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Devils Potential Free Agent Targets: Top Six Wingers

The unrestricted free agent class is not strong, but there are a few intriguing options should the Devils want to explore the open market.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning
Could Alex Killorn join former Lightning teammate Ondrej Palat in New Jersey?
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We are in full-blown hot stove mode here at All About the Jersey, and after spending the last few weeks taking a look at the Devils pending free agents, its time to pull back from our Devils-centric bubble for a bit and take a look around the league at who is available. Matt got us started the other day by taking a look at some bottom six forwards who could potentially be an option, so I’ll follow up on what he wrote by looking at some players who can play higher in the lineup in a top six role.

On the surface, this might seem like a fruitless exercise. The Devils still need to pay Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt. The $34.28M in projected cap space that they currently have will evaporate quickly if the Devils wind up getting deals done with both of them. Getting a deal done with one of them will put a dent in that number. They likely won’t have room to add a $5M forward on top of getting them signed when you factor in what they’ll need left over to get their RFAs signed.

Much like an actual NHL general manager though, its wise to do due diligence and keep all options open. The Devils have a few UFA forwards of their own in Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula, and Miles Wood. In Tatar’s case, he played a Top Six role all season and those minutes are important minutes to fill. Furthermore, if Tom Fitzgerald has to pivot because Meier and/or Bratt won’t sign long-term, he’ll all of a sudden have some flexibility with the cap and a hole in the Top Six that will need to be addressed. And of course, if you fancy yourself as a legitimate title contender, there is no such thing as having too much depth or too much talent.

For this exercise, I will primarily look at wingers as Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are locked in and there is no need at this time for a Top Six center. So I won’t be writing about Ryan O’Reilly, Jonathan Toews, or Patrice Bergeron. Every other Top Six UFA forward is fair game. Who is available this summer, what might they cost, and are they a potential fit for the Devils? Who is available that I’d stay away from and why? Let’s find out.

Tyler Bertuzzi

In a weak free agent class, Tyler Bertuzzi is set up to perhaps land the biggest deal out of anyone on the open market this summer.

Detroit traded the coveted power forward to the Boston Bruins at the deadline for a 1st and 4th round draft pick. Bertuzzi played very well for the Bruins, with 16 points in 21 regular season games and another 10 points in their seven-game series loss to Florida.

Bertuzzi mostly played in a bottom six role for the Bruins, although that speaks more to Boston’s depth than Bertuzzi’s skill level. Bertuzzi’s game and style of play would play anywhere in the Top 9 of a contending team. Bertuzzi also checks a lot of boxes of things the Devils lack in their forward group, as he can get to the dirty areas of the ice and be a bit of a pest. At 6’1” and 199 pounds, he can withstand the rigors of going to the middle of the ice and pay the proverbial price. He’s a left-handed shot but can play either winger position a la Jesper Bratt. He’s a year removed from a 30-goal campaign in Detroit, he’s an underrated playmaker, and can play with physicality without being reckless. He’s a positive possession player, although I wouldn’t necessarily say he drives play. Still, more often than not, good things happen when he’s on the ice, and I could definitely envision him digging pucks out of the corner while being talented enough to find Jack Hughes for a scoring chance. He’s not quite as polished as Matthew Tkachuk in terms of being a power winger, nor does he have as much scoring upside as Timo Meier, but he’s a quality player of that mold who will be in high demand.

AFP analytics projects Bertuzzi could get as much as 6 years and $5.25M. Evolving Hockey has Bertuzzi at 4 years and $5.528M on his next deal. One name that has been tossed around as a player comp is Andre Burakovsky, who signed a 5 year, $5.5M AAV deal with the Kraken last summer.

Boston would like to keep Bertuzzi although its almost impossible to see how they could finagle that with their cap situation being what it is, so he’s likely to go to market. We all watched the postseason and while Boston bowed out in seven games, Bertuzzi definitely popped for the Bruins in a positive way. If you’re of the mindset that the Devils need more players with that dog in them in the postseason, Bertuzzi is as good an option as any. The problem is that everybody else watched what he did in the playoffs as well. It’s a weak free agent class. Bertuzzi is arguably the top forward available and his style of play makes the proverbial 200 Hockey Men drool. Teams will be lining up for his services.

