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A Very Early Look at the 2023 New Jersey Devils Free Agents

The New Jersey Devils have plenty of decisions to make in 2023 regarding their pending unrestricted and restricted free agents. From Jesper Bratt to Mason Geertsen, this post goes over all of them with initial takes on what the Devils should consider doing with them.

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils
Jesper Bratt is going to get Paid.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Apologies for the later than usual post as this thing called Life got in the way. And this is a post that I was planning to have up either later this week or next week. It is a new year and, before you know it, the NHL Trade Deadline is going to come up. It is time for NHL teams, including the New Jersey Devils, to get a little more serious about what to do with their pending free agents.

It is true that it is not even the halfway mark of the season. That is very soon; for the Devils, their 41st game will be next Friday at Anaheim. Yet, I do not think the next five games is going to change a whole lot of the picture for this post. We know the salary cap is expected to rise by a million for a ceiling of $83.5 million next season. We know from CapFriendly who on the Devils will need new deals this Summer. We know the Trade Deadline is on March 3, which is just over two months away. We know who is the biggest name up for a new contract is on the Devils (hint: he is in the headline photo). Let us consider the pending free agents of the Devils today.

The Utica Comets Up for New Deals

Minor league players do take NHL contracts and, therefore, take up space on the 50 contract limit for each NHL team. Most are prospects on entry level contracts and second contracts. Some are AHL veterans or tweeners between the two leagues who want the NHL two-way contract in order to agree to play mostly in the minors and hope they get a shot at the show. This is the least interesting group, so let us go over it quickly.

Pending RFAs (4): Reilly Walsh, Aarne Talvitie, Jack Dugan, Jeremy Groleau

Pending UFAs (5): Andreas Johnsson, Robbie Russo, Brian Pinho, Joseph Gambardella, Mason Geertsen

I would be shocked if any of the pending unrestricted free agents return. Johnsson’s NHL career has absolutely stalled out in New Jersey. He has already cleared waivers twice in demotions with no one claiming him or his $3.4 million cap hit. When he was called up, he did next to nothing. I cannot see him returning. Russo, Pinho, and Gambardella have been vets to support the Comets with Pinho being the most successful with eight goals and 18 points so far. However, these players tend to be cycled and replaced by other AHL vets so I would not be surprised if that happens to them. Geertsen is Geertsen and somehow even became dumber in the AHL. No more.

The restricted free agent group is a little more interesting. Walsh, Talvitie, and Groleau are all at the end of their entry level contracts. Walsh, Talvitie, and Dugan are eligible for arbitration. RFAs typically get re-signed at this level as to see what more they can do.

However, Walsh has clearly been passed by Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk in the depth chart. Bahl and Okhotiuk were called up to replace John Marino and Ryan Graves when they were hurt and veteran AHL defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon was called up as a spare for them. Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes are waiting in the wings, so to speak. Walsh Walsh has played all of one NHL game; unless he glows up and gets some more NHL time, I cannot see him really breaking through. Re-signed for more action with the Comets, sure, but his time as someone for the future may be running out in New Jersey.

And Walsh is the best of those four. Talvitie really has not blossomed in Utica. Dugan was an interesting pick up but with five goals, fourteen points, and 37 shots on net in 26 games with Utica, I am not seeing how that could translate to the NHL. Or why he would get a call up ahead of Nolan Foote or Graeme Clarke or Tyce Thompson (who is in the NHL now). Groleau has at least spent his season so far with Utica, but with 14 games played, he is even further down the defensemen depth chart.

Basically, this group of free agents is uninteresting with respect to New Jersey. Next year will be far more interesting with both goalies - Akira Schmid and Nico Daws - Clarke, and Foote all need new deals.

Pending UFA New Jersey Devils for 2023

The Devils have six pending unrestricted free agents on the books. This means when July 1, 2023 comes, they will be able to sign a contract with anyone else if the Devils do not lock them up. This makes them prime targets for trade rumors and, occasionally, actual trades. I will go over each from the least interesting to the most interesting in my view.

