced it will happen. And if we look at the roster in isolation, removing all of the baggage us Devils fans have been lugging around, objectively I think that’s a reasonable path to take. I’ll just need the rest of the offseason to convince myself to accept it.
What are your thoughts on the Devils moves up front? Are you satisfied with the Palat signing and the Zacha for Huala trade? Do you think Fitzgerald has another big move up his sleeve or is he just going to sign the remainder of the Devils RFAs and then hit the beach. If you do think he should make another move up front what would you like to see him do? What would a reasonable package be for Matthew Tkachuk? Leave your thoughts below and thank you for reading!