With the NHL Trade Deadline in the rear-view mirror, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald’s heaviest lifting for the 2022-23 season is in the books. However, his work for the year isn’t done. It’s never done when you’re the GM of an NHL team, after all.
After acquiring Timo Meier in a trade with the San Jose Sharks, the next order of business for Fitzgerald is to try to get both he and Jesper Bratt signed to a long-term deal. Neither top-six forward is scheduled to hit UFA until the summer of 2024 at the earliest, but both players need new deals at the end of the 2022-23 campaign. There is also a sense of urgency as Meier has a well-publicized $10M qualifying offer due to him this summer.
To Fitzgerald’s credit, he’s already working on this as he has sent an offer to Bratt’s representation.
Tom Fitzgerald says that he and Jesper Bratt's agent have been talking.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) March 3, 2023
"We've actually put something on his plate, just waiting back for a responce." #NJDevils
We don’t know exactly what Fitzgerald has offered to Bratt on a long-term deal over the last 12 months so I don’t want to speculate too much one way or the other whether Fitzgerald or Joakim Persson, Bratt’s agent, is being unreasonable. But I do want to address a recurring theme that has popped up over the last year as this seemingly never-ending saga pertaining to Bratt’s contract has unfolded. There has been this thought process ever since Jack Hughes signed his 8-year, $8M AAV contract in November 2021 that no forward on the roster should make more than him.
#njdevils are adamant about not paying any forward more than Jack Hughes. That was the sticking point with Bratt last summer and apparently for Meier now, too…— Julie Robenhymer (@JulieRobenhymer) February 26, 2023
Too many BIG contracts limits potential for MULTIPLE runs at the Cup! Goal is long term sustainability of success! https://t.co/zrUcD7tRGl
Julie Robenhymer has covered hockey for years, including stints writing for the Devils official team website as well as The Athletic, so I don’t believe she’s just haphazardly throwing that statement out there for shock effect. As Robenhymer has conceded in the replies to that tweet, there will be a time where Hughes’s contract shouldn’t be the measuring stick to be compared with other contracts that come after it.
That time has already come and gone.
The Devils championship window is now open. The best way for them to keep that window open throughout the life of Hughes’s deal is to pay Bratt and Meier what they’re worth and not risk alienating a relationship, causing one or both players to ultimately leave New Jersey.
Let’s take a look at the biggest myths surrounding why the Devils shouldn’t pay Bratt and Meier more than Hughes, explain why they’re wrong and why the Devils should do exactly as I’m suggesting and pay the men.
Myth #1: Jack Hughes is the best player on the team, therefore nobody should make more than him
It’s a fairly simple premise. Jack Hughes is the best player on the New Jersey Devils. Because Jack Hughes is the best player on the team, he should make the most money, right?
Hughes’s deal was coming off of his entry-level contract, buying out four years of restricted free agency and his first four years of unrestricted free agency. A new deal for Bratt and Meier will primarily be buying out UFA years, with the exception of the 2023-24 campaign. That alone is why comparing Bratt and Meier to Hughes isn’t a one-to-one comparison.
The Hughes contract was a calculated risk in that he wasn’t an $8M player when he signed it. In an interesting twist, he’s still not an $8M player. He’s an $11-12M player in Year 1 of what might be the biggest bargain contract in the league. It’s weird to say a 21-year old superstar is underpaid, but that is a fact. I’m not saying Hughes made a mistake signing when he did but the bottom line is that having Hughes at his number through the end of the 2029-30 season is inherently valuable for the Devils going forward. Remember, this is YEAR ONE of that deal and YEAR ONE of the Devils competitive window.
I’ll take it a step further. Because Jack Hughes’s contract is such a bargain, it would be organizational malpractice if the Devils didn’t try to maximize that value by surrounding Hughes with the requisite talent to win. Because Hughes, Hischier, and to a lesser extent, Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino are locked in at good market value deals, the Devils would be wasting everybody’s prime years by not trying to add further to that group. Fortunately, it appears Tom Fitzgerald agrees with me as this didn’t stop the Devils from trading for Meier and they’re going to make a run at signing both him and Bratt.
