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A Good Low Key First Day of Free Agency for the New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils did not do any flashy or expensive moves on the first day of free agency. GM Tom Fitzgerald and his staff had a good, low key day to retain two fourth liners and add some organizational depth. This post summarizes his day as well as lists 10 of the worst contracts handed out on July 1, 2023.

2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
Tom Fitzgerald (M) had a good low key first day of free agency. Not so much for the other two guys in this photo.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils went into July 1 with most of their major business already completed. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald was able to re-sign both Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier to long-term contracts with reasonable cap hits for what they have done and will do on the ice. Out of the pending unrestricted free agents, the team essentially identified Erik Haula as the only one they wanted to keep - so they did with a new three-season contract. After recognizing that Damon Severson, Yegor Sharangovich, and Mackenzie Blackwood did not fit in the team’s long term plans, Fitzgerald traded each. This ultimately yielded Tyler Toffoli and an extra sixth round pick in 2023. These transactions not only made the team better but it reduced the amount of work Fitzgerald had to do on July 1 and beyond.

Fitzgerald made one notable decision in the afternoon before Free Agency Frenzy. He decided to give a qualifying offer only to Kevin Bahl, the lone restricted free agent who was not eligible for arbitration. Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod, and Jesper Boqvist - who were eligible - were not qualified and would become unrestricted free agents as of noon on July 1. It was reported that the Devils wanted to keep Bastian and McLeod. It was a risk as any UFA can sign with anyone after noon.

That turned out to be the first set of business for the New Jersey Devils on this day. Fitzgerald was able to re-sign both Bastian and McLeod. McLeod was given a one-season contract for $1.4 million and Bastian was given a two-season contract worth $2.7 million for a cap hit of $1.35 million. Both are raises for the fourth liners. They did decently enough for the team and the Devils indeed wanted them back. As for Boqvist, he is not coming back. Mike Kelly of the NHL Network reported that before noon struck. We wish the best of luck for Boqvist as he looks for a new team.

A little later in the afternoon, the Devils made a trade. They sent a fifth round pick in 2025 to the Dallas Stars for defenseman Colin Miller. Miller is a solid defensive player who has had very 5-on-5 on-ice rates throughout his career. He does not provide much in the way of offense. He plays on the right side. He is signed for next season and carries a $1.8 million cap hit. Miller is solid depth for a defense that could add two rookies in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec next season. Not to mention Kevin Bahl’s own performances. Arguably better than Brendan Smith. I liked the trade.

The last bit of business by the Devils in this afternoon was more or less for the Utica Comets. The Devils signed goaltender Erik Källgren, center Justin Dowling, and center Kyle Criscuolo each to one-season, two-way contracts. The signing of Källgren was especially important. Goaltender Nico Daws had hip labrum surgery earlier in this offseason and will be out until around Christmas. Rather than having incoming rookie pro Tyler Brennan as the #3 goalie in the organization, Källgren is a stop gap until Daws recovers and returns. Dowling and Criscuolo should help juice the Utica offense while also being call up options should the Devils need a center. It is common for NHL teams to make these kinds of signings as it often takes a NHL contract to get veteran AHL players of some quality. I would like to think Dan MacKinnon did more of the work on these three as he oversees Utica for the Devils. Still, it was part of the Devils’ day.

As of 8 PM ET, that was it. The Devils only needed to make decisions with their three unqualified free agents, get a third string goaltender, and start to fill in the roster gaps for Utica. Done, done, and done. If that is all the Devils do today, then they are left with $5.6 million in cap space. More than enough space to sign Kevin Bahl to a new contract - which will happen on the Devils’ terms as Bahl has no arbitration rights to force the team’s hand. The team only has 38 contracts out of 50 on the books too. This will be more than enough to add more players for Utica should they require NHL contracts. As well as any entry level contracts they want to dish out to unsigned prospects.

To be fair, some of that $5.6 million will be taken up by any Comets that are brought up to take roster spots. The CapFriendly page for the Devils already lists Luke Hughes for New Jersey. If they add Simon Nemec ($918,333), Alexander Holtz ($894,167), and Nolan Foote ($863,333) as depth for the New Jersey roster, then that cuts that $5.6 million down to about $2.92 million for Bahl’s new deal. If the Devils want to add a depth NHL forward, they can, but they may choose to opt to keep whatever space left open for callups and trades in 2023-24.

