The New Jersey Devils are mostly done with their business this offseason, but being “mostly done” and actually being done are two separate things. Tom Fitzgerald has done a good job adding to last year’s team and getting key members locked up long-term this summer. With the bigger stuff done, now is the time to potentially start tweaking around the edges.
Last week, we took a look at how the Devils could make a big addition in net to solidify their status as championship contenders. This week, I wanted to take a look at some depth forwards the Devils might pursue to fill out the bottom of the roster.
I’m a big believer in the idea that there is no such thing as being “too deep” or having too many good players. Hockey is a physical game, injuries happen, and some players you might be counting on to fill certain roles might not be up to the task when the games count for real.
As of this writing, the Devils have 11 NHL forwards locked in to roster spots for the 2023-24 season. This number includes the trade for Tyler Toffoli and the re-signings of Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, but does not include any of the forwards currently in Utica such as Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, and Graeme Clarke. Depending on how the Devils want to configure their roster, there could be spots for 2 or 3 forwards.
It would be reasonable to pencil in Foote for a roster spot. Fitzgerald has talked him up at a few points this offseason and as John reminded us in his story last week, Foote would require waivers to be sent back to Utica. Barring an unexpected trade, he’ll be on the roster. Even so, that likely leaves 1 or 2 forward spots up for grabs.
For the purposes of this article, we won’t be looking at Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, or Jonathan Toews. Tarasenko recently changed his representation and while it is up in the air where he might sign, he would presumably be out of the Devils price range. Patrick Kane is expected to sign sometime in-season after he recovers from offseason hip surgery, and its uncertain if Jonathan Toews will continue his playing career after dealing with long COVID and chronic immune response syndrome. But any other UFA forward is fair game, so we’ll name a few players and what they bring to the table that can help the Devils.
Before we get started though, what could the Devils use a little bit more of in their lineup?
What do the Devils actually need?
The word ‘need’ is probably a little strong, as the Devils could certainly go into Opening Night with the lineup they have and the team should be fine over the course of an 82 game regular season. But there are a few areas where the Devils could get a little deeper, a little more skilled, a little tougher, or matchup a bit better.
Tom Fitzgerald said recently that his goal was to have the best Top Nine in the league. The Devils currently have eight forwards who you can comfortably lock into the Top 9 with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, Erik Haula, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Toffoli. The Utica trio of Holtz, Foote, and Clarke will presumably get a chance to compete for that spot, but there are a small number of players available remaining on the open market who also could reasonably fill a Top Nine role.
The Devils may consider adding another forward who can soak up penalty kill minutes, but its not a glaring hole at the moment. It’s true Yegor Sharangovich was third among forwards in ice time on the kill despite missing a handful of games as a healthy scratch late in the season. They’re not in awful shape though as Hischier, Haula, Mercer, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian all saw time down a man last season. Toffoli also played 50 minutes on the kill last season for the Flames, and Curtis Lazar saw some time killing penalties for the Devils as well, so this isn’t a pressing matter.
The other area the Devils could look to improve is adding yet another ‘energy’ type of player. They don’t necessarily need to target size (although it couldn’t hurt), but adding another player who gets after it, forechecks, and is generally not a whole lot of fun to play against and/or gets under the skin of the opposition isn’t the worst thing in the world. If the player happens to be a plus skater as well, that would just be a case where the Devils are adding to one of their strengths.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some players who are still on the open market who might be able to contribute.
The first name on our list is the most familiar, as Tomas Tatar just completed a two-year contract with the Devils. Tatar struggled in the first year of that deal but rebounded nicely in Year 2 with 20 goals and 28 assists while playing all 82 games for the Devils. Unfortunately, his season ended with a thud as Tatar pulled his annual postseason no-show with one goal in 12 postseason games.
The door may have already closed on Tatar returning to the Devils. The Devils seemingly replaced him with the Toffoli trade and Fitzgerald was comfortable enough to let Tatar test free agency. But by now, Tatar has tested free agency. He is still unsigned. It would be surprising if there was good money or a multi-year deal out there for Tatar at this point. Would the Devils and/or Tatar be interested in a reunion if he was willing to take, say, $1.5M for a year?
