Now that we are in the slower part of the NHL offseason, it is natural to think about the upcoming season. Just as we are interested in the New Jersey Devils and how they will follow up an amazing 2022-23, the players are interested in showing that they have a future in this or perhaps another organization. Some may be a veteran looking to secure another job in the NHL. Some may be minor leaguers looking to show that they can still add depth to a team. And there are those in the beginning of their pro careers; players whose entry level contracts that are ending. Some will get the bag and some will hope to not have to pack a bag to go play abroad or elsewhere to keep their career going. I want to focus on those players for the next three posts on this Friday.
There are eight players in the New Jersey organization on entry level contracts that will end after this next season. Two of them you know: Dawson Mercer and Akira Schmid. They are significant enough players to warrant their own posts with deeper dives into what they have done and what they could get based on this upcoming season. This post is about the other six. They have been with the Utica Comets for the most part. Not only do they want to show New Jersey that they may deserve a shot in the show one day, but they want to show that they are worth at least another contract. Let us get into the six in Utica whose ELCs are expiring after next season and explore their situation going into this upcoming season.
The Three That Tasted the NHL
Nico Daws, Goaltender, Age: 22, Salary for 2023-24: $775,000 (NHL), $80,000 (AHL)
The most experienced player among these six is goaltender Nico Daws. He came over from ERC Ingolstadt of the German DEL in 2020-21 to join the Devils organization for 2021-22. Due to a slew of injuries and poor performances in the crease, Daws was called up and made 25 appearances. His 89.3% overall save percentage was good for 79th in the NHL out of the 119 who appeared in at least one game in that season. And second on the Devils, edging out Mackenzie Blackwood and falling short of Jonathan Bernier’s 10 games. The goaltending was a disaster in 2021-22 and it was absolutely not helped by the terrible team in front of them. Daws’ introduction to North American hockey was rough at times. Still, there were some shining moments and Daws did post a 91% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations (special teams hated Daws). Daws would fare better in the AHL with a 91.6% save percentage in 21 games, which helped earn him four playoff appearances - that did not go well. Still, it seemed like Daws was at least in the running as the #3 goalie in the system.
Except that is not what happened last season. When Blackwood went down with an injury in Edmonton, Akira Schmid was the one who was called up. Daws would get a few emergency loans up to New Jersey when Vitek Vanecek was possibly hurt. But he would not play. Schmid did. Schmid did very well with a 92.4% 5-on-5 save percentage and a 92.2% overall save percentage. Schmid, as you know, would get a start in Game 3 in Manhattan after Vitek Vanecek was lit up in the first two games. He would then play like a hero as the Devils came back against Our Hated Rivals; featuring two shutouts in the critical Game 5 and 7 wins. Say what you want about the Carolina series, but Schmid was the man. With Blackwood traded to San Jose, it appears Schmid will get to be a New Jersey man instead of a Utica man.
Meanwhile, Daws was hanging in there with the Comets. He would play in more games with 33 appearances. However, his save percentage dropped to 90.4%. Daws would have a better playoff with a 92% save percentage in six appearances, though. However, all was not well for the German-Canadian netminder. As reported by Ben Birnell on June 10 in the Rome Sentinal, Daws underwent hip labrum surgery. The recovery period will mean Daws is out until around Christmas. This is a big reason why the Devils signed Erik Källgren on July 1.
This is not just bad news for the Comets, who will have to hope Källgren, Tyler Brennan, Isaac Poulter, and Jeremy Brodeur (yes, Martin’s other goaltender son) can platoon the position until Daws returns. Daws’ contract is ending and this season is a big one for him to show that he can stick in this organization. He did more than just get a taste of the NHL but that was out of necessity and in a difficult spot. It is a good question to ask: How would Daws have fared with a better Devils team? Would he be like Schmid or would he not measure up? To get to answering that question, Daws needs to be more consistent with his performances as a Comet. An overall save percentage dropping from 91.6% to 90.4% season-over-season does not inspire confidence. With Brennan already joining Utica and Cole Brady and Jakub Málek in the system, there could be some pressure for Daws to even keep his spot in Utica beyond this season.
The first thing he needs to do is to recover, get better, and get prepared to play. He may need to be great as soon as possible to improve his chances of getting another contract in New Jersey. I will say that it is not a good thing if the Devils are in the second half of next season and they need to call up a goalie. But just like Schmid showed last season, an opportunity to turn a dire one into a positive one may be what Daws needs.
Summary: Daws has plenty to prove, a lot to gain, but will not have a lot of time to show it when he comes back from his injury. That said, if he does well enough and does not decline upon return, I think he will likely get another NHL contract.
