I get it, you’re sick of the losing. So am I. Even so, do we think that the playoffs are a realistic goal for the franchise this season, or is the less lofty goal of playing competitive games down the stretch enough of a step forward to satisfy us Devil’s fans for this upcoming season? I don’t know if I can answer that question yet for myself, so I am curious as to what the rest of you think. On one hand, after 7 years of rebuilding, including a false-start in the middle of everything, it is reasonable to expect that the Devils should be climbing out of this mess by now or (more) heads should start rolling. On the other hand, the Devils are coming off a season where they finished with the fifth worst point total in the entire league, mostly due to bad goaltending, and their biggest move in net was to trade for a guy from Washington, another team that had goaltending as one of their big weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong, I actually think the moves Fitzgerald made in net are entirely reasonable in context of what all was available, but it’s not like opposing coaches and forwards are lying awake at night game-planning for how they’ll defeat the tandem of Vitek Vanicek and MacKenzie Blackwood.
But, suppose we assume the Devils put together a competent power play with new assistant Andrew Burnette in charge, and that the goaltending regresses to the mean, and that the Devils don’t have horrible injury luck. Is that enough to make up the ground on the other teams in the Metro or competing for the wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference? Washington, NYI, and Boston may be vulnerable, but I have a hard time counting them out completely. And while I would put the Devils young talent (particularly if you count Holtz, L. Hughes, and Nemec) favorably against that of Detroit, Ottawa, Columbus, and Buffalo long-term, I’m not confident they are better than any of those teams next season. So while I’m likely more optimistic than any oddsmaker will be of the Devils playoff chances this coming season, the reality is that we are more likely than not to be back here in May, hoping for just one last lucky bounce of the lottery balls.
The good news is that if the Devils do end up missing the playoffs again, they will be in a pretty good spot come next trade deadline. With a plethora of expiring contracts, the Devils should be able to get some good assets back that they can then use to either keep stocking up the prospect cupboard (you can never have too many good players on ELCs) or package in another trade to add a good, young roster player.
A quick perusal of the Devils Capfriendly page shows that the team has
11 12 roster players with contracts that expire at the end of the 2022-23 season. Of these 12 contracts, 8 are for forwards, 2 are for defenseman, and the remaining 2 for goaltenders MacKenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier. Obviously, most of these players won’t be traded. Whether due to lack of interest, salary/cap hit, the Devils trying to retain said player, or simply because you can’t feasibly trade half of your NHL roster, the majority of these players will likely finish their current contract in New Jersey. But, there are also a good number of players that should attract interest from other clubs if the Devils season does go down the tubes.
The goaltending position is probably the easiest to sort out. Bernier’s trade value depends on him actually getting and staying healthy at some point this season, not to mention actually performing. Even then, a team might need the Devils to eat some of the cap hit, because 4+ million is a lot for what would presumably be a backup goalie. All of this is to say that Bernier likely isn’t going anywhere. That means at some point the Devils could be carrying 3 goalies, but seeing as they went through about 8 of them last year, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Similarly, Blackwood has to stay healthy for anyone to actually be interested in trading for him. And much like with Bernier, I find it unlikely Blackwood is actually traded, even if it looked like things were headed that direction last season. If Blackwood has a bounce back season the Devils likely won’t be in a position where they’d look to trade him. If he’s pedestrian or bad, I doubt he’ll attract much interest.
The blue-line is the most interesting position in my mind. It’s where the Devils could really get some value back for their expiring players. Ryan Graves plays the type of style that GMs still, somehow, overvalue. Don’t get me wrong, Graves is a solid player and is coming off a season where he was above 50% shot share and xGF% (via Natural Stattrick) and had a GAR value of 4.7 and xGAR value of 4.8 (GAR and xGAR via Evolving Hockey). I just don’t think that has anything to do with why other GMs will want him. All this is to say that while Graves has real actual value as a hockey player, if he has another good season he’ll probably be worth even more than he should simply because GMs are biased and view Graves being a large man as inherently valuable. With a quality season out of Graves, the Devils could probably get back at least what they gave up to get the player. Whether they will choose to go that direction is another matter. The left side of the defense isn’t quite as stacked as the right-side. Luke Hughes may be on the way, but there’s no guarantee he’ll come in and immediately be ready for top-4 minutes. And even if he is, he is a very different player from Graves. I could see the Devils GM wanting to keep Graves in the fold. That brings us to Severson. Since Gerard recently covered this topic, I won’t go into depth here. But suffice it to say that unless the Devils are willing to disregard handedness, Severson is likely the odd man out given his age, the contract he will likely want, and the recent moves on the Devils blue-line. If the Devils do move him, I anticipate that he will go for slightly less than he is worth. While Severson has the size NHL teams covet, and doesn’t shy away from physical play, it isn’t a hallmark of his game. I tend to think this, in combination with the lack of elite production and those major brain farts he can be prone to making a few times a season will lead to him going for below what he should.
