The New Jersey Devils have a ton of cap space this offseason; however, the main reason for that is the fact that a ton of skaters were playing on expiring deals this year. This is especially true amongst the forward group. Among the 14 forwards listed on the active roster on Cap Friendly, a full 9 are either restricted free agents or unrestricted free agents this offseason. That is a massive number, and it will require a lot of work and maneuvering by Tom Fitzgerald to put back together a formidable roster next year.
Among those 9 free agent forwards, 6 are RFAs, which means that the Devils do have a pretty decent amount of control over the majority of these guys. It will be interesting to see if all 6 end up being qualified and given new deals or not, as all 6 are really in different positions in their careers and will command different contracts. One of those 6 is Nathan Bastian, the 25-year-old right winger who carved a position for himself this year on the BMW line and was perhaps the most valuable of the three if you don’t include Michael McLeod’s faceoff abilities. It was only a couple of short years ago that he was exposed in the Seattle expansion draft and taken by the Kraken, but since his return to the Devils, he has been a quality contributor on the fourth line. In this offseason full of decisions for Fitzgerald, will Bastian be qualified? And if so, what could a potential deal look like? Let’s dive in.
Who is Nathan Bastian?
Bastian was originally drafted in the 2016 draft by the Devils in the 2nd round, pick 41 overall. It came on the heels of taking McLeod in the first round, and with both players playing their junior hockey for the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL, it was hoped that these two would pair up to be a force in the future for the Devils. Well, fast forward 7 years, and they have been playing significant minutes together on the same line for New Jersey, and they have seen success together, although certainly not at the level that the Devils brass was hoping for when it used their top 2 picks on these guys. However, the disappointment more lies with McLeod, who as a former 12th overall pick, you would hope would have blossomed into more than a faceoff specialist who slots in as a fourth-line center. As a mid-second-rounder, you would have hoped that Bastian would just turn into an NHL regular, and this is something he has largely done in his 2nd stint with the Devils.
Bastian is a big body for a winger, listed as 6 foot 4 and weighing 205 pounds according to Elite Prospects. That has led to some physicality in his game, as you would expect, but it certainly is not his defining trait. In the regular season this past year, Bastian totaled 99 hits, good for 5th on the team, but he was dead last when compared to the BMW line. Both Wood and McLeod were more physical than him, and considering that line is supposed to be a “checking line”, it just goes to show that he isn’t out there simply to impose his will physically.
It took Bastian a while after being drafted before he really was able to earn himself regular playing time at the NHL level. He remained in the OHL playing for Mississauga for the entire 2016-17 season. Then, he would move to the AHL, playing almost exclusively for Binghamton for the next three seasons. Between 2017-2020, he would play in only 7 games for New Jersey, as opposed to 188 games for Binghamton. During that time, his ELC would kick in, specifically starting with the 2018-19 season, which meant that he would be up for a new deal in the 2021 offseason. Still with the Devils at that point, he would sign a 2-year bridge deal with Tom Fitzgerald in June of 2021 with an $825,000 average annual value after having gotten into 41 games for NJ in that 2020-21 season. Read about John’s take on the signing when it took place.
He would not remain on the team for much longer after that. The Seattle expansion draft was a little over a month later, and he would be taken in that draft, heading to Seattle for the 2021-22 season. Here was his player card and reaction from JFresh when he was taken in that draft:
Nate’s time in the Great Northwest would be short. He would play in 12 games for the Kraken, posting 1 goal and 1 assist, before being put on waivers. His underlying numbers with Seattle were actually pretty strong despite the poor point totals, but Seattle obviously did not care about the other metrics at that time. The Devils, perhaps upset they had lost their big winger in the expansion draft, claimed him and brought him back, meaning they had really lost nothing in the expansion. Again, check out John’s reaction to the waiver claim. He would return to the Devils lineup after this, and he would remain there, hitting on that 12% chance from JFresh’s player card. He played in 60 games for New Jersey last year, plus another 43 regular season games and 12 playoff games this year. He had finally made it.
What Has Bastian Done as a Devil?
Bastian has played in 163 games in his NHL career, 151 of those while wearing the red and black. He has spent the overwhelming majority of that time playing on the fourth line, specifically with his buddy McLeod. Over the last two seasons, according to Natural Stat Trick, Bastian has played 773 5v5 minutes with McLeod, which is almost 400 minutes more than any other skater in that time frame, and almost 450 minutes more than any other forward. He has 384 5v5 minutes with Damon Severson and 333 5v5 minutes with Miles Wood. So his successes and failures over the last two years for the Devils are heavily tied to McLeod.
