With the Devils locking down Jesper Bratt this week and things looking optimistic on the Timo Meier front, per Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils aren’t going to have much room to add much in the way of top-six talent (and the market for it this offseason is pretty weak anyway). They doesn't mean they won't be looking for a little help around the margins, though, when free agency comes around. WIth that in mind, today we look at a few potential UFA options for the Devils’ bottom six.
Once upon a time, Alexander Kerfoot was a Devils draft pick, as the team selected him in the 5th round of the 2012 draft. He would never end up playing for New Jersey, though, as he played through his entire NCAA career at Harvard and, sensing that he had better opportunities to jump right into a limeup elsewhere, opted to go to free agency instead of signing with the Devils. Kerfoot has gone on to have a pretty solid career thus far, particularly for a fifth round pick, first with Colorado (who had similarly lost Will Butcher to post-college UFA in the opposite direction) and then in Toronto after being a piece of the Nazem Kadri trade.
Kerfoot, now a six-year veteran who will be 29 this summer, has settled in as solid yearly contributor of production (about 0.5 pts/game over his career) and a okay driver of play at 5v5, eventually settling more into a defensive role in his time in Toronto. Kerfoot, dating back to his college days, has always been more of a playmaker than a finisher, and his career high in goals was all the way back in his rookie season with Colorado when he potted 19. Kerfoot doesn’t necessarily have a “grinder” profile but he’s a decent player and could add some depth and versatility to a lineup at the right price. With a weak FA class, it’s conceivable Kerfoot could end up as one of the guys who are overpaid, in which case the Devils and Fitzgerald would probably bow out, but if he can be had for around $3M or less with limited term, he could be a good bottom-six addition.
Lars Eller has been a part of some very good teams where he was an important role player, including the Capitals championship run in 2018, where Eller was a big playoff contributor in their middle six with 18 points in 24 games. He has played 13 NHL seasons, primarily with Montreal and then Washington (after initially being drafted by St. Louis). This season, as the Caps saw the writing on the wall before the deadline, Eller was one of the players the moved out in exchange for a 2025 second round pick. Eller didn’t make a huge impact for Colorado, playing a mostly defensive role in their bottom six, and ended up being held without a point in their seven-game first-round exit.
Eller is a veteran who has now seen a lot of battles over a long NHL career. While he was formerly a solid middle-six type, he’s now transitioning to a more limited bottom-six role. Now entering his mid-thirties, Eller would carry decent amount of risk on any contract more than a year, but he might be worth a look if he can be had for an inexpensive one-year deal to serve as a safety blanket for a bottom-six that the Devils as they see if some of their young potential role players like Nolan Foote or Graeme Clarke can transition into an effective depth role in the NHL.
Smith is one of those guys who has always flown a bit under the radar, being an effective contributor in Nashville for many years before heading to Boston to bolster their depth. Smith has been well regarded in analytics circles as a play-driver over his career, using his speed to generate offense, even on some pretty heavily offensively limited Nashville teams. Smith surprisingly took a step back this season even as Boston rocketed to the top of the standings, putting up a career-worst point total and ultimately getting moved in a three-team trade that brought Garnet Hathaway and Dimitri Orlov to Boston. Smith put up five goals in his 22 games with a Washington team playing out the string for the first time in a long time, but was more of a salary dump than anything so Boston could add Orlov and Hathaway.
Smith is one of those tricky cases where it’s tough to determine whether he has fully hit a cliff in his career at 33 or if he just sort of got crowded out in a stacked Boston lineup where others were performing better. He only averaged 11 minutes a game, firmly in the fourth line range, so the drop in output is partially explained by that, but for a guy who has traditionally relied on speed, perhaps the years are catching up to him. To me, he’s an interesting bottom-six reclamation project to consider for the Devils. He made hay for years in the typically forecheck-powered Nashville offenses and I’d be curious to see if he could fit in as someone who could generate some offense from that fourth line checking role, one area where the Devils were a bit limited on offense this season.
Jesper Fast is another potential veteran option for a bottom six role in New Jersey next season. Fast started out his career with a bunch of years across the river for the Rangers, where he was a consistent depth contributor for New York. Fast, of course, has been in Carolina the past few seasons, where he has transitioned well into the Hurricanes puck possession and cycle game as a role player. You may remember Fast from the tipped OT power play goal that ended the Devils playoff run back in May, but despite his big moment scoring Carolina’s last game-winning goal of their postseason, it’s up in the air whether he’ll return to Raleigh at this point.
Fast has been a very good defensive forward over the course of his career who can be counted on to chip in some timely goals when called upon. He will turn 32 this upcoming season and took a slight step back in output and underlying numbers this past season, but he’s a solid role player and has been across his career. With the high-flying offense present higher up the lineup, grabbing some guys better known for suppressing opposing offense would be an understandable tactic for Fitzgerald and the Devils in their bottom-six. Fast has historically been a bargain, never having a cap hit above $2M, so he might be a decent value target if Carolina lets him walk.
Unlike a lot of the other guys on this list, Hathaway has traditionally been more of a fourth-liner, rather than a middle-six guy now transitioning into a bottom-six role. Hathaway has never put up especially big point totals but he’s a good grind-it-out type that a lot of teams look for and he’s produced strong underlying numbers playing that style of game. Hathaway took a long road to the NHL and didn’t really break in as a full-time player until his age 26 season in Calgary. Hathaway went undrafted and ultimately found his way into the Calgary organization after finishing out his four years at Brown University in the NCAA. He signed a four-year deal with the Capitals in 2019 and played three and a half seasons there until he was dealt to the Bruins in the trade mentioned above that sent Craig Smith to Washington.
The Devils are going to have to get good value for anyone they add to the bottom six, so it’s possible they will be looking more towards a guy like Hathaway more traditionally tailored to a fourth-line role. I like Hathaway as a player and I think he could potentially be a part of a stifling fourth line if the Devils also bring back Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian for that role. He’s not going to be a splashy move but he could be a good option for a team like the Devils that is pretty well set up on offense.
In the NHL, there are no shortage of guys who can potentially plug into a bottom-six role and be effective in the right situation. Even in a weak free agent class, there are a lot of guys out there who could fill the Devils needs, since they have most of the hard part (i.e. the cores at forward and on defense) already figured out. The names explored above are just a small sampling of what is out there. Names like Teddy Blueger, Pius Suter, Vladislav Namestnikov, Tyler Motte, Oskar Sundqvist, and others could also be on the Devils’ list to take a look at. How much of a look the Devils need to take at these bottom-six types will also be dependent on what they do with their own free agents, particularly guys like Erik Haula, Tomas Tatar, and Miles Wood.
What are your thoughts on potential options for the Devils’ bottom six this offseason? Are any of the names highlighted above ones that might interest you? Are there others that you have specifically on your radar? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments below and thanks for reading.