Ultimately, this is still a good day by Fitzgerald and the Devils even if none of the moves made today are as important as re-signing Bratt and Meier or doing a sign-and-trade with a departing Severson. The Devils kept two-thirds of their fourth line on respectable deals, added some solid depth for the defense, brought in a stop-gap goalie, and still have room for Comets to make the roster and giving Bahl a raise. It is very easy for GMs to overspend on July 1 for bottom-six players and depth defensemen. Especially in this year where the free agency class was short on top-end talent and long on bodies.

Other Thoughts About 2023 Free Agency Frenzy and My Opinion on the Top 10 Worst Contracts Given Out in 2023

As of 8:20 PM ET, CapFriendly states that 165 signings have been made with a total contract year count of 288, a total cap hit of $261,155,000, and total contract dollar amount of $640,892,499. Even when the free agent class can be best described as “mid,” NHL teams can and do spend a ton of money on July 1. Moreso than any other day of free agency. Since the Devils already took care of the majority of their business before today, they did not need to get involved all that much.

Which is great because the trend for this year’s free agency signings was money over term. Although one team definitely did not follow that trend, plenty of players opted for shorter contracts with some overpay. The salary cap for 2023-24 only went up $1 million compared to last season. Given that over half of the league used long term injured reserve to be cap compliant, there was not a lot of room for all of those players who were on the market. Not to mention that the teams that needed something particular like, say, a top-six scorer were short on options to begin with. Mid-tier forwards and defensemen? Yep. Backup quality goalies and third-stringers? Definitely. Starters? Not much but what’s there. The Devils did not need to add a lot from free agency this season and it was probably for the best.

Especially when some of the deals were just plain stupid. I am sure that some of them have a logic behind it that I am just not understanding. Others, well, they were just awful on the surface and will not get much better with time. I do not blame the player for getting the bag; I blame the teams for making these deals. Especially as they can have an impact on future signings and deals. I am not going to go through all 165 (and counting as Detroit apparently wants to keep signing UFAs) contracts to definitively find the ten worst ones. I will go through what I think are the worst of the worst based on what I have seen today.

Honorable Mention: Our Hated Rivals. None of their signings were expensive, too long, or both. They would not qualify for such a list. But none of their signings will actually help them and that warrants mention. They got dumped in the playoffs by a superior and faster Devils team. They surely saw Carolina, Florida, and Las Vegas use their team speed for plenty of playoff success. GM Chris Drury decided: Let’s get older and slower by signing Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino, Erik Gustafsson, and Tyler Pitlick. Drury also decided that Igor Shesterkin is so much like Henrik Lundqvist, he will lean on him further as his new backup will be a 37-year old Jonathan Quick. It is a roster that would be a contender for the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Too bad it’s 2023.

#10. Mackenzie Blackwood, Goaltender - San Jose re-signed for $5 million, 2 seasons. GM Mike Grier did not qualify Blackwood, which made sense as his qualifying offer was over $3 million. Nothing Blackwood has done since 2020 has warranted such a salary. Nothing Blackwood has done since 2020 warrants a $2.5 million cap hit. Grier was there for a part of Blackwood’s downfall. I understand the Sharks may play for lottery balls instead of a playoff spot. This would be much higher if I thought the Sharks were trying to be good. But this contract still sucks for a goalie who has not posted an overall save percentage above 90% in the last two seasons. Especially since, not long after this came out, Antti Raanta - a far superior goaltender - stayed with Carolina for $1.5 million. A coincidental salt in the wound.

#9. Justin Holl, Defenseman - Detroit Red Wings signed for $10.2 million, 3 seasons. GM Steve Yzerman has signed 11 players on July 1. I did not mis-type that. 11. It actually could be 12 as I swore I saw a report saying he got Christian Fischer and it has not yet shown up at CapFriendly. The point is that Yzerman has decided to just add any dude that would listen to him to his roster. I do not know what part of the Yzerplan that is. But most of them were short contracts. This is one of the few that were not and they showed that perhaps he should stay away from them. Justin Holl did play quite a bit for Toronto in recent seasons. And his defense was pretty good. Holl is a guy that is pretty reliable. The raise in his salary is not so bad. But on a team that already has Ben Chiarot, its defense already led by Mortiz Seider, and knowing Holl is 31 and all he really does is being an unremarkable looking defender, I do not understand the need for Yzerman to give him a touch over $10 million. By the way, I’m not done with Yzerman yet.