The other thing that needs to be mentioned with regards to Hughes’s deal is that the Devils have ALREADY started to look to pay other forwards from outside the organization more than him. We know that the Devils offered Johnny Gaudreau “north of 9M AAV” last summer before he chose to go to Columbus. We know that Fitzgerald wanted to trade for Matthew Tkachuk, but New Jersey didn’t make Tkachuk’s wish list of desired destinations. Tkachuk ultimately was traded to Florida where he signed for $9.5M AAV over eight years. Does anyone believe that Fitzgerald wouldn’t have approached that number had Tkachuk opted to come to New Jersey instead?
Once upon a time, Nico Hischier was the highest-paid forward on the Devils at $7.25M. Like Hughes, this deal bought out Hischier’s RFA years and the first few years of UFA. The Devils gave him that contract while Taylor Hall, a former Hart Trophy winner, was still on the team. Does anyone believe Ray Shero or Tom Fitzgerald wouldn’t have paid Hall more than what Nico Hischier was making at the time had he wanted to stay in New Jersey? Did Hischier’s salary stop Fitzgerald from going out and signing Dougie Hamilton for $9M AAV when that opportunity presented itself? I understand that Hamilton is not a forward, but the answer to that question is no.
For those reasons alone, I have my doubts when it comes to Robenhymer’s tweet. I’m not saying she’s wrong. That might indeed be Fitzgerald’s stated desire and it’s something she probably did hear from her sources within the organization at one point. But I think Fitzgerald has already shown that he knows what the market value is for top-tier talent. His desire for Gaudreau or Tkachuk before Hughes’s contract even kicked in proves that. Now that he got his guy in Meier and has a homegrown Devil in Jesper Bratt who both need a new deal, is Fitzgerald all of a sudden going to draw the proverbial line in the sand at $8M, take it or leave it? I don’t think so.
Myth #2: Bratt and/or Meier aren’t worth what they’re asking for
Admittedly, we don’t know exactly what Bratt (or more specifically his agent) is asking for, but with 131 points over the last 139 games, I’m not sure what more Bratt needs to do to prove that he is one of the top playmaking, scoring wingers in the NHL. Bratt has shown over the last two seasons that he can produce at nearly a PPG clip, and perhaps more impressively, he has shown he can do it regardless of who his linemates are. He is not dependent on Hughes or Nico Hischier for production like Yegor Sharangovich appears to be. Bratt will most likely hit the 30-goal mark for the first time this season. It’s time for him to get paid.
As for Meier, he just became a Devil a week and a half ago and is still getting settled in on his new team. We don’t know exactly what Meier and his agent Claude Lemieux will ask for once they begin negotiations, but its safe to say the Devils didn’t give up two potential first-round picks, Shakir Mukhamadullin, and Fabian Zetterlund to let Meier walk away in UFA sixteen months from now. The Devils wanted him for a reason, and those reasons will become evident once he gets acclimated with his new team and contributes for this team.
It’s easy to say any player isn’t worth the money but the reality is that there are only so many people in the world who are capable of being nearly a point-per-game scoring winger at the NHL level. Bratt and Meier are two of them.
Ultimately, a player’s value is tied to what your peers at a similar age and position with similar levels of production are making. For Bratt and Meier, I’d be looking at Kevin Fiala and Jordan Kyrou as direct player comparisons. Fiala inked a 7-year deal last summer worth $7.875M AAV after his age 25 season, while Jordan Kyrou signed an 8-year deal worth $8.125M annually shortly before his age 24 season. Fiala had 125 points in his last 132 games before signing (.946 PPG) while Kyrou had 110 in his last 129 games before signing (.853 PPG). Bratt, 24, has 131 points in his last 139 games (.942 PPG) while Meier, 26, has 129 in his last 136 (.949 PPG).