Nolan Foote, Left Wing, Age: 22, Salary for 2023-24: $832,500 (NHL), $70,000 (AHL)
Did you know that Nolan Foote was involved in one of Tom Fitzgerald’s first trades as New Jersey Devils general manager? While he was an interim at the time, Foote and Vancouver’s first round pick in 2020 (used on Shakir Mukhamadullin) was the return for Blake Coleman. The trade worked out well for Tampa Bay, as Coleman fit into their lineup quickly and helped them win two Cups. That worked out well for Coleman, who got paid real well by Calgary in the 2021 offseason. Mukhamadullin was a piece of the deal that brought Timo Meier to New Jersey, so that part of the return worked out. What about Nolan Foote, though?
Foote has received call up duty in each of his three seasons so far with the Devils. Six games in 2020-21 for a goal and an assist. Seven games in 2021 with three goals and an assist. Six games in 2022-23 with a goal. A grand total of 19 NHL appearances, where he played 10 or more minutes in eight of them. The young winger was kept to limited minutes and did not really demonstrate much to warrant more in most of his games.
Down in the minors, Foote was not exactly lighting it up. It seemed that he was a scorer with seven goals and 17 points in 24 games with Binghamton. He was one of their top scorers in that shortened season. But he put up 14 goals and 32 points in 55 games with the Comets in 2021-22; putting him in a tie with Ryan Schmelzer and Frederik Gauthier in points for seventh on the team. Foote produced a bit more with 20 goals and 37 points in 55 games with the Comets last season. Good for third on the team, but also a sign of a team that lost quite a bit of scoring season-over-season. That is not bad but that production is hardly screaming “Put me in the NHL!”
This has not stopped the Devils from hyping up Foote a bit. On June 5, Kristy Flannery reported the following quotes from Tom Fitzgerald at The Hockey News:
“I think he’s the example of proper player development,” he said.
“That’s incredible for a kid who has never really played center. He’s got good size, and his skating has improved,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a real good kid. But he was committed to it. That’s all you ask. When I look at player development, I look at where he started, where he was, and where he’s going. I give all credit to our (Utica) coaching staff. But, most importantly, Nolan should get a lot of credit as well. He accepted it. He’s thriving. We have big plans for Nolan.”
When the GM is claiming “big plans” for Foote, then it may be safe to say he has an immediate future. Ruff also noted that Foote’s skating - by far his biggest issue since coming to the Devils - has improved. Flannery’s article suggests that Foote could be a similar player as Bastian. I can kind of see it? But the lack of results with the Comets so far makes me less enthused about the notion. A month later, Bastian is back, however, a fourth-line left wing spot may be open for the taking. Maybe Curtis Lazar or Bastian can play on their offhand, but it would not shock me if the Devils are hoping Foote can command that role in training camp based on Fitzgerald’s quote.
This is where Foote is. After three seasons with the Devils organization with some call-ups and time mostly spent in Utica, it is time for Foote to try and earn a spot. Is he going to be more fleet of foot in 2023-24? Hopefully so. Is he going to be able to fire the puck more and chip in more than just being a 6’3” guy on the ice? Hopefully so. Should he go back to Utica, can he provide more than just 15-20 goals and sub-40 points? Hopefully so. He would also need to clear waivers to go back to Utica. Something that does not impact the others in this post. Another sign that the some in the organization - namely, Fitzgerald - is cheering for Foote to make it. It is up to him to prove it, though.
Summary: Nolan Foote really needs to have a good training camp and preseason. GM Fitzgerald likes him and head coach Ruff thinks his skating has improved. If he does and sticks in the NHL, then he will surely get another contract. If not and 2023-24 and ends up being more or less the same as 2022-23, then he may still get it - but his time to shine may be past him.
Santeri Hatakka, Left Defense, Age: 22, 2023-24 Salary: $775,000 (NHL), $70,000 (AHL)
Of all of the players in this post, I would argue that Santeri Hatakka has the most to prove in this coming season. Hatakka was one of the contracts from San Jose added to the Timo Meier deal to make that work. The other players in that deal: Timur Ibragimov signed an AHL deal, Scott Harrington was placed on waivers and was claimed by Anaheim, and Zach Émond signed with Laval a few days ago
appears to be gone. [Thanks to Ben Birnell for letting me know - JF] Clearly, the trade was meant for Timo Meier. If Hatakka becomes a player for New Jersey, then it is a bonus.
