The New Jersey Devils have numerous players this year who are set to become restricted free agents. Only one restricted free agent from the active roster, however, is a defenseman, and that is Kevin Bahl. With Damon Severson and Ryan Graves also set to become unrestricted free agents, Tom Fitzgerald has some work to do in order to retool the blue line for next year. He could let all three walk and bring in new bodies, or he could bring back some or all of them to keep the group together, although cap space will certainly be an issue if he brings back the big name forwards.
With Bahl being the only restricted free agent of the three, and coming off of his Entry Level Contract, he will undoubtedly be the cheapest of the three. Plus, being the youngest at only 22 years old, he has the most room to grow and develop still. Defenders often develop later than forwards, so 22 years old is still young for a D-man, and he could still show significant growth over the next 2-3 seasons as he acclimates to the NHL game. Because of that, and given he was already trusted in playoff action this year, there is a strong possibility that he is qualified and brought back. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at his game, projected impact, and comparables to determine what a new contract might look like if he is indeed brought back.
Who is Kevin Bahl?
Kevin Bahl is a big, 22-year-old defender who will turn 23 next month. Listed at 6 foot 6, 229 pounds, he is a big body on the ice, and on defense, which translates to eating up space and imposing his will on smaller forwards to prevent attempts against. He has never been an offensive guy, his most prolific scoring season, at least in terms of points per game, came in his D+2 year for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL where he scored 31 points in 54 games. Since arriving in the professional ranks, between the AHL and NHL, he has only cracked double-digit points once, when he scored 16 points in 54 games for the Utica Comets last season. He will never be a true offensive generator, he is the prototypical defensive defenseman, and that is his game.
Bahl was originally drafted by the Coyotes in the 2nd round, pick 55, of the 2018 draft. He would sign his ELC with Arizona in March of 2019, but despite this, Bahl would not remain in the system too long. In December 2019, the Devils shipped Taylor Hall to Arizona, and in the return package, among other pieces, Arizona sent Bahl to New Jersey. Bahl was playing in the OHL at the time for Ottawa, and he would remain there the rest of the season despite the trade, so his ELC would be deferred for the 2019-2020 season.
The following year, he would finally enter the professional ranks, getting his first games of NHL action while playing the majority of the season in the AHL for Binghamton. This would remain true for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Between the two seasons, he would see 24 NHL games but would mostly play in the AHL, gaining experience and learning to play the pro game in New Jersey’s system.
What Has Bahl Done as a Devil?
This past season, he finally managed to gain some regular playing time with the big club. He started getting regular playing time in December and mostly kept the job. He played in only 4 NHL games before December 13th, but starting that night, he basically kept a job the rest of the season, finishing the year with 42 games for the Devils, plus 11 out of 12 playoff games. He earned himself a spot on the roster.
That spot, mostly, was as a 3rd pairing defenseman. He spent the majority of his 5v5 ice time with Damon Severson, the two playing for almost 307 minutes together this year during the regular season. The duo thrived in that 3rd pairing role, putting up a 59.43 CF% and a 63.82 xG% when together. Those are dominant numbers, even if they were mostly playing against the opposition’s bottom 6. They worked as a pair because Severson was the more offensively minded and could pinch more while Bahl would back him up defensively and play it safe. And against weaker competition, they played it to great success, which is why he was able to maintain his roster position once he was given that chance in December. This sent Brendan Smith to more of a 7th defenseman role, filling in as needed, and that worked just fine for the Devils, as Smith is best suited for that role anyway and ended up still playing in 60 games this year. Bahl was also given some very minor minutes on the PK, 35 minutes in total during the regular season, and this is something he could grow into given the style of his game. The Devils have Ryan Graves and John Marino right now to handle that, but Bahl could end up drawing into a bigger PK role as he grows and develops.
Bahl’s playoff numbers were not as eye-popping as the regular season, but that is to be expected against stiffer competition on the biggest stage. He played almost exclusively with Severson, and the two had a 50.89 CF% and a 48.11 xG% together. Slightly above water in possession, somewhat below water in expected goals. Their actual GF% was an even 50%, so in practical purposes, they did not sink the team when together on the ice, and for Bahl’s first playoff performance as a young defender, that isn’t bad.
Overall, Bahl’s improvement into potentially a legit NHL player only makes the Taylor Hall trade look even better. The Devils got 2 picks in that trade, a first and a third-rounder. They used the former on Dawson Mercer and traded the latter for Jonas Siegenthaler. Already with those two moves alone, the trade was a massive success for Jersey. But throw in Bahl becoming a solid blue liner for the Devils, and you have to absolutely love what happened in that deal, even if you were sad to see Hall go. If Bahl can continue on a positive trajectory and cement himself as perhaps a middle pairing minutes eater, that trade could go down as one of the best the franchise has ever made.
Here is Bahl’s player card at the end of the regular season from Andy and Rono:
And here is a chart I made up to showcase the major stats from his 2022-23 campaign with NJ, with information from Natural Stat Trick:
Projected Impact Moving Forward
As mentioned, the great thing about Bahl is his age, and therefore his projected impact for a team should be expected to grow over the next couple of seasons. Next year should be his first full year in the NHL, and it will be a chance for him to fully cement his position in the NHL, eating up more minutes while perhaps also expanding his footprint on the penalty kill. You would expect to see growth from the big man over the season, and he should be better come 2024 and even 2025. However, as a player, we already basically know what role he will fill on a team, it just depends on how well he fills the role, and what pairing he ends up slotting into in the longer term. Bahl will be a defensive defenseman in the likes of Ryan Graves, John Marino, or Andy Greene before him. He will clog up space in the defensive zone, suppress attempts against, and use his size to negate momentum for the opposition while simultaneously looking to tilt the ice back in his team’s favor. In the offensive zone, he will man the blue line and look to get the puck deep for his forwards to make a play, but his first step will always be back to play it safe, and that is just fine.