Jonathan Bernier (Goaltender, $4.125 million cap hit, $4.65 million salary): Bernier has been on long term injured reserve all season. There was a time in early November when it seemed like a return was coming. He was practicing with the team. He was skating. He went on the Devils’ first road trip into Western Canada. Then nothing. No appearances at practice. No trips with the squad. No word of him skating. Whether he had a setback or not, I cannot say. But all signs are not looking good for a comeback from the 34-year old goaltender this season. With the (possible) emergence of Akira Schmid, the need for Bernier to return is a lot less than it once was. I also cannot see any team taking him in a trade this season. I think the Devils let him walk and hope he is able to play somewhere, anywhere, in 2023-24.

Erik Haula (Center/Winger, $2.375 million cap hit, $2.5 million salary): Ah, Erik Haula. The return from the Pavel Zacha trade in 2022. The source of a lot of frustration from the People Who Matter as he has been tethered to Jack Hughes and has all of two goals for it. He is out of the Zero Goal Club but has not went far from it. When Haula takes a shift in 5-on-5, the Devils have been quite good - but not as good as when Hughes or Jesper Bratt take one (or the next guy on this list). For all of the lamenting that he is there just to take draws for Hughes, Haula is currently the team’s best winner at draws at 56.4%. However, faceoffs are not that valuable - Michael McLeod is also good at them and he’s McLeod - and it is almost difficult to understand that Haula has fewer than half of the even strength points (13) than Hughes (29) despite playing so much together. Haula could (should) end up deeper in the lineup when Ondrej Palat returns and that role may be more suitable for his skills. Do the Devils move on from Haula? Maybe. I do not see them trading him given the Devils have something to play for and Haula, for all of his lack of production, does have use. He is also turning 32 and so he does not fit in a long-term picture of this season. I could see the Devils re-signing him for a season until they have a similar or better center option ready to take his spot. But I would not be surprised if this season is Haula’s only season with the Devils.

Miles Wood (Left Winger, $3.2 million cap hit and salary): Miles Wood missed nearly all of last season with a hip injury. Arbitration was filed and a one-season deal was agreed upon to see what he could do. The good news is that Wood is very much the same player he was before. He can skate real fast in chasing pucks, he is unafraid to shoot from everywhere, and he can get “gritty.” The bad news is that Wood is very much the same player he was before. Wood does not help much on defense or off the puck. Wood fits really poorly in a power play set-up as he cannot be in motion. Any forward line with Wood pretty much has to play dump-and-chase - something the other Devils forward lines do not primarily do. Wood is prone to taking stupid penalties along with drawing them. Wood excited many with six goals and eleven points by mid-November. He has since scored one (1) goals and had four (4) assists since then. Which is five points over his last 20 games. Oh, and he is just ahead of McLeod, two games of Johnsson, and two games of Thompson in on-ice rates in 5-on-5.

Wood is a popular player in New Jersey. There are many of the People Who Matter that like Miles Wood and what he represents. I can already forsee the comments section to this post. That Wood has heart. That Wood is a leader. That Wood is sick of losing (the Devils lost the game after that spiel). That Wood is missing Nathan Bastian (more on him in a bit). To me, he is a luxury winger. He cannot play higher than a bottom-six role, he does not have a skill set for either side of special teams, and he is not really helping the Devils much in games. Sure, he can go on a bit of a scoring run and, sure, he can draw some calls. But Wood is just not providing all that much value for how much he costs the team. I think the Devils should seek to trade him rather than move on for him. I do think other teams can be talked into a player like Wood for his benefits instead of his on-ice deficiencies. I do not think the Devils would benefit from locking up Wood long term or even to a medium term. If it is laughable for, say, the Islanders to constantly throw money at Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, or Casey Cizikas, then keeping Wood around is not that much different than that.

Ryan Graves (Defenseman, $3.16 million cap hit and $4 million salary): Ryan Graves was acquired from Colorado for Mikhail Maltsev and the second round pick that eventually ended up in Long Island and became Sean Behrens. Tom Fitzgerald wanted a bigger defense and a more defensive-oriented defender in the top four. He got it in Graves. Graves has been mostly OK as a Devil. While he is currently dead last among Devils defensemen in CF% and xGF% in 5-on-5 play, both are above 52% and a function of a run of tough minutes with John Marino before that was transferred elsewhere in December. Graves has been much, much better in penalty kill situations. The three goals and ten points he has this season is gravy.