Bratt and Meier are both Top 30 wingers in the NHL, likely somewhere in that 21-30 range. They’re great players, but they aren’t the best in the league at their position and are clearly below the top tier that features players like David Pastrnak and Nikita Kucherov. They’re closer to the tier of players that includes Fiala and Kyrou. Assuming Bratt and/or Meier’s ask is somewhere in that vicinity, likely topping what Kyrou got back in September, I don’t think that is an unrealistic ask.
Myth #3: Too many big contracts will turn the Devils into “Toronto South”
I want to talk about the idea of a team being too top-heavy and if that is indeed why they haven’t taken that next step, and the most obvious candidate would be the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto currently has 58.1% of their salary cap space tied up in their five best players...Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. They have essentially been paying those five players roughly half of their salary cap space since the beginning of the 2018-19 season when Marner’s deal started and Tavares signed in Toronto as an unrestricted free agent. Since then, the Leafs have lost in the first round three times and the qualifying round in the bubble once (a 3-2 series loss vs. Columbus). Those other three losses came in Game Sevens against Boston, Montreal, and Tampa Bay, all teams that reached the Stanley Cup Final in their respective season.
Is that the fault of the Leafs and their roster construction? Or is it the fault of a bad playoff format that the Leafs have continually run into the better team in their portion of the bracket in the first round? Is it bad luck that they ran into .928 (Rask), .956 (Korpisalo), .932 (Price) goaltending when they got .922, .936, and .934 goaltending from Freddy Anderson and Jack Campbell? Is it bad luck that the one year they ran into a seemingly vulnerable Lightning team where Andrei Vasilevsky posted a .897, Campbell also posted a .897? Or is it bad roster construction because guys like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander have been labeled “all skill, no sandpaper” guys by a bunch of doofus Toronto columnists and they just don’t “want it” enough? Just some food for thought.
The Leafs have their faults, but one thing you can say about them is that in the Matthews-Marner-Nylander era, they consistently get to the dance. They have done so in one of the toughest divisions in the league where they are often neck-and-neck with Boston and Tampa Bay. Tampa has been to three straight Stanley Cup Final and won two of them, while Boston lost a Stanley Cup Final to St. Louis in 7 games in 2019 and might have the best team of the modern era this season. Yet, Toronto has gotten this label, fairly or not, that they can’t get it done and are too top-heavy. That because the best players on Toronto make too much money, they can’t get the talent they need on the backend of the roster. Never mind the fact they haven’t had trouble convincing former stars like Mark Giordano, Jason Spezza, or Joe Thornton to take less to Cup chase there, or Toronto’s ability to find players like Michael Bunting off of the scrap heap.
The Devils currently have 43.3% of their cap space tied up in their five best players in Hughes, Hischier, Ondrej Palat, Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton. Let’s say for arguments sake that Bratt and Meier both get $8.5M starting next year. The salary cap ceiling was previously expected to go up to at least $83.5M and perhaps higher, although nobody seems to know how exactly the Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy’s impact on 12 NHL team regional sports networks will affect hockey-related revenues going forward. Let’s assume the worst-case scenario though and the cap doesn’t go up next year. That the cap ceiling remains at $82.5M. If they resign Bratt and Meier at the number I proposed, the Devils would have 57.6% committed to their top six players through 2026-27, with that percentage likely dropping in future years with the cap ceiling expected to rise.
I wouldn’t be too concerned about the Devils becoming “Toronto South” and building a team that can’t get out of the first round. After watching a decade of losing hockey, I’d be happy that the Devils are consistently getting to the playoffs in the first place like how Toronto typically does. And considering the landscape of the Metropolitan Division moving forward where Pittsburgh, Washington, and the NY Islanders are on their last legs of their current runs, Columbus is years away, the NY Rangers aren’t as close to winning a Cup as they think they are, and the Flyers can’t get out of their own way, you would think the Devils, a team that should consistently make the playoffs going forward, should be able to make a deep playoff run here or there sometime over the next five years. Carolina is one of the best run organizations in the NHL and they will be a threat, but I hardly consider them to be an insurmountable threat.