What makes Hatakka’s situation different is that he has shown nothing at all with the Devils organization. He could not. His 2022-23 season was heavily cut short by injury. Hatakka played in just 8 games with the San Jose Barracuda last season. The Sharks thought well enough of his game to call him up for nine appearances in 2021-22. With the Barracuda, he played in 41 games and was touted at Fear the Fin for his defensive play. Hatakka appears to be a defensive defenseman and one who has tasted the NHL. But he had no shot at getting another one because he was often unavailable to play. Forget about a Devils debut, Hatakka has not even made a Comets debut.
This would have to be well-earned. The Devils signed Daniil Misyul to an ELC in this offseason and it is possible that Topias Vilén could be in Utica. Both are left-shooting defensemen like Hatakka. The Comets are also returning veteran defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon and fellow expiring ELC defender Michael Vukojevic. Both are also left-shooting players. That is four players on the blueline Hatakka may have to compete with for ice time and that is not even considering any AHL-signed defenders the Comets have.
Hatakka is coming off a lost season due to injuries, he will debut for his new organization, his position has several other players already on the team and known to the organization, and his contract - that the Devils did not give him - is ending. This is a tougher situation than anyone else in this post.
Summary: Hatakka can gain a lot of with a strong season in Utica. He may have some extra confidence or drive since he has been in the NHL for a bit before. He will have to compete for whatever shifts and opportunities he does get. He could stand to stay in the organization for a bit with at least good AHL season. Or at least get interest from another team should New Jersey not want him beyond this season. But the goal remains for Hatakka: get back onto the ice, do your thing, and continue to get deals here instead of having to go back to Liiga. Which is a real possibility if this season goes poorly.
The Three Still Waiting for Their Shot at the NHL
Graeme Clarke, Right Wing, Age: 22, 2023-24 Salary: $775,000 (NHL), $70,000 (AHL)
Graeme Clarke is coming off a very strong 2022-23 season. After signing his ELC from Fitzgerald in 2021, Clarke joined the Binghamton Devils. In a shortened season, he played in 31 games, put up 8 goals and 18 points, and finished second in scoring between Fabian Zetterlund and Foote. He took 69 shots on net for a healthy rate of 2.23 per game. In 2021-22, Clarke moved to Utica and struggled. In 52 games, he put up 10 goals and 24 points, and finished tied with Aarne Talvitie for thirteenth on the team in scoring. He had 100 shots on net, a shooting rate of 1.92 per game. It was a tough season for the offensive winger.
Fortunately, 2022-23 would be different. Clarke would be called upon to do more and do more he did. Clarke played in 68 games. He put up 25 goals and 58 points to lead all of the Comets in scoring and to lead by at least 17 points. Clarke fired 211 shots on net, jumping his shooting rate up to 3.1 per game. Clarke was an offensive leader for a Comets team that needed one with Zetterlund, Chase De Leo, and A.J. Greer gone. This even continued into the playoffs with two goals and four assists, putting him in a tie with Jayce Hawrlyuk. What more could you ask for?
How about a call-up? Clarke was called up a few times in light of injuries last season, but would not get into a game. His next NHL appearance will be his first. It would be one thing if the Devils, who were clearly not needing any help from Utica among skaters, did not have the room. But Foote got a call up and played in some games despite Clarke clearly having a better season than Foote. It suggests to me that the organization is not as high on Clarke as I think they should.
Ultimately, there are two things Clarke can do about it. The first is to go into camp and preseason games and command the coaches’ attention. Just as Fitzgerald-supported Foote will have to earn a spot, so does Clarke and he can make it a problem for the Devils to sort out. The second is to go prove that the 2022-23 season was not a fluke. Should Clarke continue to get on the scoresheet regularly and fire at least 3 shots per game on average, they will be signs that he is at least worth a look at the next level. Clarke may end up being an AHL player or a tweener, but he has to get the chance to show that. Either with New Jersey or elsewhere.
Summary: Clarke’s situation is similar to Foote’s only without Fitzgerald’s public support, Clarke not receiving any games in the NHL, and Clarke being exempt from waivers for another season. I suspect the latter may drive the Devils to wait on Clarke a bit more. It is up to Clarke to make them pay attention, both in camp and with the Comets. Will he get another contract? He could for a season or two if he maintains production. But he could end up like Reilly Walsh and get moved to a different organization where he may have more of a chance.
Brian Halonen, Left & Right Wing, Age: 24, 2023-24 Salary: $832,500 (NHL), $80,000 (AHL)
One of the things I think the Devils will do more of in coming seasons will be signing players out of college. Undrafted free agents to help bolster the minor league teams and the prospect pool overall. Halonen was an example of that as he joined the organization after he finished his college career at Michigan Tech and an amateur try-out that lasted for 12 season games and 2 playoff games with Utica in 2021-22. Halonen is older so he is pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. What do the Devils see in him?
