The goal for any NHL general manager is to make moves that will help their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. Whether a GM is approaching their offseason plan of attack with long-term moves in mind or quicker fixes for the immediate future, the majority of the work that that GM does that directly impacts the NHL team for the upcoming season happens right around this time of the year. We’ve already seen some moves across the league in the leadup to the draft earlier this week, and we’ll see plenty more starting tomorrow as the market opens and free agents can sign with a new team.
The New Jersey Devils spent most of the last decade rebuilding the team through traditional means. By taking years to draft and develop players like Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and others, the core of what they hope will be the next Devils championship team is in place. However, that’s not to say they have sat out free agency in year’s past. Part of the reason the team improved last season was due in part to the moves they made on this day two years ago (signing Dougie Hamilton) as well as last year (trading Pavel Zacha for Erik Haula, signing Ondrej Palat, and trading Ty Smith and a draft pick for John Marino a couple days after the market opened). Those moves all proved to be important as the Devils gave their young core help that ultimately led to a playoff berth and one of the largest one-year turnarounds in NHL history.
With free agency once again upon us, here’s what you need to know going into one of the busiest news days on the NHL calendar.
The Day Unrestricted Free Agency Begins: July 1, 2023
The Time it Begins: Noon (12:00 PM) ET
The General Points to Know About Free Agents
Here are a few key points that are worth recalling ahead of free agency beginning on Saturday.
As per usual, the final decision of where an unrestricted free agent (UFA) will sign falls upon the player. The player has earned the right to test the open market and do whatever he decides is best for himself, his family, and his playing career. A variety of factors go into this decision, with money typically being the #1 motivating factor. There are other factors as well though, including but not limited to, the term of the contract, team fit (from a systemic, style of play standpoint), the team’s location, the team’s arena, practice-facility, and proximity to such amenities, weather-related reasons, tax-related reasons, family-related reasons, and lastly, personal reasons where the player doesn’t owe you or me an explanation for why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Free Agency is not a particularly effective or cost-efficient way of building a team. Rather, it is where teams should turn to to find players who supplement their core and support what they already have in place. It is rare when a true difference maker hits the open market, although it does happen. One example is when the Vegas Golden Knights signed #1 defenseman Alex Pietrangelo three years ago. Pietrangelo turned out to be a big reason why the Golden Knights were the Stanley Cup champions this past season. That is the exception to the rule. You don’t need to look much further than the 2016 free agent frenzy to see the other end of that spectrum.
The biggest problem with free agency is that too many teams make short-sighted moves, typically under pressure from ownership, local media, players on the current roster, the fanbase, or some combination of them to make moves that will help you win now or else. Teams who are convinced they are closer to contention than they actually are do things like what Vancouver and Philadelphia, to use two examples, have routinely done over the years. These teams have spent to the cap ceiling on rosters that aren’t even in a position to make the playoffs, let alone compete for a Stanley Cup. They are then hamstrung by those deals and wind up compounding the problem by either trading futures to dump salary or doubling down on bad process.
For the Devils, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern. We’ll dive deeper into their salary cap situation in a bit but they’re not in a position to hand out a megadeal to one of the top UFAs such as Tyler Bertuzzi, to name a name. They’re also not really in a position to give out silly money or term to a mid-tier free agent. That’s not to say the Devils will sit out the frenzy tomorrow entirely. As the Devils GM, Tom Fitzgerald has consistently made moves with the big picture in mind. It’s unlikely that he’s now all of a sudden going to turn around and make illogical, short-sighted moves.
Expect almost all of the big names to sign sometime tomorrow, but don’t panic if the Devils don’t do anything tomorrow. For the most part, the heavy lifting when it comes to shaping the 2023-24 Devils roster has already been done and there’s not much room to add in free agency anyways. Even if the Devils don’t sign anyone tomorrow, there’s nothing keeping the team from making trades. The John Marino trade didn’t happen on Day 1 of free agency last year. The Devils and 31 other teams will take a look at where they stand after the initial wave happens and reevaluate.