Myth #4: Fitzgerald and the Devils should adopt the Boston model where everyone took less
Arguably the biggest myth of them all!
One of the biggest arguments as to why the Bruins have been as competitive as they have been for so long is that their best players took less, so they had more money for everybody else.
But did they?
Patrice Bergeron just completed an eight-year deal that paid him $6.85M AAV. When he signed that deal back in 2013, he was already a Stanley Cup champion and a Selke Trophy winner. Did he take less, or did he sign what was a fair market-value deal at the time for a #1 center. Remember, he signed this deal before Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were even in the league.
Brad Marchand signed his 8-year contract in September 2016, paying him $6.125M AAV. But Marchand also went from being a winger who consistently posted 50 point seasons to a guy who has posted 85 point seasons after he put pen to paper on that contract. He was a good player who became an elite player, which is typically unheard of after someone’s 27th birthday. As a result, his contract went from being a market-value deal at the time to an incredible bargain.
Tuukka Rask played out an 8-year deal worth $7M AAV that he signed back in 2013. He was one of the best goalies of his era and was compensated as such. It’s true that top of the market goaltender contracts have gotten more expensive since then, but it doesn’t mean he took less. He most certainly did not.
Boston has remained competitive as long as they have in part because of the good values that those aforementioned contracts proved to be. They’re also a franchise that spends to the cap ceiling every year and aggressively pursues players to fill holes in their roster. Bergeron ($2.5M this year) and David Krejci ($1M this year but $7.25M AAV between 2015-21) might be taking less now, but they also didn’t take less back in their heyday out of the kindness of their hearts. They got paid market value.
One last thing on the “Boston model where everyone takes less”....Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak didn’t seem to get that memo either. McAvoy is one of the best defensemen in the league and his $9.5M AAV salary is in line with what Cale Makar and Adam Fox are making. Pastrnak might have taken a hair less than what he could’ve gotten on the open market had he waited until the summer but he’s also arguably the best player in the league at his position and his $11.25M AAV slots him behind only Artemi Panarin in terms of highest-paid wingers. The Bruins got a Maserati, and they did so with a $100 off coupon. More power to them.
I won’t fault McAvoy, Pastrnak, or anyone on the Bruins for getting paid when they did. Secure the bag and get what you deserve. I’m all for it. But let’s not retroactively rewrite history and cite the Bruins as an example of a team where everyone took a little less for the greater good. That is simply not true.
From a Devils perspective, yes, its nice that they locked in Hughes and Hischier when they did as those deals look to be bargains. The same can be said for Jonas Siegenthaler who admittedly did take less on his long-term deal. That doesn’t mean Tom Fitzgerald should expect everyone to do so, nor should Bratt and Meier be expected to do so.
Myth #5: If Bratt or Meier are asking for X, the Devils should walk away
The shrewd and cold, calculated approach! The one where Tom Fitzgerald says the number is X and if Bratt or Meier don’t like it, they’re more than welcome to test the market when the time comes.
That is certainly one approach the Devils could take. It would also be the wrong one.
We’ve all negotiated for something at one time or another in our lives. Your wife might not be happy if you ask for an extended weekend of drunken gambling with the boys in Las Vegas, but it might be more tolerable for her if you “settle” for a trip to Atlantic City and you ultimately get what you wanted anyways. The best negotiators ask for the most they think they could reasonably get, while settling for a number that keeps all parties happy. Fitzgerald’s obligation is to the Devils to keep the number as low as possible with the team’s best interests in mind while the agent’s obligation is to their client to get as much as they can.
From the outside, Fitzgerald doesn’t strike me as someone who is unreasonable with contract negotiations. I’m sure he’s approaching all discussions with a number in mind, of course, but since he’s become the GM of the Devils, he has successfully negotiated long-term deals with Hughes, Palat, Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and Vitek Vanecek. He convinced Hamilton, Palat, Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Bernier, and Corey Crawford to come to New Jersey in free agency. He negotiated smaller deals with players who have been due for new contracts such as Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, and all the members of the BMW line. There have been plenty of examples of Fitzgerald sealing the deal with a number that everyone can be happy with.