I could see Bertuzzi getting as much as 6x6M, and perhaps even a seventh year from a really desperate team. If he gets that, it likely won’t be from New Jersey. I don’t know that the Devils could do half of that as long as the Bratt/Meier situations remain unresolved. The one caveat to this, as well as the other players we’ll discuss in this article, is whether or not the Devils have to flip Meier or Bratt. If they do, they’ll have money to spend and a clear need. If that were to happen, I could see the Devils kick the tires on Bertuzzi. There won’t be a shortage of suitors though, so Tom Fitzgerald will really have to sell him on New Jersey if he wants him.

Vladimir Tarasenko

Back in February, I profiled Vladimir Tarasenko as a potential trade target for the Devils. I noted that while he’s a little older at 31 years of age, he’s not necessarily old or washed up. I talked about how he fits the profile more of a classic sniper. I also brought up how he has a history of shoulder issues, which give me pause.

On the day after I published that piece, the New York Rangers traded for Tarasenko. He wasn’t necessarily bad for New York, as he scored 8 goals and added another 13 assists in 31 regular season games. But he was mostly a non-factor in their playoff series loss to the Devils. Tarasenko scored three goals and added an assist in their three wins in that series, but was held pointless and was more or less invisible in the four games they lost.

Tarasenko has topped the 30-goal mark six times in his career, most recently in 2020-21 and most notably post-shoulder surgery. But he dealt with a hand injury earlier in the year when he was in St. Louis and was limited to 18 goals on the season. He’s not cooked, so he should have a couple more 50+ point seasons before he calls it a career. I just question whether or not he’d be my first choice for the Devils with the options available, where they are as a franchise, and where Tarasenko is as a player. Tarasenko is healthy now, but I can’t just ignore the fact that he’s had three surgeries on his shoulder within a span of 28 months. That’s the type of thing that would always be in the back of my head if I’m potentially committing to a player into his mid 30s. Tarasenko is good off the rush and when he finishes, you feel like a genius for trading for a goal-scorer. He’s also a bit of a one-trick pony who won’t do much to shut down the other team, as we saw as the Rangers-Devils series went on.

AFP Analytics has Tarasenko projected at 3 years and $5M AAV, which isn’t awful, but if I were the Devils, I’d want shorter term with the tradeoff being more money upfront, assuming I had interest in Tarasenko at all. I’d be more inclined to do 2 years knowing that his deal is coming off the books at the same time as the ELC for Luke Hughes, but Tarasenko is within his right to try to get more term than that and I think he can. I do think there’s a chance Tom Fitzgerald checks in here, as a healthy Tarasenko could theoretically help their power play, he’d be the closest thing the roster has to a pure sniper, and the Devils have reportedly been interested in Tarasenko in the past. I just don’t have much interest in giving him significant term given his injury history.

Alex Killorn

If one was going to splurge on a short-term, Top Six forward, Alex Killorn is an interesting option.

Killorn is a 6’1”, 194 lb. lefty shooting forward who can play on either wing. Killorn was a key member of Tampa’s recent Cup championship teams. He’s been durable throughout his career, playing in 614 of a possible 618 regular season games since 2015-16. He set career highs in scoring the last two seasons, with 27 goals and 37 assists this past season. He also brings a wealth of playoff experience to the table, with 140 career playoff games and four Stanley Cup Final appearances under his belt. He’s been a leader and a fan favorite in Tampa, he has offensive skill, and he can play with physicality.

The biggest drawbacks with Killorn are his age (will be 34 on Opening Night), his abnormally high shooting percentage (18.9% this past season, 12.5% over his career), his decline as a defensive forward, and the amount of wear and tear of his body (945 regular season and postseason games since 2012-13). While I mentioned that he’s a bit of an iron man, players eventually do break down physically and he has a lot of mileage on his odometer.