The question I have is whether there is really room for Graves. He is certainly not old as he will turn 28 in May. He seems fine with not being a top pairing defenseman and he can be acceptable as a second pairing defender with plenty of PK work. However, the Devils’ blueline has Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and John Marino signed through 2027. Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes could very well be in New Jersey next season. Do the Devils need to spend millions to keep Graves to fill out the blueline? Could they look for a cheaper option that can do most of what Graves already does as a third-pairing player? This is why I think Graves and the other UFA defenseman are possible tradable assets to bring in something big like a scoring winger. That other one may garner more interest, so I think Graves will stay beyond March 3. But I could go either way on re-signing him. Leaning against because if the Devils can find another, slightly faster version of Brendan Smith (who is signed for next season), then they can roll Hamilton-Siegenthaler and some combination of that player, Nemec, Hughes, and Smith and probably be perfectly fine on defense.

Tomas Tatar (Winger, $4.5 million cap hit and $5.25 million salary): Tatar has been a better player than Wood by far. You know those last 20 games where Wood has just the one goal and four assists? Tatar has six goals and eleven points in that same timeframe. Tatar has also been an absolute monster in 5-on-5 play. His on-ice rates are stunningly good. As in just behind Bratt and Hughes good. As in above 60% in CF% and xGF%. They were good last season too, but this season has been far better in that sense as well as more productive. Tatar has nine goals and 22 points in 37 games, which is a lot easier to accept the fact his salary is over $5 million this season. It is also the fifth most on this team. His usefulness, I think, is clearer for the People Who Matter this season. Just ask, or watch, Nico Hischier’s line. Tatar puts in that work. I dare suggest he even has a dawg in him.

However, Tatar is now 32. Like Haula, I do not see him as part of the long-term picture of this team. Also like Haula, trading Tatar would make little sense as the Devils have something to play for and Tatar is partially why they are. One has to wonder how long he can keep up being a 5-on-5 machine. I want to say he can do it for a little longer. I can buy Tatar being re-signed for a season or two because wingers like him are not easy to find. I would not want it to be at $5 million, though. If Tatar is willing to take a reduction to something more like $3 million or even the low $4 million, then sure, I can enjoy #90 next to #13 for another season or two. If Tatar is not so willing, then I could see him being moved at the draft.

Damon Severson (Defenseman, $4.16 million cap hit and $5.1 million salary): Damon Severson is the definition of someone who does a lot of good things and then inexplicably does something so bad that you wonder how they make it through life. He has over 602 games of NHL experience and every time he defends an odd man rush, he resembles a rookie shocked by what is coming at him. Severson will get big minutes in a game, sometimes out of necessity, and manage to still bewilder even the coaching staff with a costly turnover or a lack of coverage. He has an offensive skillset and yet just has two goals and six points this season. A big shock considering he put up 11 goals and 46 points last season. Being outproduced by Siegenthaler, Graves, and Marino is telling. Severson’s 5-on-5 on ice rates are, as usual, quite good. Arguably the best among the blueliners. And he has been good on the penalty kill as well this season. However, Severson’s catastrophes happen enough times that you actually wonder how much more the Devils can keep taking the bad with the good.

In most of Severson’s career, the Devils were largely playing for not much so it could be done. Now, the situation is very different. The Devils have something to play for and the team has two highly regarded prospects who could very well do what Severson does very soon. And for a lot less money. With Graves now back in the lineup, I think the Devils are a John Marino return away before getting back to seriously questioning whether Severson has a future here in Newark. If the Devils want to bring in a scoring winger to punch up the offense further, then Severson is their most tradeable UFA asset as he has been very good in the run of play, he can be responsible to play a lot as needed, and while his production is way down, he could do more in a different system. The Devils may struggle in some areas if they trade Graves away (Kevin Bahl’s call up revealed that struggle). Or if they try to move Haula (Devils become weaker at center) or Tatar (the Hischier line gets a lot worse). While there is no immediate replacement for Severson, the Devils have had him on a third pairing until the recent injuries to Marino and Graves. They have had him on a second power play unit. I think they can better handle this season without Severson than the others. And, plus, you have to give up value to get value back.

