Earlier this afternoon, the New Jersey Devils announced a big and brand new contract for scoring winger Jesper Bratt. An eight-season deal worth $63 million. Jared wrote up his initial take on the deal here. I think it was great business by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald as he was able to keep a 70+ point scoring winger for a cap hit less than $8 million per season for the best seasons of Bratt’s career. The day was not yet done for Fitzgerald. What about the other big-name pending restricted free agent, Timo Meier? The GM made a move on him. A different move. Fitzgerald and the Devils filed for team-elected arbitration for Meier’s next contract. What does this mean? Let us break it down.
Timo Meier is a pending restricted free agent. In order for the Devils to keep his signing rights, he would need to be given a qualifying offer by the deadline - which is June 30 for this year. A pending RFA that is not qualified becomes an unrestricted free agent, who can sign with anyone when free agency begins on July 1. A qualifying offer is based on the player’s most recent salary and not their cap hit. In Meier’s case, he was paid $10 million in 2022-23. This means the Devils would have to give Meier a qualifying offer of $10 million to retain his rights. You can also figure that the negotiations for his actual next contract would start with that too.
I like Meier a lot but he is not a $10 million player. I agree with Jared that he should not get paid on below the level of someone like Matt Tkachuk. Maybe closer to Brady Tkachuk’s level. But with Meier being one season away from unrestricted free agency, one cannot be too harsh in negotiations. So what can the Devils do to avoid the $10 million qualifying offer? Exactly what Fitzgerald did with Miles Wood last Summer to avoid his $3.5 million qualifying offer: file for team-elected arbitration. Which had to be (and was) done by 5 PM today.
As confirmed by Ryan Novozinsky at NJ.com ($), should there be a hearing and the Devils win it, the arbitrator could cut that $10 million down to $8.5 million for a one-season contract. While that would take Meier to UFA status and risk damaging the relationship, an arbitration win for New Jersey would save a decent amount of money. Plus, I think $8.5 million is closer to Meier’s actual value.
The bigger reason for this decision was to keep Meier’s rights without having to provide a $10 million qualifying offer by June 30. That $10 million offer does not need to be given in two Fridays. As with player-elected arbitration, both the team and player can and will continue to negotiate a contract. If both sides agree to one before the hearing begins, then there is no hearing and the contract is the contract. Arbitration hearings are usually scheduled past mid-July and through to early August. The Devils bought themselves about four to six more weeks to keep hammering out a deal with Meier.
Further, there is a little more pressure now on Meier and his agent, Claude Lemieux (yes, that one) when it comes to the deal. Not a ton of leverage, but it is in Meier’s and Lemieux’s best interest to try to agree to a new contract before that hearing. Based on Meier’s performances, it is going to be difficult to explain to an arbiter how he is worth $10 million. Even if the arbiter does not give the Devils the full 15% cut, any cut means less money for Meier and savings for the Devils. And possibly a lower starting point even if he does go to unrestricted free agency in 2024. A Summer where he could be outshined by one (1) Auston Matthews among other potential free agents. If Meier truly wants to get a long-term contract, then he has a bit more incentive to be cooperative with Fitzgerald for the next few weeks. Meier still holds the “I can wait out one more season and go free” card so he commands most of the leverage. A little less of it now with a potential hearing in the future.
I would still figure on Meier getting a larger cap hit and perhaps even more money than Jack Hughes’ contract. Meier does have the leverage of being able to walk. Plus, Fitzgerald traded for Meier and talked up how he wanted a player with term in the months leading up to that deal. Now is the time to provide the term - and the money. For those reasons, I doubt Fitzgerald will want to let Meier go; even if it means losing a game of chicken in the process. Further, the salary cap is a little larger than when The Big Deal got his extension and the contract situations are different. And Meier just joined the organization. I doubt he feels he needs to fall in line behind Hughes’ contract. I am sure his agent does not feel that way either. Meier still stands to get paid real, real well. Even if you may think Meier is not as crucial as Bratt or Hughes or Hischier, the cost of business may mean a larger deal for the Devils to keep Meier.
Which is honestly fine with me. The Devils are in a position that their “core four” is substantially more cost efficient than the infamous foursome in Toronto even if Meier gets a $10 million cap hit in his next contract. GMs rarely get into cap trouble by spending a lot on top scorers and big-minute players like Meier. They get into it from overpaying middle and bottom six forwards and depth defensemen; and players who age badly in long-term deals. The true test of Fitzgerald’s cap management will not be in trying to negotiate Meier down to a cap hit of $8.75 million or $9.25 million. It will be in keeping himself from giving too much money and/or term to guys like Erik Haula, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, and Miles Wood. (Aside: I do not think all four of them are returning but that is beside my point.) Or any UFA to fill in a roster spot such as another Ondrej Palat-like contract. We shall see how that goes over the next few weeks.
Fitzgerald deserves plenty of praise for today’s work. He was able to lock up Bratt to an excellent contract. After holding steady on the brink of an arbitration hearing last season, Fitzgerald and Bratt’s agent sorted it out for the benefit of both sides. With this arbitration filing, Fitzgerald bought himself more time to negotiate, now does not need to pay out a massive $10 million qualifying offer, and should it go to a hearing, he is likely to get some kind of relief from that offer. This is what shrewd management looks like. It is also the kind of work that helps contending teams stay in a position to contend. And, hopefully, it is the work that leads to a significant contract for Timo Meier.
What do you make of the Devils filing for team-elected arbitration for Timo Meier’s next contract? When do you think the Meier contract will be done? How much will you be willing to go for the Devils to keep Meier? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Meier and Fitzgerald in the comments. Thank you for reading.