All of this brings me to Bratt and Meier. Is Fitzgerald all of a sudden going to take a hardline approach with these players? Is Fitzgerald going to walk away from the table because Bratt wants, say, $8.75M instead of $8.5M and torch a relationship over what is essentially the Ilya Kovalchuk cap recapture penalty? Is Fitzgerald all of a sudden not going to give Meier $9M instead of $8.5 after trading two high draft picks, a legitimate defenseman prospect, and a middle-six NHL winger for him?
Of course, the alternative to not signing either long-term is paying them their qualifying offers and letting them test the open market in July 2024. Or they could turn around and trade one or both this summer, at which point Fitzgerald will spend the next however many months and years it will take to replace them. Maybe Fitzgerald finds a Top 30 winger to replace them. Maybe he doesn’t. After all, how long did it take the Devils to get Meier? How sure are you in Alexander Holtz that he can still be that guy? All the while, the Devils are spinning their wheels and wasting the primes of the players they have now. Oh, and IF the Devils ever find another Top 30 winger, they can do this song and dance all over again when that time comes. If you’re hesitant to pay Bratt $9M now, why would you all of a sudden be willing to pay the next top-line winger $10M years from now? The bird in hand is indeed worth two in the bush.
Fitzgerald COULD do all that. Or he will more likely take the pragmatic approach, pay the players what they’re worth, and make sacrifices elsewhere on the roster. That will be necessary if Bratt and Meier are making roughly $17M combined. If the cap doesn’t go up, that will leave roughly $17.63M to fill the remaining 10 roster spots. It’s a tight rope to thread and some of those will go to players on ELCs which will help keep costs manageable, but it’ll be far easier for Fitzgerald to find someone to replace Michael McLeod or Nathan Bastian for under $1M than it will be to replace Bratt or Meier down the road.
The last thing I’ll add is that I’m not suggesting Fitzgerald should necessarily cave on all negotiations and give the players what they want. It’s a negotiation for a reason. There are compromises to be had. Maybe the tradeoff is a full NMC over the life of the contract. Maybe the tradeoff is how the signing bonuses are structured. In Bratt’s case, maybe he doesn’t want to max out on term to he can hit UFA again at the age of 30. We don’t know what that sweet spot is to find an agreement. But if Fitzgerald wants the player to be here, and the player wants to be here, and the money is there and they agree on X, Y, and Z, what’s the holdup?
The idea that the Devils should have Jack Hughes at the top of the pay scale in regards to forwards is a noble concept. It’s also deeply flawed and ignores the realities of where the Devils are in their competitive window. It ignores what the market value of similar players currently is. It ignores that in the case of Meier and Bratt, you’re buying the remainder of their prime years and almost exclusively all UFA seasons, as opposed to Hughes and Hischier who were coming off of their ELCs when they signed their deals. The idea that the Devils would be too top-heavy is a myth, and the idea that everyone should take less is unrealistic.
Fitzgerald is smart enough to see what the market is and see where he needs to go to make a competitive offer that will ensure Bratt and Meier remain Devils for the foreseeable future. If he does so, the Devils core should be good enough to compete for championships throughout that window. I would expect Bratt to sign for around $8.25M-$8.5 AAV and Meier to sign for something similar, and if I’m off by a couple hundred thousand dollars here or there, so be it. It’s the cost of doing business, and it would be a small cost to ensure the Devils competitive window remains open for the foreseeable future.
I have said enough on this matter though, so now, I turn the discussion over to you. Where do you see Bratt and Meier’s numbers coming in at if and when they sign? Do you agree with me that they should make more than Hughes? Do you agree with me that it would be a mistake to let one or both walk over a miniscule amount of money? Can the Devils remain competitive with both of them signed? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thanks for reading.