The Devils had only one bit of RFA business to finish up as we reach the end of July and today, they announced a resolution to the negotiations with Kevin Bahl, signing the young defenseman to a two-year bridge deal after a solid performance in 2022-23.
There wasn’t much question on whether Bahl would be re-signed and Bahl didn’t have a ton of leverage, given that he did not yet have arbitration rights, but as the Devils press closer to the cap, it remained to be seen what type of dollars/term they would land on. We got our answer today, as the team signed him for two years at a $1.05 million AAV (for a total contract value of $2.1M). Details are in the Devils press release and in the CapFriendly tweet below:
In keeping with tradition, this is a tidy bit of business from Tom Fitzgerald and his staff. In locking in Bahl for just over $1M per year, they have secured someone who seems to be developing into a pretty solid third-pairing defender (with room to improve as well) at just a shade over the league minimum. For a team like the Devils where, despite the deals being good value, they have a lot of money now locked up in their big guns, it’s important to get value further down the lineup and I think they have done that with Bahl.
Bahl originally came over in the 2019 Taylor Hall trade with Arizona, which is looking more and more like a coup and a nice parting gift from erstwhile GM Ray Shero. The Devils used the first-rounder from that trade to select Dawson Mercer and the third-rounder to acquire Jonas Siegenthaler from the Capitals. Put it all together and the Devils seem likely to have three lineup regulars next season as a direct result of that trade.
For Bahl’s part, he certainly wasn’t a sure thing from the outset and, even through the 2021-22 season, it was unclear if he would make any impact for the Devils at the NHL level. His minutes were limited in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, but his initial tastes of the NHL showed marginal defensive impact with a significant drain on the team in the offensive end. Bahl never looked like a disaster, which was encouraging for a rookie d-man, but the limitations at the time were clear in his early appearances.
Bahl was obviously young and just getting his first tastes of NHL action in those years, though and those iterations of the Devils had plenty more issues that they were fighting that made it a challenging environment for a young defender. In 2022-23, Bahl got another crack at the NHL and he looked a whole lot more comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, ready to lean into his strengths (namely, that he is a gigantic player who can still move pretty well).
Bahl found a bit of snarl in his game in 2022-23, and began using his size more to erase players in the defensive end. He was typically good at picking his spots, though, avoiding taking himself out of position to throw a hit just for a hit’s sake and utilizing his mobility to recover when necessary. The improved approach and use of the tools at his disposal were quickly reflected in improved underlying numbers as well, as you can see from his isolated impacts from last season:
If Bahl continues his trajectory and turns into a strong defensive defenseman for the Devils, he can be a part of a truly formidable unit that already has stalwarts Siegenthaler and John Marino to go along with the dynamic Dougie Hamilton and top prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. The flashes of truculence shown by Bahl in the past year also give him an element that fits nicely into the overall picture on the blue line for the Devils.
In the end, it’s more solid work from Tom Fitzgerald and locks Bahl into place at a very reasonable number over the next couple of years. If Bahl continues to improve, the Devils will obviously be in a position of needing to pay him in a couple of years, but they had limited space for now (especially if Fitzgerald still has machinations on changing the goalie situation) and I think there’s enough uncertainty in Bahl’s future where he wasn’t really a candidate for anything long term. As the dust settles, Bahl gets a modest NHL raise and one-way deal that will see him make a lot more actual dollars than he has in his past couple seasons and the Devils have a solid bit of defensive depth at an inexpensive price tag.
If this is the last move of note, it has been quite a summer for Tom Fitzgerald and his crew. Aside from the savvy Toffoli move, the Devils really didn’t do anything too splashy, they just took care of business with their guys, cleared out some space with the departures of a few guys who didn’t fit into the long-term plans, and secured some solid depth without breaking the bank for any of it. As it stands, they have around $2M of cap space sitting available with a full roster now signed and set for next season. They could use that space to make one more move before next season, but they could also hang onto it to maximize their flexibility and give them an opportunity for a big deadline add next season if it makes sense. Either way, it’s hard not to be happy with where the Devils are at right now. All that’s left is the waiting for next season and then seeing if this team can follow through on the now-heightened expectations.