Finally, we come to the forwards. Before I get into it, understand that most of this was written before Bratt’s new contract. Since any competent GM would avoid arbitration with one of his best young players, by, you know, actually offering a long-term deal at fair value, I fully anticipated this situation to be resolved prior to Wednesday. Fortunately, they didn’t let it get to contract court, but still chose to kick the can down the road a year. I still worry that Fitzgerald strongly undervalues his best winger and we are doomed to either see the player dealt for significantly less than what he is worth in the next 12 months or we will have to do this all over again next summer and Bratt will force his way to UFA status with another 1 year deal. Interlude over.
I will split this group into two categories. First, lets look at the other four forwards set to become RFAs in 2023. These are as follows: Sharangovich, Boqvist, McLeod, and Bastian. We should expect the Devils to retain 3 of these players. The McLeod situation is another dark cloud looming over everything and without minimizing the seriousness of the alleged Hockey Canada stuff, it is questionable whether or not McLeod really deserves a roster spot based on his on-ice performance last season. I don’t think McLeod gets dealt but I also don’t expect him to get another contract from New Jersey. As for the other three, this season will be telling in regards to what their futures hold. Bastian is a solid 4th line player, and his xDef GAR (again via Evolving Hockey), was second on the team only to Siegenthaler. He is still far from irreplaceable and if another team really wants to trade for him, I don’t see the Devils being completely opposed to such a move. Boqvist and Sharangovich are more wild-cards to me. Sharangovich fits nicely alongside Hughes and his production in his first two seasons indicates he is an excellent goal-scoring winger. However, if the Devils GM undervalues him the way he has other late-round scoring wingers, the team may choose to deal him for Mason Geertsen 2.0 or something. Finally, that leaves Boqvist, who probably has the most at stake of the forwards I will cover today. He hasn’t established himself yet as a full-time NHLer, and it’s not entirely clear what his role on the team will be going forward. Is he a future 3rd line center? A top-6 winger? A breakout season along with an injury or poor performance by another skater could put him in the top-6, or he could be in and out of the line-up like last season. Both are realistic scenarios, but either way, if Boqvist is dealt I anticipate it would be either a ‘change of scenery’ type of move or part of a larger trade.
That leaves the three 2023 UFA forwards on the Devils payroll this season. Tomas Tatar has a history of producing at a top-6 level and slight bounce-back from last season should make him a valuable commodity. However, his cap hit, and the fact that he has bounced around as much as he has, despite his production and underlying numbers, makes me think he will need quite the season to garner much deadline interest. Haula is another story. Teams are always looking for centers, especially when they are strong in the face-off circle. Combine this with a fairly reasonable cap hit, and I think Huala could fetch a 3rd rounder or asset of similar value with a strong season. That leaves Andreas Johnsson. Johnsson has been mostly a disappointment in his tenure in New Jersey. In this case, I think a trade is very plausible, but in more of a cap dump sense than a target for a contender looking to strengthen their line-up for the playoffs.
Ultimately, I hope we don’t have to think about this stuff anytime in the near future. That the Devils will come out strong out of the gait and never look back. That any trades the Devils make are to either make room for their own young talent or to shore up an area of weakness for their own playoff run. Yet, I think I’ll need to see it to believe it at this point. Do you think that my assessments of the Devils 2022-23 free agents is accurate, or did I miss the mark with anyone? If the Devils do sell at the deadline who do you think gets moved and who stays? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.