#8. Miles Wood, Left Winger - Colorado Avalanche signed for $15 million, 6 seasons. This average accrued value of $2.5 million for Miles Wood is not the problem with this contract. He is a fourth line winger who skates fast in a straight line, can contribute some goals, take some rock-stupid penalties, and not help on defense. It is an overpay but not a heinous one. No, the reason why it is on this list is that it is a six season contract. GM Joe Sakic is someone I thought was pretty smart. Who looks at a player reliant on his speed with past hip problems and says, “I’m going to trust he can fly into his 30s?” Once his speed goes, Wood will quickly become Just A Guy and a source of ire in Denver. You cannot convince me that this could not have been done for two or even three years instead of six.

#7. Ryan Graves, Defenseman - Pittsburgh Penguins signed for $27 million, 6 seasons. Now, I like Graves. I think some of the criticism he has received from some of the People Who Matter is a bit harsh and unfair. He is a solid second-pairing caliber defenseman. That said, he showed signs of slowing down already and his skill set is limited to the defensive end. The money is not the problem, the baffling part is that it is a six season contract. Pittsburgh may be nearing the end of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang window so I get the idea of wanting to add talent today. But Graves is just a defender and having him signed through 2029 is surely not the best Dubas could have done. It adds to the confusing books that also has Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust still getting paid through 2028. For context, Crosby’s contract ends in 2025. This deal is too long and it is almost guaranteed to end poorly because of it - along with the Penguins falling from their contender status. Not great first day of free agency for Dubas.

#6. Luke Schenn, Defenseman - Nashville Predators signed for $8.25 million, 3 seasons. Luke Schenn got a big fat raise from a $900k salary after not being a seven-figure player since 2017-18. Good for him. All he had to do was put up a bunch of unexpected points with Vancouver for 55 games, provide one measly assist in 15 season games with Toronto, and bust out one little assist in 11 playoff games. When he did play in Toronto, he averaged 12:13 of 5-on-5 ice time in the season and put up terrible numbers. In the playoffs, that average shot up to 16 and half minutes, his xGF% shot up to above 57%, and his CF% was still below 50% so the Leafs played more defense than offense with Schenn on the ice. I don’t know, I don’t think getting played a lot in the postseason for Toronto’s short run warranted a big raise or a three-season deal for the 33 year old. I also do not know why Nashville gave him this contract. If Playoff Schenn is a thing, will we even see it as a Predator?

#5. J.T. Compher, Center/Right Winger - Detroit Red Wings signed for $25.5 million, 5 seasons. This is the exception and it is a stinky one. Compher is coming off a career year in points (52) after putting up 33, 31, 32, and 23 in previous full seasons. While his shooting percentage was not out of control, his teammates may have been. He has been with Colorado up until today so it is not like he was not playing with high-end offensive players before 2022-23 either. In 5-on-5 play, he is not a driver of play - so he is not going to help in that regard either. This is a lot of money for a guy who screams “solid third line player that can move up in a pinch.” I understand there were not a lot of scorers available this year in free agency but overpaying Compher as if he was one is not a good move. If this was part of the Yzerplan, then maybe it needs a revision.

#4. Joonas Korpisalo, Goaltender - Ottawa Senators signed for $20 million, 5 seasons. When this deal was announced, you could count on your hand the number of contracts given out over 3 seasons. Even after some long-term deals were handed out by others, this one is still an eyebrow-raiser. Korpisalo certainly had a good 2022-23 with a 91.5% even strength save percentage. The problem is that this followed seasons of 87.7%, 89.4%, 91.1%, 89.7%, 89.7%, and 90.5%. You have to go back to his rookie season for a third good outing. Not to mention that Korpisalo has never made more than 39 appearances in a season. Like with Wood, if this deal was for two or even three seasons, then it would be a little more sensible. 5 seasons to commit to Korpisalo is a tough one to swallow. Ditto for the $4 million cap hit given his multiple sub-par seasons.