That may be up to the coaching staff and management, but I think I see at least a middle-six winger at the AHL level. Which he mostly was for the Comets last season. He played in 57 games, put up 17 goals and 30 points to finish eighth on the team in scoring (tied with the departed Andreas Johnsson), averaged close to a PIM per game, and found his groove as the season went on. Nine of his 17 goals and 12 of his 30 points came in the final 14 games of the season. Was he hot? Yes. Was it a sign of getting more used to the pro game? I think so, too.
If nothing else, Halonen has shown he can at least hang at the AHL level. However, it is going to take a lot more from him to show if he can do anything more. Given that he will turn 25 in January 2024, I doubt he is going to develop his skills much further than he has been. The utilization of those skills, though, that could improve. From my standpoint as a fan, I think Halonen would need to first demonstrate that he can be a top player at the Utica level before he gets any kind of look with New Jersey. Unlike Foote, he does not have the potential nor the support of management. Unlike Clarke, he needs to show he is a scorer in the AHL first and while 17 goals and 30 points right out of college is not bad, it is not particularly impressive either.
Summary: Let’s see if Halonen can be one of the best Comets before we think about seeing him in New Jersey. It is possible Halonen’s next contract could be an AHL deal.
Michael Vukojevic, Left Defense, Age: 22, 2023-24 Salary: $775,000 (NHL), $70,000 (AHL)
Michael Vukojevic was drafted as a defensive defenseman with size and he has been exactly that since going professional after 2019-20. He joined up with Binghamton in 2020-21 and has been that kind of defender for 26 games. He did it for 54 games with Utica in 2021-22 as well as four playoff games. I am unsure if it was for conditioning or poor performance or just getting him some ice time that he played in four games with Adirondack in that season. Fortunately, that was his only stint in the ECHL. He provided a total of four goals and 24 assists between those first two seasons; a bonus from the defensive-minded defender.
Unfortunately, this past season did not go so well for Vukojevic. It was limited to 37 games due to a broken finger in February. He missed the playoffs for Utica. He now returns to a Comets team, hopefully fully recovered. Along with a hopefully fully recovered Santeri Hatakka. As well as veteran Tyler Wotherspoon. And the potentially incoming Daniil Misyul and Topias Vilén. The Devils organization and the Comets know what Vukojevic is all about. However, it may be about keeping him deeper on the blueline as these other players may get more of a shot if they demonstrate they can do more than be a defensive defenseman. Or be a more effective one than Vukojevic.
And keep in mind that the Devils just added Colin Miller to a team that already has Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, and Brendan Smith as the more defensively inclined defensemen. The need for someone like Vukojevic could be smaller than it may have been before. Even if Vukojevic plays rather well, then would he get enough ice time and attention to warrant getting a call up? I do not know.
Summary: Out of the six in this post, I would figure Vukojevic may be closer to being the odd man out in terms of getting another deal. I can see the same argument for Hatakka, but he has at least seen the NHL before. He has done well enough in his first AHL season to get that shot; something Vukojevic has not received yet. If he is happy in Utica and is willing to stick it out a bit, then sure, I can see another deal for him. But I could also see both sides wanting to move on (and with Case McCarthy possibly signing during or after 2023-24, that is another defensive defenseman to Utica) too.
I understand these six are not as interesting as trying to figure out Dawson Mercer’s next deal or what Akira Schmid could get next Summer. I will go into that in Part 2 and Part 3 soon. Yet, these are also decisions that Fitzgerald and the Devils will have to make. They will have to balance what makes sense for the future of New Jersey, for maintaining a competitive roster in Utica, and keeping their pool with enough depth players that warrant ice time at some level. The fates of Daws, Foote, Hatakka, Clarke, Halonen, and Vukojevic are in their hands as much as they are in their own. A lot can change within a season. Maybe someone has a breakout season and gets that shot at the show. Maybe someone repeats what they did but gets an opportunity due to circumstances in New Jersey. Maybe what they do in Utica alone will get them the next contract. The only guarantee is that for those six players, their entry level contracts will end in 2024.
Now that you know what I think about these six players, it is now your turn. What do you expect to see from Daws, Foote, Hatakka, Clarke, Halonen, and/or Vukojevic in 2023-24? Will they do enough to get a second contract from New Jersey? Or from some other NHL organization if it comes to that? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these six Comets in the comments. Thank you for reading.