Letting Severson walk in free agency would not be smart at all. He will command a lot from someone else and the Devils would get nothing for it. Giving Severson a big contract would not be smart either as it would potentially block out spots on the blueline for Nemec and/or Luke Hughes. The smarter play would be to move him by March 3 assuming there are no further injuries to the defense. If Severson has to be part of a package that brings back a Timo Meier or a Pavel Buchnevich, then I would add him. That is how I see things with Severson at this moment.

Pending RFA New Jersey Devils for 2023

Restricted free agents mean that the Devils just need to give the player a qualifying offer by a certain time to retain their rights. Other teams can still provide an offer sheet to the free agent, but this is rare as A) the player has to sign the offer sheet, B) the team that qualifies the player can match the offer sheet, and C) the offering team has to give up picks that they own given how much the offer sheet was worth. What this means is that RFAs are often re-signed. However, arbitration rights and age do play roles in terms of whether a short or a long deal is struck.

The Devils have eight players who will become RFAs this Summer. These eight will eat up a lot of the projected $35 million of cap space the Devils have as of right now for next season. As with the previous section, I will go through each one from least interesting to me to the most.

Kevin Bahl (Defenseman, $795,000 cap hit, $750,000 NHL salary, entry level contract): Bahl is still with the Devils as of this writing. He will likely end up in Utica soon. His current call up has been defined by poor penalties and somehow having Derek Stepan scoring around him while boxing him out. Bahl has been used minimally in his 11 appearances with the Devils. So much so that I do not put a lot of stock into his 5-on-5 on-ice rates as he has averaged fewer than 11 minutes in those games. I can agree he is now the first call up for the defense as he was called up ahead of Okhotiuk, Walsh, and so forth. That may change when Nemec returns from the 2023 World Junior Championships. I think Bahl is an easy player to re-sign. As poor as his call up has been, he is a 22 year old coming off his ELC. He has no arbitration rights. Sign him to a season or two at below a million, see what he does in Utica, and if he does well, then he can still be the #7/#8 guy in the system.

Jesper Boqvist (Center/Winger, $874,125 cap hit and NHL salary): Jesper Boqvist was a tweener between the NHL and AHL but seemingly has made it in this season. With 31 games played this season, that much is apparent. However, he has all of three goals and four assists. Even Nathan Bastian has twice as many points and he has missed the last 10 games due to injury. He has not been notable in 5-on-5 as his on-ice rates are better than Wood and McLeod. Boqvist has a had a lot of games where he is just a guy, but he has also had plenty of games where he is the victim of a shortened bench and therefore is not getting the ice time to be more than just a guy. Still, I am not really seeing what Boqvist brings to the table. I think he will be re-signed as he is a pending RFA, but I would not be entirely shocked if the Devils package him in a deal or some such. Unless he has an awesome next couple of months, I really am unsure what Boqvist will even do for the Devils in the future.

Fabian Zetterlund (Right Winger, $750,000 cap hit and NHL salary): Zetterlund made the NHL roster this season and has remained on the squad. While his production has gone real cold, the expectation for Zetterlund was to be a feisty bottom-six winger. He has been moved around quite a bit in the lineup. Five goals and 14 points is not bad for someone averaging about 13 minutes per game. His on-ice rates are far better than other bottom-six players on the team, although that may have been juiced with some games next to Hischier. The Swole Swede is closer to what I want to see from a third or fourth line “energy” winger. He is not a catastrophe or a non-factor without the puck. He skates hard and even throws his beefiness around. He is not hurting the team. This is an easy re-sign and probably for not much money either.

Michael McLeod (Center, $975,000 cap hit and $1 million NHL salary): Michael McLeod is a fourth-line caliber center. Yes, he wins plenty of faceoffs and can boast of a 56.3% win rate on them. That is pretty much it in terms of what he can boast about. Opponents love playing against him as he is the only regular forward with a sub-50% CF% and xGF% in 5-on-5 play. In shorthanded situations, he has worse on-ice rates than Haula, Bastian, Boqvist, and Dawson Mercer. McLeod’s production is fine at 15 points out of 37 games. However, the issue I have with McLeod is that he is entirely replaceable. He is not someone Miles Wood or Nathan Bastian needs to succeed. If Boqvist gets better than McLeod becomes even less necessary for the Devils. Sure, he is paid like a fourth-line caliber player and plays like one. But those players are easily found in free agency. As he is a pending RFA, I expect McLeod to be re-signed. I do not think he is part of a long-term success for the Devils or someone who contributes to that success. I think the Devils should consider packaging McLeod in a bigger deal if it comes to that. Or making a smaller deal. If they believe Boqvist is going to improve, then they may as well give him a real shot and hand him McLeod’s minutes in the near future.

