After years of hovering far from the NHL’s salary cap ceiling, the New Jersey Devils finally appear to be a team poised to have to consider the implications of the NHL’s upper salary limit. As it stands, for the 2022-23 season, the Devils (per CapFriendly) are about $8.7M from the cap ceiling with 20 contracts on the books. At a minimum, the Devils have two significant RFA deals to sign remaining to add to their cap number, most crucially Jesper Bratt but also Miles Wood. Given the type of dollars that Bratt figures to command, those two contracts are likely to push the Devils near or over the upper limit in the absence of other moves offloading salary.
Even with that state of affairs, the Devils are unlikely to have much of an issue handling the cap this season. That is because Jonathan Bernier probably will not see the ice any time soon and will thus be eligible for long term injured reserve, giving the Devils an extra $4.125M of potential room over the upper limit. Barring a big add to the roster, the 2022-23 cap seems easy to navigate. Whether it’s a good thing for a team that finished 37 points out of the playoffs being pretty close to capped out with Ondrej Palat being their biggest add, well, that’s a different debate, but from a roster management perspective, anything short of an out-of-nowhere add of someone like Nazem Kadri or John Klingberg and the team should be able to comfortably navigate the cap ceiling.
Given the Devils’ age and the theoretical window of contention not arriving until seasons beyond this one, the cap in 2022-23 is not really the concern. Given their proximity to the cap right now, though, what do things look like cap-wise in upcoming seasons for the Devils? The good news is that the Devils have a lot of contracts coming off the books next offseason. The less good news is that some of those contracts coming off the books will be due for raises in 2023 (most notably Jonas Siegenthaler and Yegor Sharangovich if they remain on their current trajectory) and the Devils will have approximately 50% of their cap tied up in six contracts, assuming they are able to ink Bratt long term this offseason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as that group is performing, but the Devils are reaching the stage where the cap is going to be a much more present concern.
Here are the contracts on the books above the buriable limit and their AAV numbers for the 2023-24 season:
- Jack Hughes — $8.0M
- Nico Hischier — $7.25M
- Ondrej Palat — $6.0M
- Dougie Hamilton — $9.0M
- John Marino — $4.4M
- Brendan Smith — $1.1M
- Vitek Vanecek — $3.4M
Add in the probable ~$7M for Jesper Bratt if the Devils get him locked up and that amounts to $46M on the cap with everyone but Smith and Vanecek locked in through at least 2026-27. Again, having your young stars locked into pretty reasonable contracts is hard to spin as a bad thing, the Devils will just need to become more mindful of where they are spending their money, especially as more players advance past their ELCs in the coming years.
As far as 2023-24 goes, the Devils do have a bunch of money coming off the books in the 2023 offseason, including the contracts for Tomas Tatar ($4.5M), Andreas Johnsson ($3.4M), Damon Severson ($4.167M), Mackenzie Blackwood ($2.8M), and Ryan Graves ($3.167M). The flat cap that has been in place for the past few years will continue to creep up, potentially rising by around $2M next year after finally nudging upward by $1M this offseason. A big jump won’t happen until perhaps 2025, once players have paid back debts they accrued to the owners during the pandemic seasons. Luckily for the Devils, though, many of the potentially big ELC expirations for their upcoming top prospects like Simon Nemec, Luke Hughes, and Alexander Holtz won’t hit until at least 2025, so the timing of that potential jump works in their favor.
So, for next season the Devils seem like they will have about $36M in cap space to fill as many as 15 roster spots after accounting for the dead money — the Devils will still be dealing with about $2.5M in dead cap from the Cory Schneider and Janne Kuokkanen buyouts as well as the Kovalchuk recapture penalty. Figuring in the fact that a number of those spots will probably be occupied by ELCs, it’s not quite as tight as it sounds, but the team will have to be smart with their dollars. A few ill-advised $3-5M AAV deals can make things difficult in a hurry. A bounce-back from Dougie Hamilton and some strong years from Ondrej Palat are also fairly critical to the Devils being able to compete with their current salary structure in the coming years.
What does this look into the Devils’ cap future tell us? First off is that their days of being a team near the bottom of the league in salary are likely at an end for the foreseeable future. Given the contracts they now have on the books, it would be tough to fill a roster otherwise. We can also see that they have probably done well for themselves with deals like Jack Hughes’ and Nico Hischier’s stretching into the late 2020s, keeping some flexibility to add support pieces around them. Taking the 5-year view, the 2025 and 2026 offseasons will likely be critical turning points with contracts like Palat and Hamilton starting to age (possibly less than gracefully) and deals for players like Nemec and Hughes coming due. The Devils will have some flexibility to work the cap going forward, and as we see frequently in this league, offloading bad deals is certainly not an impossibility, but the management team will have a crucial few years of cap management upcoming if the team’s contention window is destined to open sometime in the next few seasons.