#3. Alex Killorn, Left/Right Wing - Anaheim Ducks signed for $25 million, 4 seasons. This is the result of a lack of high-end scoring talent in a free agency class. Whoever showed signs of hefty production will get a hefty contract. Killorn is a good player. Yet, he put up a career year in scoring - 27 goals, 64 points - when he was 33. He put up a career year in shooting percentage at 18.9% while breaking the 20-goal mark for the third time in his career. He also did this on Tampa Bay, where he got to play with some high end talent. High end talent that did not help him drive play as well as most of other Lightning skaters last season. Maybe Killorn meshes really well with Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. That is the only way I could see him justify a $6.5 million cap hit. GM Pat Verbeek is going to learn the lesson that just because he has the space does not mean he should just spend it so freely.

#2. Scott Mayfield, Defenseman - New York Islanders re-signed for $24.5 million, 7 seasons. Lou was the one GM to spur the trend towards short term deals. All of his signings today were for four or more seasons. Some were smart, like locking up Ilya Sorokin for eight seasons for a cap hit below $9 million. Some were goofy but had a logic to it, like locking up 35-year old Seymon Varlamov for four seasons but to a $2.75 million cap hit or giving 27-year old Pierre Engvall a seven season deal with a $3 million cap hit. The terms are too long for both but the cap hits are defensible; Engvall could be moved as needed. That said, this contract for Scott Mayfield sucks. Nothing about Scott Mayfield’s game warrants keeping him in Long Island for seven seasons. Sorokin and Varlamov have been one of the most reliable goaltending tandems and Engvall can be worth $3 million. Mayfield at $3.5 million for, what, exactly? To be one of the poorer on-ice players in 5-on-5 play? To provide a little production - his 24 points last season is likely going to be his career high? He’s 31 years old. This contract will take him until he’s 38. Will Mayfield even be a NHL-qualify defenseman by then? Who would even eat this contract in the future? This is both a bizarre and a terrible contract. Whereas Detroit has signed so many players as to try to form a new team, the Isles are staying pat as much as possible - and with Scott Mayfield.

#1. Ryan Reaves, Right Wing - Toronto Maple Leafs signed for $4.05 million, 3 seasons. One of the earliest signings of the day announced was Elliotte Friedman reporting that Toronto was going to sign Ryan Reaves. I laughed out loud when I saw it. I am still mystified by this contract. Reaves is a 36-year old quasi-goon. He adds next to no offense, next to no defense, and certainly not much of a deterrent. The idea that a big, strong, mean guy can keep opposing players from taking liberties has been as fake as pro wrestling. NHL teams have finally wised up to this over the past two decades. Yet, teams and media and fans will convince themselves otherwise to justify Reaves. The funny thing is that Reaves does not even fight that much anymore. GM Brad Treliving’s first signing for Toronto today does nothing to help the Maple Leafs out other than add $1.35 million to their already tight salary cap. A cap where they have $443,550 and Ilja Samsonov to re-sign. And, remember, Reaves is 36. He cannot be buried in the Marlies. Between Reaves’ lack of quality and the fact this is a multi-year contract above the league minimum, this is easily the worst signing of the day. Good job, Brad Treliving.

Your Take

Now we enter the part of the season where things just drag on. Tom Fitzgerald has no arbitration hearings to be concerned with. Development camp will come on July 10 and go after July 14. Kevin Bahl will eventually get a new contract before September 13. While there are some notable free agents still on the market, such as Tyler Bertuzzi, most of the NHL has done most of their signings by now. After a super busy week, the relaxing part of the offseason is just about here. And all of the hard work, decisions on who to keep, and decisions on what to do with who not to keep, Fitzgerald and his staff did in the past month and a half yielded what was a low key good day on July 1. Especially in light of some ridiculous contracts being handed out.

Now I want to know what your take is. Are you pleased with what Fitzgerald did today? Was there anything else you wish he did today? Do you think he has any other plans beyond re-signing Bahl later this Summer? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Fitzgerald and the Devils’ first day of free agency - and any other team’s - in the comments.

Thanks to Jared for helping out today. Thanks to Jared, James, Gerard, Alex, Mike, Matt, Chris, Nate, and Dan for helping out during the pre-July 1 part of the offseason. We will keep moving forward at All About the Jersey. Thank you for reading.