Nathan Bastian (Right Winger, $825,000 cap hit and $875,000 NHL salary): There are some among the People Who Matter that believe that Nathan Bastian’s injury led to the Devils’ poor December and only his return will set things right. Either as a whole or on the power play. I do not believe that. I do believe that Wood and McLeod absolutely miss Bastian. And he is better at standing in front of a goalie on a power play than Wood. (Aside: I think Brunette needs to adjust that spot, but that’s a topic for a different post.) Which means that Bastian is more valuable than those two. Bastian’s on-ice rates in 5-on-5 this season are good, better than McLeod and Wood by a good amount, and fits the role of a fourth-line winger well. No, he is not going to produce a ton as evidenced by his three goals and eight points in 21 games. No, he is not some sort of rug that ties the room together. He is like Zetterlund, only Canadian and taller. I want to see what he does after his injury, first; but I am far more in favor of bringing Bastian back than Wood or McLeod. Retaining him may only require a modest pay increase too. He is good for what he is.

Yegor Sharangovich (Center/Winger, $2 million cap hit and $2.2 NHL salary): Yegor Sharangovich and his usage in 2022-23 confuses me. Especially considering his last two seasons. It warrants its own post. An arbitration filing from Sharangovich, who is eligible for it now, is going to be real interesting in terms of how the Devils play the situation. This two-season contract was a bridge deal. I wonder if Sharangovich gets hotter on the scoresheet in the second half of this season to make it a tricky one to traverse.

MacKenzie Blackwood (Goaltender, $2.8 million cap hit and $4.125 million NHL salary): I wrote before this season that Tom Fitzgerald has to watch out for two anchors. One was Lindy Ruff. that did not turn out to be correct. The other is MacKenzie Blackwood. The jury is still out for that. There have been rumors swirling since last season that Blackwood has fallen out of favor with management. Yet, not only has that not come to anything, but Blackwood has even received starts ahead of a statistically superior Vitek Vanecek, who Fitzgerald traded for and signed last Summer. For example, Sunday’s 4-5 shootout loss to Carolina. A game where Blackwood made some real impressive stops, legitimately helped the Devils get beyond regulation and into a shootout, and also legitimately undercut his team’s chances with four goals allowed including an absolutely shambolic shorthanded goal against. A game that Blackwood started despite Vitek Vanecek holding it down in a 4-2 win in Pittsburgh that featured eight penalties and nine shorthanded situations (one was a double minor) to kill. The only thing consistent about Blackwood is that he is not. That is not at all a good trait for a goaltender in professional hockey.

Blackwood has struggled to either stay healthy or stay in the net with his performances. His overall save percentage in his rookie season in 2018-19 of 91.8% in 23 games is still the best of his career. It has fallen to 91.5% (47 games), 90.2% (35 games - 56 game season), 89.2% (25 games), and currently 88.8% (11 games and counting). Given that one of the causes for the Devils’ bad seasons has been goaltending, Blackwood is at least partially to blame for that. Unless the Devils are going to go another heater and average 3.5 goals per game, Blackwood needs to be whole lot better to help the Devils get to where they want to be. I understand he just returned from injury to the NHL right before Christmas. I want to stress that his current form is not that different to what it was earlier this season or in past seasons. The 26-year old goaltender is not that good. I have little reason to think he will somehow break even 90% in overall save percentage at this rate.

My big question is whether Akira Schmid is legitimately good. He was dead awful in a call up on a dead awful Devils team in 2021-22. This season, he was marvelous in eight games with the Devils as Vanecek’s backup with Blackwood hurt. Schmid is clearly the #3 goalie in the system now. I think his true value is between his current 93.2% overall save percentage in eight games this season and his 83.3% in six games last season. If that true value is around 91%, then I would prefer Schmid be Vanecek’s backup and Blackwood is dealt away for whatever can be obtained. It may not be much but getting the statistically best tandem together can only help the Devils now.

