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Devils Potential Free Agent Targets: Bottom Six Forwards

With free agency starting on July 1, the New Jersey Devils may look to the market to fill in some gaps in their bottom two forward lines. This post goes over some pending free agent forwards who can play those limited minutes.

Carolina Hurricanes v Florida Panthers - Game Four
If you can’t beat him...sign him?
Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images

As is probably the case most years, there are a lot of serviceable bottom-six (third line or fourth line) unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this year. New Jersey Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will probably look to sign one or two or these players as depth in case someone gets injured throughout the 82 game season.

First up is probably one of the best, Jesper Fast. (31 years, $2 million cap hit, $3 million salary in 2022-23) Fast was on the Carolina Hurricanes the past few years. He had 10 goals and 19 assists for 29 points in 80 games this past season. He has playoff experience - and recent success against New Jersey - and would add speed, toughness, and defensive reliability to the bottom six.

Phil Kessel (35, $1.5 million salary & cap hit in 2022-23) is another veteran with plenty of playoff experience, including two cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had 14 goals, 22 assists, and 36 points in the season, and played all 82 regular season games in 2022-23 for the Vegas Golden Knights. If you want someone who has done a whole lot, then he is an option. Not so much for defense.

Milan Lucic (35, $6 million cap hit, $4 million salary in 2022-23) is surely getting a pay cut from the huge deal he signed with the Oilers this offseason. But he is still a serviceable bottom six forward. He had 12 goals, 7 assists, and 19 points in 77 GP. He is a tough, tough customer and a Stanley Cup champion in 2011. Like Kessel, he is someone who has loads of experience for a smaller role.

Derek Stepan (32, $750,000 cap hit & salary in 2022-23) is another veteran UFA. He, like Fast, was on the Hurricanes this past season. He only had five goals, six assists, and eleven points in 73 games although he did really well in the run of play as a fourth-liner. He has 120 playoff games under his belt, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014. He is coming off a cheap contract so he could be had for a very reasonable price.

Nick Foligno (35, $3.8 million cap hit & salary in 2022-23) had 10 goals, 16 assists, and 26 points in 60 GP for the Presidents’ Trophy winning Boston Bruins as a fourth-liner. He is a 16-season NHL vet who adds grit to any bottom six he joins, and by all accounts, a great locker room guy. He may not come so cheap given his current contract, but it would likely much less than $3.8 million now that he is over 35 years old.

A more skill-type guy from what I remember seeing in the past on the Bruins, Ryan Donato (27, $1.2 million cap hit & salary in 2022-23) from the Kraken is one of the youngest guys on this list at age 27. He had 14 goals, 13 assists, and 27 points in 71 GP for Seattle in their first year making the playoffs. He played well in a limited role. But his young age may make him more popular among bottom-six options - which could increase his price.

Defensive-minded former vote-in All-Star Zemgus Girgensons (29, $2.2 million cap hit, $2.4 million salary in 2022-23) is another name on the free agency list. He has played his entire career for Buffalo so far. He had 10 goals, 8 assists, and 18 points in 80 GP in 2022-23. He would be a 4th line option with McLeod and Bastian. He is good at two specific things: Defense and gaining the zone.

I think the Devils probably try to sign one or two guys on this list, like I said earlier. Tom Fitzgerald likes players who have size and grit, and I think he wants someone who can fill that role and throw punches if someone tries to take out someone like Hughes or Bratt, especially since Wood and Graves are likely to depart this offseason. Mason Geertsen playing 25 NHL games in 2021-22 shows Fitzgerald and Ruff may want a tough guy on the team. Based on that, I think they go for a Foligno/Lucic-type over a Kessel or a Stepan. The Devils do have internal options in the bottom six with Bastian, McLeod, Boqvist, Sharangovich, Haula, Mercer, and Palat, as well as Foote, Clarke, and Thompson who can fight for a roster spot in camp, so the bottom six is not really a pressing concern. I still think they sign one “character” guy to fill in the roster so they won’t be accused of being a “soft” team.

Which one of these players would you want the Devils to sign in free agency? Are there other bottom-six forward free agents that they should look at? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.