This past season, he was fairly sheltered in zone starts, with an offensive zone faceoff percentage sitting at 56.81%, although he was much less sheltered in the playoffs, that number dropping to 43.06%. As he gets more confidence in his game, and as he grows into his position at the NHL level, you would expect him to no longer be sheltered. I doubt there will be many years in his career where he has an OZFO% above 50% unless his team is so good that most of their starts just happen to be in the offensive zone. He is not the offensive threat that would warrant significant offensive zone starts. If he is going to make it at the NHL level long term, he needs to be comfortable in the defensive zone and needs to be the player that can get his team out of trouble and up the ice. That playoff number is the one that will be more normal for him, and he will need to be able to still produce possession and expected goals numbers in the positive while not being given favorable zone starts.
And finally, as I said above, his impact on the penalty kill should likely improve and grow over the next few years as well. This could happen as early as next year if Ryan Graves is not brought back either, as that will open up 187 PK minutes that will need to go to someone else, and Bahl would be a likely candidate to receive at least some of those. His game suits the penalty kill, and once he can comfortably play against the opposition’s top 6 on a regular basis without always being underwater, he will certainly get more time on the penalty kill.
Comparables and Potential Value
For this, we need to look at recent RFA defensemen who came off of their ELC deals around age 22 and who had played in under 100 NHL games. Ideally, we also want to find defensive defensemen like Bahl, and even better if they were a 2nd or 3rd-round selection, although finding guys who meet all of that criteria in the last few years will not be too easy. Nonetheless, here is a chart of players who meet at least some or most of these categories thanks to Cap Friendly.
This grouping here gives you a pretty good idea of the value of a defenseman coming off of their ELC while having played in under 100 games, for the most part. I wanted to find out if there was a similar Devil that signed a deal in a similar situation, and Steve Santini jumped out at me. He was 23 back in 2018, a former 2nd-round pick, and at the time there was hope and optimism around him that he would become a legit NHL defender for this franchise. The timing was similar to Kevin Bahl's. Santini was slightly older and had 9 more NHL games under his belt, but otherwise, they are near-perfect matches. Ray Shero decided to give him a 3-year deal with a $1.4 million AAV, and he would still be an RFA when the contract expired.
That baseline right there for Santini would turn out to be pretty average across the board for more recent signings of similar defensemen. Most defenders that become RFAs at this age, with a similar amount of playing experience, get around a 2-3 year bridge deal that leaves them still as RFAs when the contract is up, providing the team with more control over their fate. The deals all basically run between $1.4 and $2.0 million per year as well. This runs as recently as February of this year when Montreal gave Jordan Harris a contract extension for 2 years at $1.4 AAV.
So, our parameters for a potential contract for Kevin Bahl are pretty defined. If Fitzgerald wants to qualify him and bring him back, expect him to get a bridge deal at around 2-3 years in term, with the average annual value ranging anywhere between $1.4 and $2.0 million, weighted more towards the lower end of those two prices.
What I Would Do and What I Think NJ Will Do
To me, this is an easy choice. Let’s say Bahl’s value on a new contract is 3 years at $1.5 million per year on average. That seems fairly reasonable based on the comparables above, although you can certainly alter either of those numbers slightly. No matter what those exact numbers are, in that price range you have to bring him back. He provides value as a 3rd pairing defenseman with the upside to grow and potentially become more, and at that price, it opens up the salary cap for Tom Fitzgerald to sign other, more expensive players elsewhere. Plus, he would still remain as an RFA after this new contract expires in 2-3 years, giving the Devils the ability to sign him long-term at that time if he does develop and grow into a top 4 defender. And if he doesn’t, no harm is done at all, as the contract is cheap. And even if he just remains a 3rd pairing type of guy, that in and of itself is valuable to a team, and after this deal is done, he could be brought back on a similar deal into his UFA years to remain.
There is even more of an incentive to make this deal happen considering both Ryan Graves and Damon Severson are UFAs as well, and both will cost considerably more than Bahl to retain. There is only so much cap room to go around, and assuming Fitzgerald signs Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt to big-time deals as he should, that limits available cap space for everyone else. Graves and Severson will both most likely make upwards of $4+ million per year on their next deals, so the Devils may not be able to retain both if they prioritize forwards. This means Bahl needs to be brought back at a less expensive price, simply in order to fill out the blue line if for nothing else. That isn’t even to mention his potential for growth or the team-friendly RFA aspect of it, but just simply on need. This Bahl deal really is a no-brainer. If he isn’t on the Devils next year, I would be shocked. The only way I can really see that happening is if he is traded in some blockbuster deal that involves moving Jesper Bratt for some other top-line winger, and even then, the chances are slim. I would bet that he is a New Jersey Devil next year.
What do you think about Kevin Bahl? Do you like his game and think he is improving as a defenseman, or do you think he could become like the next Steve Santini and disappear early? What do you think about the contract comparables, and what do you think he is worth? Would you bring him back as a restricted free agent for those terms? And most importantly, what do you think the Devils will do? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!