Per tradition, Tampa is up against the salary cap, as their big deals for Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak kick in this summer. Tampa is already over the cap ceiling between that and their commitments to their other top players before dealing with pending RFAs Tanner Jeannot and Ross Colton, and while the cap is fake, its not fake enough where they’ll be able to keep Killorn. It’s more likely if they do find some money under the couch cushions, it goes to one of their younger players and my money would be on the guy they traded five draft picks and Cal Foote for back in February. Killorn should be able to get a raise from the $4.45M AAV he’s made the previous seven seasons, and while his age will keep him from getting significant term, he should be able to land a multi-year deal.

AFP Analytics has Killorn projected for 4 years and $5.25M AAV, and while the money sounds about right, I’d have no interest in signing him through his age-37 season. Like Tarasenko, this would be a situation where I’d rather get Killorn at less term if I signed him at all. I wouldn’t want to be locked in on Killorn in 2025-26 and beyond.

Could the Devils be interested in Killorn? I think its a possibility. Fitzgerald already plucked from the Tampa dynasty team once when he signed Ondrej Palat last summer. A big reason why he wanted Palat were the off-ice intangibles and veteran leadership he brought to the table. Killorn brings a lot of those same qualities. The problem is that the deal would need to be very short-term (one year, two tops) to potentially be worth it for the Devils. Killorn has been a good player and has name value being a key member of multiple championship teams in Tampa. This is probably his last big pay day and I’d expect him to try to max out on money and term unless he chooses otherwise.

Michael Bunting

After two nondescript seasons in Arizona and becoming a Group 6 free agent, Toronto took a chance on Michael Bunting with a 2-year deal worth $1.9M total prior to the 2021-22 season. Bunting broke out in a big way with 23 goals and 40 assists in 79 games, finishing 3rd in the Calder voting that season as a 26 year old. He followed that up with another 23 goal season before hitting the open market this summer.

Bunting has earned a reputation for being tough to play against. He plays with physicality, is willing to go to the tough areas of the ice, and is a pest. He gets under the skin of the opposition. This is generally a good thing, but there is a downside to that, as Bunting has also earned a reputation with officials you don’t want to have. Bunting has made a habit of arguing with officials and getting dinged for penalties that would normally be let go over the course of play. Bunting does it to himself as well, earning a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Erik Cernak during their first round playoff series. It’s at the point where people who follow the Leafs closely are asking if there is a bit of an officiating bias against Bunting.

I’m all for the Devils being tougher to play against and Bunting’s ability to annoy the opposition shouldn’t be dismissed. I do have concern though with bringing in a player who the referees might have an agenda with. Generally speaking, NHL officiating is inconsistent at best and somewhere between incompetent and outright biased at its worst. If you think Miles Wood taking bad offensive zone penalties is annoying, think of how much you’d be annoyed if Bunting got sent to the box because he looked at an official the wrong way. While I would appreciate Bunting’s style of play, there would definitely be a time where I’m gonna shake my head when he gets a two minute minor on something innocuous.

There’s also the question of how much of Bunting’s production is him playing with all-world talents like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. I do think there’s a skill to being able to keep up with far more talented teammates, and 23 goals in each of the last two seasons isn’t nothing. I don’t think its fair to simply declare “He played with Matthews and Marner, that’s why he’s good”. But this is a question that is going to be asked until he shows he can play elsewhere with other linemates.

AFP Analytics has Bunting making $5.25M AAV over 5 years, while Mike Johnson suggested back in March he could get $4M over 6 years. Bunting doesn’t have a long track record of success, so between that kind of term and everything else I mentioned, he would be a hard pass for me at that price.

Ivan Barbashev

I also profiled Ivan Barbashev back in February as a potential fit for the Devils. I loved the edge he plays with while showing some offensive touch and hoped that the Devils would’ve found a way to get him even with the acquisition of Timo Meier. Unfortunately for me and perhaps the Devils as well, Barbashev went from the Blues to the Golden Knights in exchange for former Vegas first round pick Zach Dean.