The salary cap ceiling for the 2023-24 season will be $83.5 million dollars, an increase of one million dollars from last season. The minimum salary for a player is $775,000. We’ll dive deeper into their cap situation shortly but obviously, term matters as much as the actual money being spent. A dollar spent today for 2026-27 doesn’t easily go away, and while there are always methods to finagle out of salary cap trouble down the road, it doesn’t come without a cost.
Restricted free agents (RFA) are allowed to talk to teams beginning tomorrow, and while the hockey media loves to speculate about the potential for offer sheets, they’re quite rare nowadays as most GMs are afraid to upset the Old Boys Network and use every tool in their toolkit to improve their roster. There have only been four offer sheets signed since 2010, with only one of those players changing teams and becoming the subject of memes in the process. I say all that to say it seems unlikely that any of the Devils RFAs will be the target of an offer sheet but it is a remote possibility. Even if it is a 1:10000 chance. For more on offer sheets, CapFriendly has a handy breakdown of how they work with the different tiers and compensation.
How Much Cap Space Do the Devils Currently Have?
As of June 29, 2023 at 10 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have a projected salary cap hit of $73,292,500. This includes $70,295,000 for players on the Devils NHL roster and $2.575 million in dead cap space ($2 million for the final year of Cory Schneider’s buyout, $325,000 for the final year of Janne Kuokkanen’s buyout, and $250,000 for the recapture penalty from Ilya Kovalchuk’s “retirement.”). The Devils have $10,207,500 million in cap space available, which is in the middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the league.
Where Does the Devils Roster Currently Stand?
As of June 29, 2023 at 10 PM ET at CapFriendly, the Devils have 9 forwards signed, 5 defensemen signed, and 2 goaltenders signed on their main roster. They have 8 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders signed to their non-roster list - which includes Utica Comets on NHL contracts as well as a player’s junior team. They have 32 players signed out of a maximum of 50 standard player contracts. All count against the 50-contract limit, although two are ELC contracts that are slide-eligible (Simon Nemec, Josh Filmon).
One thing to keep in mind with the Devils roster is the waiver situation. Beginning next season, Nolan Foote and Tyce Thompson must pass through waivers in order to be sent down. With how Foote has been talked up by Tom Fitzgerald several times already this offseason, one can reason that he might be in the Devils plans for 2023-24. Thompson’s status is less clear. It should also be mentioned that Reilly Walsh fell under this umbrella as well prior to his trade to the Boston Bruins.
As the market opens this year, the Devils have already made a few moves in the leadup to July 1. They knew they weren’t going to bring back Damon Severson, so they facilitated a sign-and-trade with Columbus to get a 3rd round pick. They knew they wanted to bring back a core piece in Jesper Bratt, so they signed #63 to a $63M deal. Erik Haula was vocal during breakup day that he wanted to return. He will indeed return after the Devils signed the pending UFA to a three-year deal. In addition to the aforementioned Walsh trade, the Devils remained busy in the leadup to the draft by trading goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood to the Sharks for a 6th round pick and packaging the 3rd round pick they got in the Severson trade with Yegor Sharangovich to the Flames for Tyler Toffoli. The Devils locked up another big part of their future by resigning Timo Meier for 8 years.
As things stand, the Devils have $10,207,500 to fill out seven spots on the NHL roster. With the heavy lifting already done for the Devils this offseason, most of that remaining space will go towards keeping their remaining RFAs, with a couple spots open for outside additions or Utica players who may have a chance to win an NHL job in training camp. The Devils probably have enough space left for one move in the $3M range, whether its another defenseman, another forward, or perhaps upgrading from Vitek Vanecek in net. We’ll cover all of those options in a bit.
New Jersey’s Restricted Free Agents
The deadline for the Devils to qualify their remaining RFAs is at 5pm Eastern today. After trades and recent signings, the Devils have four NHL players who fall under this group. Three of those RFAs have arbitration rights. Those players are Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, & Michael McLeod. The three players will likely file for arbitration at some point in the coming days, with hearings scheduled for later in the summer.
The other NHL RFA is Kevin Bahl, who does not have arbitration rights. As a result, it would not be surprising to see him remain unsigned throughout the summer and perhaps into training camp. Bahl doesn’t have leverage like his fellow RFAs with arbitration rights and is basically at the mercy of whatever the Devils decide to offer him.