And the two, when together, have mostly done well, especially if you look at them through the lens of a fourth line as opposed to a scoring line. When together at 5 on 5 play, they have a 50.10 CF% and a 53.26 xG%. You will take those numbers all day out of a fourth line. However, if you want to break down those numbers, really it is Bastian who carries McLeod to those totals, not the other way around. When apart, Bastian has a 50.85 CF% and a 53.25 xG%, while McLeod has a terrible 39.38 CF% and a 38.46 xG%. Bastian has been equally as good when away from McLeod, but McLeod has been straight-up garbage without Bastian over the last two years. Those numbers speak volumes about who is the better of the two at driving play, again faceoffs not included.
And just so you don’t think it’s a fluke, the same holds true when you look at Miles Wood. Bastian pulls up Wood’s numbers a decent amount, but Wood does not do the same, the opposite in fact. When together, 333 minutes at 5v5 over the last two seasons, they have a 48.92 CF% and a 49.23 xG%. But when apart, Bastian has a 56.87 CF% and a whopping 63.86 xG%, while Wood has a 47.63 CF% and a 47.62 xG%. Wood drags down Bastian’s numbers a significant amount, while Bastian manages to pull up Wood a little bit, not an easy feat for a fourth liner to achieve.
Despite the positive influence on 5v5 numbers that Bastian has on Wood and McLeod, he has been given almost no time outside of the fourth line to see if that positive influence transfers up. This season, if you don’t include those two fourth-liners, Bastian has the most minutes with Yegor Sharangovitch, and the two played together for, wait for it…36 whole minutes. He played with Jack Hughes for 32 minutes and with Nico Hischier for only 19 minutes.
However, there is a good reason he has not been given more minutes outside of the fourth line. Despite his fairly quality analytics, Bastian does not produce points. He has never cracked double-digit goals or double-digit assists in a season. He had 9 goals in 2021-22 between Seattle and New Jersey across 72 games to go along with 5 assists. That was his best showing, and obviously, that is not very good. He would need to really start producing more points to warrant any move upward in the lines, as single-digit goals and assists each season is just not going to cut it outside of the fourth line. He can provide all of the positive analytics he wants, he isn’t getting any kind of promotion with only 6 goals in 43 regular season games as he had this past season.
Here are his 5v5 numbers since he started getting full-time action in the NHL, thanks to Natural Stat Trick, including the playoff run this year:
Projected Impact Moving Forward
As I just alluded to, Bastian projects as a fourth liner moving forward. He provides quality analytical numbers, good possession, and xG numbers, especially from a fourth-line position. Those prove that, if necessary, he could slot into a third-line role for a game here and there as an injury replacement and not sink the ship, but long term, he would need to improve his scoring in order to take on a third-line role more permanently. He does well on the checking line to push play forward and generate momentum for the team, but he has not turned that into points and thus looks to remain in a bottom-line position.
Granted, in his defense, his offensive zone faceoff percentages show that he has not been put in positions to score points, so you can only expect so much offensive production out of him. He has never even sniffed a 40% OZFO%, and in fact, has had years where he only gets half that. When you start the overwhelming majority of your shifts in the defensive or neutral zones, you are not going to get many grade-A scoring opportunities. If he were sheltered with, say, a 65% offensive zone start percentage, he would absolutely score more points. However, he has proven that he is a good defensive forward that can get the puck up ice and provide good possession metrics from a defensive position on the ice, and he has remained in that position because of it. If he can manage to somehow score more points in the next year or two while being given similar zone starts on the fourth line, he might see some time on the third line, but I would not really expect it. The scoring touch has not shown up so far, it’s tough to think he will become the next David Clarkson or Blake Coleman.
Given this role as a fourth line, checking forward with heavy defensive zone starts, he could legitimately see some additional time on the penalty kill moving forward. This past season, he had almost 53 minutes on the PK, so he was given some minutes there to defend penalties. It suits his game, and you could definitely expect him to make an impact on the penalty kill moving forward, I could see that PK minutes number rising over the next couple of seasons. However, in terms of value for a potential next contract, it probably won’t weigh too heavily since he has not had too much exposure to penalty kill time, just mostly as a backup role this past season. Before this year, he really didn’t have any PK time, so this is a recent development that suits his game.