I probably overstated how good Barbashev was defensively at the time, but he hasn’t proven to be a liability either as he’s played on Vegas’s top line with Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault during their playoff run. Barbashev has proven to be a great fit for the Knights, with 16 points in 23 regular season games and another 17 points for Vegas this postseason (entering last night’s game). At 6’1” and 195 lbs, he’s not a small man and I think he’s a good enough skater to be able to play in an up-tempo system.

The biggest question with Barbashev might be exactly how much offensive upside does he have. He was never much of a point producer prior to his age 25 season, but he exploded with 60 points in 81 games for the Blues in 2021-22. He struggled offensively prior to the trade this season, but has been a seamless fit for Vegas since they acquired him. I mentioned how Barbashev isn’t know for his two-way play necessarily, but he’s been good enough to earn the trust of a defensive-minded coach like Bruce Cassidy in the most important games of the year.

Barbashev is projected to get 4 years and $4.2M, which seems reasonable for a player of his age and production. $4.2M for Barbashev wouldn’t be too far off of what Tomas Tatar just got from the Devils at $4.5M, so he could theoretically be your Tatar replacement if you think what he’s done offensively the last two seasons is real. Vegas might want to keep Barbashev, but they’ll have their own cap issues to deal with and one notable UFA in Adin Hill who probably has to take priority.

I would be interested in Barbashev for the Devils, but he’s another player that falls under the “let’s see what happens with Bratt/Meier” umbrella. Barbashev won’t replace their level of offensive production, but he does bring a physical element the Devils could use more of and he’s probably a 50 point player annually, which isn’t nothing.

Jesper Fast

I might be cheating a little bit with Jesper Fast (6’1”, 191 lb), who has a career high of 34 points in the regular season in his 10-year NHL career. He did get a mention in Matt’s column the other day since he is probably best suited for a third line role. But he plays a style and brand of hockey that I like and that I think the Devils could use a little more of, and its my column, so I’m going to include him.

Where Fast really shines is with his defensive play. He’s an excellent defensive forward and a great forechecker. He’s the type of player who won’t wow you over the course of the 82 game season, but he can make things really difficult on the opposition in a playoff series with his style of play. The Devils saw this first-hand as Fast was one of Carolina’s best forwards in that series.

The Devils made a point of playing Haula with Hughes as much as they did because they liked his play away from the puck. Fast could theoretically do all of those things and free Haula up to center the third line, which in turn would make the Devils a better team overall.

The problem with Fast is that he’s really not a top line player. He’s more of a great third line player who might be able to fake it on the second line for stretches if he can get on a heater. He’s not a black hole offensively as he’ll score his 10 goals and 20 assists, and he did score the series-winning goal against the Devils, but he’s not necessarily known for what he does offensively. Fast is coming off of a good postseason though with 6 goals and 3 assists in 15 playoff games.

Fast is projected for 2 years and $2.3M and I think that is more than fair for the type of player he is. If I were the Devils, I’d strongly consider signing him regardless of how the Meier/Bratt situation plays out, with the idea of acquiring more players who are a pain in the neck to play against. He’s very good in the role he’s asked to fill, and as long as the Devils or any team don’t sign him asking him to do more than what he’s capable of, he should be fine over the life of a short-term deal.

Max Pacioretty

Max Pacioretty could be the ultimate low risk, high reward gambit.

Pacioretty (6’2”, 217 lb) is a 15 year NHL veteran who brings a lot of good things to the table. He’s a leader, having served as captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He’s a goal scorer, having topped the 30-goal mark six times in his career. He was a pretty good defensive winger once upon a time, playing in all situations. He also has a lot of postseason experience.

The issue here is how much Pacioretty has left in the tank.

Pacioretty tore his right Achilles tendon last summer during offseason training. He was able to return ahead of schedule and looked very good for the Carolina Hurricanes in a small sample size before re-tearing it on a non-contact play in January, ending his season. Coming back from one Achilles injury is tough. Coming back from two in quick succession like this is almost unheard of.