If the Devils do not qualify any of those players, they will become unrestricted free agents tomorrow at noon ET. Tom Fitzgerald has not tipped his hand one way or the other what he will do, although he did mention in an interview on NHL Network yesterday that he might “look to something different on the wings”. The Devils have made big commitments to Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Ondrej Palat, they’ve traded for Tyler Toffoli, and Dawson Mercer is going nowhere. It makes you wonder if he’s not happy with Jesper Boqvist and/or Nathan Bastian. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Devils moved on and didn’t qualify either player.
The Devils also have five RFAs at the AHL level in Timur Ibragimov, Aarne Talvitie, Jeremy Groleau, Zackary Hayes, and Zacharie Emond. Of that group, Talvitie and Hayes have arbitration rights. The same situation applies to them being qualified as well. I would guess the Devils qualify Talvitie and Groleau since they’ve been in the organization for a while now, but we’ll find out later today.
New Jersey’s Unrestricted Free Agents
Earlier this week, Tom Fitzgerald said that the remaining Devils UFAs would all test free agency on July 1. The Devils have four UFAs from the NHL roster now that Haula has re-signed. Let’s take a quick look at each of them.
Jonathan Bernier was injured early in the 2021-22 season, underwent season-ending hip surgery, and missed the entirety of the 2022-23 season as well. It is unclear if he will attempt to resume his playing career, but if he does, it will be some place other than New Jersey.
Ryan Graves played the last two seasons for the Devils after coming over in a trade from the Colorado Avalanche. Alex profiled him last month, and while he noted that while Graves has generally done well as a Devil, he seems likely to be a classic free agency overpay once he hits the open market.
Miles Wood has played parts of eight seasons with the Devils. Gerard profiled him earlier this month. After missing most of the 2021-22 season due to hip surgery, Wood was mostly healthy this past season. Unfortunately, his production dipped after his breakout 2020-21 campaign and his propensity to take foolish penalties finally earned him a healthy scratch during the Rangers series.
Tomas Tatar rebounded nicely for the Devils after struggling throughout the 2021-22 campaign, with 48 points in 82 games. Mike profiled him and noted that the Devils should at least be having internal conversations about whether or not they can bring back Tatar. Obviously, this was prior to the Toffoli trade. With Toffoli on board, it would appear there is no room for Tatar and that the Devils will move on.
The Devils also have a handful of UFAs at the AHL level in Mason Geertsen, Jayce Hawryluk, and Brian Pinho. Whether or not any of them is back is relatively inconsequential to the parent club, but this is a good time to point out that the Devils will likely make a handful of signings of AHL-caliber players with Utica in mind. The Devils will have several prospects at the AHL level for the first time in Topias Vilen, Chase Stillman, and maybe Daniil Misyul, so it would make sense to bring in some experienced veterans at that level to help them out and provide some stability.
What do the Devils need?
The Devils don’t have any glaring holes, although there are a few areas where they can either shore up depth or potentially look to upgrade. Let’s start from the net and work our way out.
The Devils are in a good spot in net with Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid as the NHL goaltending duo. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re set at the position. According to Pierre LeBrun, the Devils have been linked to former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who has made it clear he will not re-sign with Winnipeg. Having interest in one of the best goaltenders on the planet is one thing. Whether the Devils have the cap space to extend Hellebuyck is a whole other story. Hellebuyck is signed for next season at $6.16M AAV before hitting UFA. It would stand to reason if the Devils are kicking the tires on Hellebuyck, they’re probably not content to stand pat if there’s an opportunity to upgrade at the position and they’ve probably done their homework on other goaltending options. We’ll see if anything happens on that front.
