Building a good team in a hard-capped league like the NHL can be a challenge. Finding the right pieces is a difficult enough task on its own in any sport, but it’s made much harder by the presence of that firm (with some exceptions) upper limit in the NHL. Once you do identify and bring in the right pieces, whether though the draft, trades, or other means, the challenge then becomes holding onto them. Guys who play well get big paydays, and there are only so many big paydays teams can hand out before they paint themselves into a salary cap corner.
If a team is smart, a bit lucky, and has good timing, though, they can make it so that those dollars will maximize the number of good players they can lock down under that cap. For the Devils, they of course got a whole bunch of good luck, in the form of two draft lottery wins in 2017 and 2019 to give them Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes as franchise cornerstones. Circumstances converged to allow the Devils to lock in both of their stars long term at exceedingly reasonable prices. The excellent maneuvering from Tom Fitzgerald in the trade market and with his own in-house players in the wake of those signings has further solidified their position as a team with contender outlook and flexibility to spare.
Free agency is often a place where teams go to make big investments in crushing regret a few years down the road. This year, in a thin free agent market, many of tomorrow’s cap headaches were secured by teams around the league on July 1st. The Devils, due to the work that Fitzgerald did before July, were able to stay more-or-less completely out of the fray during the free agent frenzy. Fitzgerald signed his own guys and swung a trade for a guy like Tyler Toffoli using only an RFA with an increasingly uncertain role in New Jersey (Yegor Sharangovich) and a pick he got for a player who was almost certainly departing in UFA (Damon Severson). The deals he did sign to retain star wingers Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt were strongly anchored down by the deals the Devils already had in place with Hughes and Hischier. Guys want to win and will sacrifice a bit from their bottom line to do so, provided that a precedent is set, and the Devils have one hell of a precedent in both of those deals for their top-two centers.
The Devils made bets, first on Hischier and then on Hughes, that what was coming down the road from them was going to be extremely valuable, and opted to lock them both in long term with extensions early in the third season of their entry level contracts. Both players had not yet fully broken out at the time they were signed. Hischier was coming off of two solid but not necessarily spectacular seasons to open his career when he signed his current 7-year deal in October 2019 (which happened to be one of the final contracts Ray Shero signed before his departure in January 2020), but the Devils were certainly making a bet that he was ultimately going to be more than just “solid” when they signed him to that $7.25M AAV. The Devils, now under Tom Fitzgeralds watch, bet even bigger on Hughes in 2021, banking on him putting together the obviously high-level tools he possessed into an elite overall game, in spite of two relatively underwhelming seasons in terms of production and consistency (along with months-long shoulder injury he was out with at the time of signing in his third season).
In hindsight, these deals look like obvious wins and easy calls for Shero and Fitzgerald, but they each took a leap on guys who they believed would pay off. They trusted that the sum of their not-yet-fully-put-together parts would make them huge bargains, in spite of the optics of signing 20-year-olds that hadn’t really broken out yet to seven-to-eight-million-dollar cap hits. In a way, the Devils got lucky that their two young stars took a few years to make their actual star turns, because it allowed them to make the value bets that they did. But that only works when you actually a) make the bet, and b) the guy you expect to break out actually does so.
Fitzgerald has now started to leverage those two team-friendly deals into a selling point to bring other talent to New Jersey and keep them here for an extended period of time at a reasonable price. Fitzgerald could have rested on the laurels of one of the leagues most improved teams and biggest surprises when the trade deadline rolled around back in February. Instead, he struck while the iron was hot and added another big piece to the fold in New Jersey, then sold him on the fact that this was the place to be. Meier was seemingly on his way out of San Jose as they trend toward bottoming out, and after years of stockpiling draft capital in the hopes of building a powerhouse prospect pool, the Devils realized it was time to flip the switch and instead moved their own top picks to bring in a player nearing his peak. That Meier had a scoring power forward skillset underrepresented in Newark and happened to share a national team with multiple high-profile Devils, including Captain Hischier, made it a serendipitous situation. Fitzgerald made a decisive move and got his man when the timing made sense.
The Devils also took advantage of time/timing when it came to Jesper Bratt, but more in the Lamoriellian “when you have time, you use it” sense. In that case, Fitzgerald bided his time, put his best deal on the table, and trusted that Bratt would come around based on a desire to stay in New Jersey. As with others (like Meier), its possible that Bratt could have maximized his dollars by pushing his way to free agency and cashing in there. Instead, Bratt was locked in for 8 years at under 8 million per year.
The recent addition of Tyler Toffoli was also a recognition of an opportunity and acting when it presented itself. Rebuilding no more, the Devils can afford to move futures for potential difference-makers in their lineup, and considering that the Devils gave up a pick they got for Severson’s negotiating rights only weeks earlier plus a still-finding-his-way Sharangovich made it another decisive and efficient maneuver from Fitzgerald and the Devils.
After so many years of underwhelming performances and failures/false starts in roster construction, it has been refreshing to see the Devils seeming to hit all the right notes over the past year or so. Even the Devils big free agent splash from two seasons ago, Dougie Hamilton, seems to be working out for them now after putting an injury-hobbled first season behind him and finishing 6th in Norris Trophy voting in 2022-23. As the team has rounded into form and its biggest stars hit their primes with other potential big contributors still on ELCs, the Devils clearly see right now as their time. Championships are never won on paper, so we will see where the upcoming seasons take us, but the Devils have been decisive and savvy in their maneuvering and will have expectations as high as any Devils team since the 2004 lockout. And it's all now built around some of the best contracts in hockey for their star centers and aided by a front office that has recognized the moment to start pushing the chips in.