IF Pacioretty can come back from this, and IF he’s still the player he was, he can be the sniper the Devils need on the power play. IF he’s healthy, he should fit right in with what he can do offensively to create scoring chances. IF he’s healthy, he’ll fire plenty of rubber at the net. But these are big ifs and this is a big ask coming off two serious Achilles tendon injuries.

I believe Pacioretty can be had on a relatively low-risk deal (he’s projected for 1 year and $1.5M). I think he’s worth the risk, as you’ll get top-line production at a fraction of the cost IF he’s healthy. If he’s healthy, he could be a steal. If he’s not, that will become apparent and it wouldn’t significantly hamstring the Devils going forward.

Whether or not the Devils agree, and whether or not Pacioretty is interested in coming to New Jersey, is a whole other question.

Jason Zucker

Zucker (5’11”, 192 lb) is an interesting name on the open market. A lefty shooting left winger, he’s coming off one of his best NHL seasons with 27 goals and 21 assists for a disappointing Penguins squad. Zucker topped the 30-goal mark once back in 2017-18 when he was with the Minnesota Wild but has generally been a consistent 20-goal scorer when healthy. He also has a reputation for being an up-tempo, energy player who doesn’t shy from contact. Pensburgh did a good recap of Zucker’s season if you want more info on him.

Pittsburgh has the cap space for a new Zucker deal, but whether new President of Hockey Ops Kyle Dubas has the stomach for another long-term deal on the Penguins books for a player already on the wrong side of 30 is a whole other question. The Penguins will presumably try to make moves to help their aging core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang contend, which would suggest they try to keep Zucker. Pittsburgh could throw a curveball though and opt to replace him with a younger winger like Bunting (who Dubas has familiarity with from their time in Toronto) and then shift their efforts towards rebuilding their putrid bottom six.

The issue with Zucker is the combination of his age and the likelihood he gets term off of a productive season. Zucker is entering his age 32 season next year and could get upwards of 5 years and significant money. He’s not a bad player, but the Devils handed out one of those contracts last offseason to Ondrej Palat. Like many of the players I already mentioned in this article that could get significant term, I think the Devils be wary to do another deal like that. I’m not as concerned about Zucker’s injuries with the Penguins as they’re believed to be a core muscle injury and a broken leg the prior two seasons, and he was relatively durable prior to that. I’d have some interest in Zucker if I could get him for three years, but in a thin market and this likely being his last big payday, I think he gets a long-term deal somewhere.

Final Thoughts

If you’re relatively unimpressed by this list of top six free agent wingers, I don’t blame you. It’s not a great UFA class. And while there are several other Top Six or even Middle Six wingers available such as Patrick Kane and Max Domi (among others) expected to be available, we’re starting to get in the territory of very flawed players who either aren’t fits with what the Devils need or probably do more harm than good at this point.

My preference for the Devils would be to get Bratt and Meier signed and mostly sit out this UFA class, with the possible exceptions of Pacioretty or Fast on a short-term deal. Most of the players I profiled in this piece bring something to the table that I like, but they also have their flaws or some other drawback where I’m not really all that interested unless its a team-friendly deal. And while this might change if the Devils have to trade Bratt or Meier, I think I would prefer the Devils play things conservatively and keep their flexibility moving forward if they have to trade Bratt or Meier. That makes more sense to me than locking in Jason Zucker for five years.

A better alternative might be exploring the trade market rather than spending in UFA. Toronto may wind up making William Nylander or Mitch Marner available. Ottawa is expected to “explore all options” with Alex Debrincat, which is code for “we have to trade him because he’s not signing here”. If Arizona continues tearing it down, Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse and/or Nick Schmaltz may become available. Vancouver will likely shop Brock Boeser, JT Miller, and Conor Garland again. Tampa may need to move Jersey native Ross Colton, and the Ducks might finally move Adam Henrique. Your mileage, interest, and acquisition cost may vary depending upon the player, but there will be options, and in some cases, the player would come with cost certainty. That might be a more attractive option than opening up the checkbook and paying market value for your UFA of choice, and with the Devils recently acquiring some extra draft capital, it might be the avenue they choose to explore.

That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see things differently, or have some thoughts on a different player not mentioned. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.