I would expect the Devils to add an experienced third goaltender regardless of what happens with the Devils goaltending at the NHL level. Nico Daws is expected to miss a significant portion of the upcoming season, leaving the Utica Comets goaltending depth chart barren. Their options at the moment to be called up to the NHL team should Vanecek or Schmid be injured? Currently, its 2022 4th round pick Tyler Brennan and maybe Zacharie Emond if he returns. If you’re not comfortable with either one being a heartbeat away from getting NHL playing time this season, its safe to say neither is GM Tom Fitzgerald. A veteran with NHL experience such as Anthony Stolarz who you can probably slip through waivers makes a lot of sense, but don’t be surprised if the Devils take advantage of the fact Schmid is still waiver-exempt and carry whoever the sign as the backup until Daws returns to Utica’s lineup. The Devils have flexibility in this regard.
Last week, I wrote about depth defensemen. I won’t rehash everything I said there, but to summarize, I don’t know that I’d be all that comfortable with the options the Devils currently have for the penalty kill, nor would I be all that comfortable with late-game defensive situations if Jonas Siegenthaler or John Marino were to miss significant time. I think there’s a chance they could pursue a defense-first defenseman who can help in those areas, and while the options I listed in the aforementioned column would likely be good fits, they’ll all also likely be too expensive. Fitzgerald mentioned that he’d like to add something but is also comfortable with what he has.
I already mentioned that the Devils might be looking at depth wingers. The Devils made a move for a top nine winger with the Toffoli trade. The veteran winger should bring some size, grit, experience, and finishing ability to the Devils lineup. I think the Devils are set at center with Haula returning, but if they wanted to acquire another center with the idea being they can keep Haula with Jack Hughes, there are options out there, especially on the trade market at 50% retained, of course.
Who is Available?
Again, lets start from the net and work our way out.
It seems unlikely the Devils would add a UFA goaltender, but I wouldn’t dismiss the thought outright either. Frederik Andersen is probably the best of a thin crop of UFA netminders, followed by Tristan Jarry, Adin Hill (the Knights are reportedly closing in on an extension with him) and Antti Raanta in some order. Semyon Varlamov, Joonas Korpisalo, Jonathan Quick, Laurent Brossoit, Martin Jones, Thomas Greiss, Alex Nedeljkovic, Cam Talbot, James Reimer and Jaroslav Halak round out the list of experienced goaltenders who will be available.
The top of the UFA defenseman market features Dmitry Orlov, Matt Dumba, John Klingberg, and Ryan Graves. There are a handful of decent depth options such as Erik Gustafsson, Scott Mayfield, Carson Soucy, Radko Gudas, Connor Clifton, Justin Holl and Luke Schenn.
At forward, you have a decent mix of one-time big names (Ryan O’Reilly, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Vladimir Tarasenko), quality options who should cash in in a weak market (Tyler Bertuzzi), useful role players who will likely be overpaid (JT Compher, Michael Bunting, Jason Zucker), aging vets who still have a little something in the tank (Alex Killorn, Jordan Staal), low-risk, high-reward options (Max Pacioretty), middle six forwards who play well in a defined role (Jesper Fast), players who were bought out (Josh Bailey, maybe Blake Wheeler and/or anyone else bought out today), and flawed players I’d stay away from entirely (Max Domi, among others)
If you’re reading that list and thinking to yourself “That’s it? That’s the best available on the open market?”, I don’t blame you. It’s not a good UFA class. That’s not to say that there aren’t useful players but if there was a year where I was glad our GM didn’t have $30M in cap space burning a hole in his pocket, it’s probably this year. Perhaps a trade option would be more intriguing. John wrote about some potential trade options a few weeks ago and again this past weekend.
The Reading List
If you missed any of our UFA, RFA, and trade target profiles, you can catch up on those players at the links below. On behalf of John, I’d like to thank everyone at AATJ for their contributions over the past six weeks leading up to business season in the NHL.
- RFA profiles: Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, and Kevin Bahl
- UFA profiles: Tomas Tatar, Miles Wood, and Ryan Graves
- Free Agent Targets: Top Six Wingers, Bottom Six Forwards, Depth Defensemen, Goaltenders, More Bottom Six Forwards, and Everybody Else
- Trade Targets Part 1 and Trade Targets Part 2
A Brief Lookahead to the 2024 Offseason
It’s always important to keep an eye to the future and keep something left in reserve in case of a rainy day. For the Devils, that would mean not blowing every last penny they have this summer, resulting in not only not having anything left for the trade deadline, but not having anything left for next summer and beyond. The Devils will have several important contractual situations to deal with a year from now.