Another offseason of wondering what to do and what to pay Blackwood does not really help the Devils. He is not likely going to accept so much less money that it may be worth giving him just one more chance. He is 26 and is playing in his fifth season in New Jersey; he is not likely going to “improve” or develop into something he is not. I really think the Devils have to move on from him. It may be a risk to go with Schmid as the #2 goalie, but he has shown it is possible that it can work. If not, it is far easier to find a backup goaltender than a starter or a #1A goalie in a trade or free agent market. Either way, I think this season should be Blackwood’s last in New Jersey.

Jesper Bratt (Winger, $5.45 million cap hit and NHL salary): Well, here we are again. Bratt filed for arbitration and the Devils took him to the brink of the hearing before agreeing to his current deal. There was a lot of sentiment from the People Who Matter who felt that Bratt needed to prove his 2021-22 was not a fluke. Well, it was not. Sure, Bratt had been colder in December when it came to scoring goals. He still has 14 goals and 37 points in 37 games this season. Bratt is still on pace for setting new career season highs in both goals and points. Only Jack Hughes, a top-20 scorer in the NHL, has more points on the Devils than Bratt. Only Hischier and Hughes have more goals than Bratt on the Devils. Bratt also owns the best 5-on-5 on-ice rates on the team and by a good margin even over The Big Deal in some stats. Let me be clear: Bratt has more than proved his worth. He is going to Get Paid.

What has been unfortunate for Bratt is the rest of the NHL. Two extensions by RFAs come to mind. Roope Hintz has a similar profile to Bratt. He is a little older, has been more productive than Bratt this season, but has not been as dominant in 5-on-5 play as Bratt. He signed an 8-season extension worth $67.6 million at the end of November. That carries a cap hit of $8.45 million. Tage Thompson signed a fat extension ahead of this season worth $50 million over seven seasons - a cap hit of $7.142 million. This was after a 38-goal and 68-point season that led a bad Buffalo team in scoring last season when Thompson was 24. Not unlike how Bratt led the Devils with 74 points and 26 goals. Thompson has broken out big-time this season and could make that deal look like a bargain. I believe Bratt is going to get paid but it is going to be awfully difficult for Bratt to get a higher average accrued value than Hintz. Or one much higher than Thompson. Not to mention that Devils’ leading scorer is sitting around $8 million.

I can already forsee some griping about Bratt or his agent for what could be another round of contentious negotiations. I cannot abide by that. This next contract by Bratt could very well be the most lucrative deal he will ever sign in his professional career. He should not leave any money on the table. He owes nothing to Fitzgerald or Josh Harris or David Blitzer. He should aim to get paid what he thinks is fair. He should also aim to wait until after this season. A cold second half from Bratt will only lead to contract offers not much more than the $5.45 million that both sides settled for ahead of an arbitration hearing. A consistent or even hotter second half from Bratt re-opens the possibility that he could get Roope Hintz money. (Aside: Hintz’s extension is larger than Jason Robertson’s deal, so it does happen where the team’s best player is not the highest paid.) That stated, if Bratt is fine to be locked up in the $7-8 million range now, then Fitzgerald should not wait too long to make it happen. Another Summer of arbitration anxiety is not going to be seen as Bratt not being willing to make a deal but Fitzgerald not closing one.

And if Bratt wants out or is not being reasonable, maybe the Bay Area is a good spot for him. Possibly in exchange for a Swiss winger.

Your Take

Again, I apologize for the later than usual post. But I hope there is a lot to ponder, consider, debate, discuss, and argue. How a team handles its free agents plays a big role with how the team will look for the next season and beyond. With the NHL Trade Deadline on March 3, some of these discussions are absolutely happening right now among Devils management.

Now I want to know what you think. What should the Devils do with their pending UFAs for 2023? Who do you try to trade? Who would you let walk into free agency? What about the pending RFAs? Are all eight worth keeping? If not, who would you move and why? What would you offer to Bratt, the team’s most important free agent going into this Summer? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils pending free agents for 2023 in the comments. Thank you for reading.