Comparables and Potential Value
Bastian is coming off of his second contract. His ELC ran through 2021, and he just completed a 2-year bridge deal. Given his age and years of experience, the odds are that he will become a UFA after his next deal. A player becomes a UFA after 7 years of NHL experience OR they are at least 27 years old, whichever comes first. Bastian turns 27 on December 6, 2024, so unless he gets a 1-year deal, this will be his final time signing a deal as an RFA. There is a chance he gets a 1-year deal, but you would assume his agent works to get more years thrown in so that he can become a UFA. And honestly, it makes sense for both sides. If the Devils want to bring Bastian back, they arguably won’t want him for just 1 year, but more likely 2 years as they look to solidify the fourth line for Stanley Cup runs in the near future. Bastian isn’t the player that you regret allowing to become a UFA, he isn’t a superstar or very valuable player, someone like Timo Meier or Jesper Bratt. His value will not skyrocket on the open market, and he can most likely be replaced. It doesn’t really hurt New Jersey to allow Bastian to become a UFA by age 27 or 28 by adding another year to the deal.
Given that, the list of comparables I am populating includes bottom 6 forwards, many who play right wing, who were around 25 years old when signing their deal as an RFA. I will prioritize those who would become UFAs upon the contract expiring as well, as most who still retain RFA status are younger, there are not nearly as many 25-year-olds who sign deals to remain RFAs. Also, the goal is to find guys with similar experience, so games played at around 150-175. Here is the list I came up with thanks to Cap Friendly:
I honestly could have kept going with this, there were more of these scenarios in recent seasons than I expected before I did my research. I am not 100% satisfied with some of these comparables, but they are all pretty decent if not ideal. Some of them have fewer years in the NHL and might be trending more upward than Bastian, or actually score more points, like in the 20s per season, something Bastian has not done. But it is tough to find people solely who score fewer than 20 points per year, so I added the likes of Trenin.
Nonetheless, I think a trend becomes pretty clear. If you are a bottom 6 right winger getting a new contract around ages 24-26, you are looking at a 1-3 year deal at around $1.5 million in average annual value, and you are very likely to end up a UFA. William Carrier got 4 years with Vegas a few years ago, but that is the outlier on term length, not the norm. I was actually a little surprised at how many only got 1-year deals. It leads me to think there is more of a chance than I initially thought for Bastian to get a 1-year bridge deal that keeps him as an RFA. However, I still think the odds on favorite for him would be a 2-year deal that makes him a UFA after. Maybe we see a 3-year deal if the Devils are really high on Bastian, but the comparables say less term is more likely, and that does make sense to me. Two years seems to be the sweet spot for me if he is qualified and brought back.
In terms of AAV, I think Bastian most likely gets the lower end of the spectrum here. As I mentioned, some of these guys score more than Bastian does, and some have been successful in a shorter time frame. Bastian has really 3 years in the league, and in that time frame, he played in more than 45 regular season games only one time. Others have 60+ games played in 2-3 seasons when they got their deals, and they produced more points more in that time frame. Bastian just has not done enough empirically to get the higher end in terms of average annual value.
Because of this, I think that if he is qualified and brought back, we are looking at probably a 2-year deal of around $1.2-1.3 million AAV. Those numbers could vary slightly, but it gives a general idea of what to expect. If that goes down to 1 year on the deal, then obviously the team is less high on Bastian’s game, and the comparable numbers say they would not offer as much as I just said. On a one-year deal where he remains an RFA, he might get closer to $1 million. Here are a couple of comparables where they were RFAs before and after the deal, around age 25. Again, looking at bottom six forwards.
There were far fewer instances, in recent years, where a forward around age 25 got only a 1-year deal to remain a RFA. In both of these cases, the going price was under $1 million. This is not out of the realm of possibility for Bastian. Coming off of an $825k deal, he would not get less, but getting something like Zach MacEwen got, perhaps closer to $1 million, would not be insane. I still think this is the less likely scenario, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
What I Would Do and What I Think NJ Would Do
If I were Tom Fitzgerald, I would certainly look to qualify Bastian. There is almost no downside in doing so. He is a fourth-line center with positive possession and expected goal metrics who synergizes well with McLeod to provide a quality checking line for the Devils, and on top of it, he is very affordable. There is no reason to move away from it. Sure, Fitzgerald can bring in someone else to do the same job, but why? That new person won’t be cheaper, and they won’t know the system and won’t have any synergy with current players.
I would go with what I said earlier, and offer him 2 years at around $1.2 million per year. That doesn’t hurt the Devils’ cap situation at all, and if McLeod is also brought back, it maintains that connection which works on the fourth line. But if Fitzgerald wants to only give him 1 year and keep him as an RFA after next year, go for it. Offer him a solid $1 million flat on a one-year deal, that works for me too. No harm either way.
What do you think about Nathan Bastian? Do you think he is good to bring back for another year or two on a fourth-line role? What do you think about his game, producing decent metrics but not producing points? How about his potential growth to a PK position as a defensive forward? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!