What would Tatar bring to the table: Tatar is probably the only player on this list who I’d be comfortable with in a Top Nine role on this Devils team. As I mentioned, Fitzgerald wants to build the best Top Nine in the league. Tatar has been in the Devils Top Nine the last two seasons and they know exactly what they’re getting out of him.
We know that he can play in Lindy Ruff’s system. He had a lot of success last season playing on the top line with Nico Hischier. Tatar might have a tendency of disappearing in the postseason, but he also has a reputation for being defensively sound and having good metrics. He’s a good source of secondary offense for a team that will occasionally need that over the course of the regular season.
Nosek is an experienced 4th line center (who can also play wing) who has played the last two seasons with the Boston Bruins. Nosek originally came into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Red Wings and played parts of two seasons in the Motor City. He was left exposed in the 2017 Expansion Draft and was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights, where he played the next four seasons of his career. He is probably best known for scoring the first goal on home ice in Vegas Golden Knights franchise history.
What would Nosek bring to the table: Checking in at 6’3”, 205 lb, he would be one of the larger forwards on the Devils roster. Nosek would give the Devils another option on the penalty kill (168:09 time on ice last season) and for specific in-game situations such as faceoffs and defensive zone starts. He has been a part of 52 NHL postseason games, with the bulk of them coming in 2017-18 with the Golden Knights. Nosek isn’t going to be on the league leaderboards for his offensive prowess, but he gets after it and typically chips in 7-8 goals over the course of the season. If one isn’t sold on Curtis Lazar on the 4th line, Nosek is a capable alternative.
Tyler Motte (5’10”, 192 lb) has developed a reputation for being one of the better fourth liners in the NHL. After short stints in Chicago and Columbus to start his career, he’s best known for playing parts of five seasons with the Vancouver Canucks before he was traded to the Rangers at the 2022 NHL trade deadline. Motte signed a 1 year deal with the Ottawa Senators prior to last season before once again being dealt to the Rangers in February for their playoff run.
What would Motte bring to the table: Motte is a little undersized but he makes up for it by being incredibly pesky and annoying to play against. Motte is fearless, blocking shots and throwing hits as well as doing the dirty work on the forecheck. If there’s a negative, he has missed time the last four seasons due to injury, and a quick YouTube search will show he’s been on the receiving end of some devastating hits. That said, Motte has some skill and will chip in the occasional goal if given the opportunity. He could also potentially give the Devils another option on the penalty kill if the Devils decide they want another option there.
Heinen (6’1”, 188 lb) is an interesting case. The versatile forward can play center or either winger position, and is one of the few players on this list who could move up and down the lineup if needbe. He played parts of 4 seasons in Boston to start his career before going to the Anaheim Ducks in 2020 in exchange for Nick Ritchie. Anaheim didn’t tender a qualifying offer to Heinen, so he played the last two seasons with the Penguins after signing as an unrestricted free agent.
What would Heinen bring to the table: Heinen would bring some versatility and a little more offense than most of the options on this list. He does have experience on the power play unit so he could be an option to get a greasy goal for the Devils second unit should they sign him. He has had solid underlying numbers in the past, which makes why he was a healthy scratch late in the season for a Penguins team that struggled to find quality bottom six options a bit of a mystery.
By no means is this meant to be a definitive list or a be-all, end-all of who is out there that the Devils should get, but I did want to illustrate and highlight a few potential options should the Devils want to add an external option.
The truth of the matter is that this is nitpicky stuff we’re talking about. The Devils don’t really need to do a whole lot of anything at the moment. Going into the season and seeing what you have in Holtz, Clarke, and Foote is perfectly reasonable. Any of those players showing they belong at this level lessens the need to add outside players and gives the Devils the ability to divert resources elsewhere. And if they show they’re not up to the task, odds are these players and a bunch more with similar skillsets will be available at the deadline at a relatively low cost.
That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see things differently. Would you be interested in adding a depth forward? What would you be looking for from this player? Please feel free to leave a response in the comments and thanks for reading.