- The Devils have one very important RFA coming up next offseason as Dawson Mercer is in the final year of his ELC. With 98 points in his first 164 NHL regular season games, its safe to say that Mercer has earned a raise. Fitzgerald mentioned recently that while he hadn’t yet spoken to Mercer’s representation, he “definitely has a desire” to sign him long-term. Mercer is eligible to sign an extension starting tomorrow. The Devils know how important Mercer is to their future. There’s a reason he was a non-starter in the Timo Meier trade talks. A deal with Mercer might not necessarily come down tomorrow (don’t expect it to), but I think there’s a good chance Fitz tries to get him locked up in the coming weeks and months once the more immediate matters at hand are in the rear-view mirror.
- The Devils have another potentially very important RFA in Akira Schmid. I say ‘potentially’ because whether its Hellebuyck or another external goaltender, there is a chance Schmid is not part of the NHL tandem next season. Remember, Schmid does not have to clear waivers to be sent down. If Schmid is up all season and plays well, he should theoretically earn a contract similar to the one that Vitek Vanecek currently has. If he struggles or is in the AHL most of the season, I’d expect his next deal to reflect that as well.
- Depending upon the deals they get this summer, the Devils may need to start thinking about rebuilding a portion of their bottom six. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian are eligible to hit unrestricted free agency two summers from now in 2025. Jesper Boqvist is eligible in 2026. As these players inch closer to UFA, they’re going to get more expensive to retain. The Devils already have younger players at Utica such as Nolan Foote and Graeme Clarke pushing for an NHL roster spot. More players will be on the way in the next year or two, such as former first round pick Chase Stillman and perhaps Arseni Gritsyuk. The Devils will have decisions to make about which players they have that are worth keeping and which ones can be replaced. We’re talking about bottom of the roster players here, so it’ll be important for the Devils to get the most bang for their buck with how much money they have tied up at the top of the roster. This is where if all things are equal, they’ll opt for the more cost-efficient option and move on from the more established, expensive player.
- Brendan Smith is a pending UFA after next season. The Devils will have a decision to make whether to bring him back or look for a different, and potentially less expensive, depth defenseman.
- The newly-acquired Tyler Toffoli is also a UFA after next season. It’s way too early to speculate whether or not the Devils will bring him back, although he did say an extension is “on the wishlist for sure.” I don’t think the Devils necessarily need (or should) rush to get an extension done with Toffoli given their long-term cap situation, but we’ll see if the Devils work on one once more pressing matters are addressed.
- After next season, the dead cap charges for Cory Schneider ($2M) and Janne Kuokkanen ($235,000) will disappear from the Devils books. This will be a welcome sight, along with any potential cap increases, as every dollar matters moving forward for the Devils. That money will eventually need to go to the next contracts for the next wave of Devils. If one wants to look a little further into the future, the recapture penalty of $250,000 from Ilya Kovalchuk’s “retirement” will also finally be off of the Devils books after the 2024-25 season.
I would expect the Devils to be mostly quiet tomorrow. The deals with Bratt, Meier, Haula, and the trade for Toffoli have eaten into their cap space, but there is enough space for their remaining RFAs. The Devils might have a depth move in them, but they might also take a step back, reevaluate their roster, and decide they have enough to go into the season. If they do that, they should have enough accrued cap space at the deadline should they need to go out and make an addition at that time. The Devils don’t need to spend right up to the cap ceiling tomorrow, with one possible exception if they actually did want to upgrade from Vanecek to Hellebuyck in the short-term. If they did something drastic like that, they’d likely be capped out for this year, but they’d also be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.
As per usual, there will be an open post for the day to discuss what the Devils (along with everybody else) does during the free agency frenzy. John and I will cover anything and everything the Devils may do throughout the day, and John will try to have a summary of the first day of action posted once the dust settles later that evening.
Please feel free to leave a comment and discuss what you want the Devils to do, what the Devils really need to do, what you think the Devils will actually do, and what they should not do in this year’s free agency in the comments. Thank you for reading this preview of 2023’s Free Agency Frenzy.