With rookies reporting to training camp today, the New Jersey Devils roster is more or less set. The only real question mark going into the season as far as the roster is concerned will be which young forwards claim the final few roster spots, but for the most part, Tom Fitzgerald’s work is done for now and he can sit back and see how this team looks over the first half of the season before reevaluating.
According to CapFriendly, the Devils enter the season with $1,919,167 in cap space, although that number is probably closer to $1.8M if the Devils logically put Alexander Holtz or Graeme Clarke on the roster over Chris Tierney. That doesn’t sound like a lot of cap space, but when you look at the rest of the league in comparison, only eight teams are entering the year with more space and most of them are not expected to compete for a playoff spot.
Why does any of this matter? For starters, the Devils will be doing something they were unable to do one year ago and enter the season under the cap ceiling, meaning they will be able to accrue cap space for a potential move or moves at the trade deadline. This wasn’t an option last season as the Devils were over the cap for most of the season and utilized LTIR with Jonathan Bernier to become compliant. Granted, this isn’t a be-all, end-all. It didn’t stop the Devils from trading for Timo Meier at the deadline because of the combination of the Sharks retaining 50% of Meier’s expiring contract and the Devils sending Andreas Johnsson, Fabian Zetterlund, and others back to San Jose. But accruing cap space throughout the year does give the team more flexibility and more options when it comes time to make moves at the deadline.
Since teams who are under the cap accrue space every day over the course of the season, we’ve also seen teams push boundaries to accrue even more space. In some cases, it might be what are essentially paper transactions where a team is sending down waiver-exempt players on off days only to recall them, or perhaps even carrying fewer than the maximum 23 players on the NHL roster. The Rangers took this to another extreme last season when Patrick Kane cried about not going to New York. Chris Drury, or perhaps more likely James Dolan, saw an opportunity to add another ‘star’ after acquiring Vladimir Tarasenko. There was a stretch in February where the Rangers only dressed 11 forwards and 5 defensemen in games (in part because of a suspension to K’Andre Miller and an injury to Tyler Motte). They took these extremes to accrue every last penny they could because that was what they needed to do to acquire Kane. I would not necessarily recommend this as a course of action for the Devils, but it is an option that apparently is in the so-called “Spirit of the CBA”.
CapFriendly projects the Devils to have $8,924,127 available in deadline cap space, which is a pretty significant number for a team that has a case to be a Stanley Cup contender this season.
Last week, we talked about some of the things that could put a damper on all of the good vibes going into the year for the Devils. Aside from goaltending, which we’ll get to in a minute, the biggest one might be on the blueline with Ryan Graves and Damon Severson departing this offseason. The Devils traded for Colin Miller in part because of assistant coach Ryan McGill’s familiarity with him, but also because he’s a reliable right-handed defensive defenseman who won’t be overwhelmed in a bottom pairing role. Miller hasn’t played a ton on the penalty kill though, averaging just under 40 minutes of ice time on the penalty kill over the last three seasons.
It would be easy to say that John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler will do a lot of the heavy lifting on the kill for the Devils, and Kevin Bahl will probably take on an expanded role there as well, but its also possible the Devils will want a better defensive defenseman than Bahl, Miller, or Brendan Smith for a playoff run. I don’t think there is such a thing as having too much depth on the blueline and protecting yourself in case a Top 4 defenseman suffers a season-ending injury. And while one could say this is unnecessary with Luke Hughes on the NHL roster and Simon Nemec a phone call away, it seems unlikely the former would see much time on the kill and the latter needs to worry about making the NHL first before carving out a role.
There’s also been a lot of discussion about the competition between Holtz, Clarke, and Nolan Foote for the vacant Top 9 forward spot, but what if the answer for who gets that job is ultimately “None of the above”? It’s in the realm of possibilities that Clarke isn’t yet NHL ready, Foote is more of a 4th liner, and Holtz is still too slow, both physically and mentally. If the Devils are as good as we think they might be, are they going to settle for what they have if they have a chance to upgrade? They didn’t last year when they had the chance to upgrade from Zetterlund to Meier. I’m not saying the Devils need to add another PPG forward that they may want (or even be able) to extend, but if they see someone they like who is experienced and will play “playoff style hockey”, I don’t think that Holtz or Foote should stop them. If anything, I’d expect them to be part of the package going the other way or be in a different trade altogether.
Then there’s the matter of goaltending, and until Connor Hellebuyck commits to the Jets, his future and any potential trade to the Devils is going to be speculated about. I couldn’t disagree with Chris’s take on Hellebuyck more, but even if you think the Devils shouldn’t swing for Cup-winning upside with “Hellebuyck as a rental”, one could argue the Devils would be smart to add a goaltender anyways. Chris said as much saying that they could always revisit adding a netminder at the deadline.
Goaltender trades are typically tricky in-season. Most good teams with quality goaltenders aren’t trading them. Most teams are set at the position. The trade value of the few quality goaltenders who do become available is all over the place. I don’t necessarily agree with the theory of trying to find “this year’s Adin Hill” because you’re more or less hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, but if the thought process is to get a guy to just give you a chance, the Devils do have some roster flexibility there where Akira Schmid is still waiver-exempt. They could theoretically pair that guy with Vanecek on the NHL roster to close out the regular season and let Schmid keep playing in Utica. Or they could send Vanecek out if Schmid continues to look the part and whoever they bring in is a clear upgrade over Vanecek. Keep in mind, roster limitations pertaining to how many goaltenders you can carry disappear once the playoffs begin. Schmid spending most of the final weeks of the regular season in the AHL didn’t stop him from becoming the preferred option in the playoffs this past season.
Of course, I’m not necessarily advocating for targeting guys with term remaining, although I could be talked into certain players with another year or two of control in certain situations. I would echo the concerns that others have as to whether or not there will be enough money for guys like Schmid, Dawson Mercer and Luke Hughes when its their turn to get paid in future years.
Those are concerns for down the road, but they are not concerns for 2023-24. Their salaries are locked in for this season (minus potential performance bonuses, which could roll over to the 2024-25 ledger). So is the Devils core. One of the benefits of the work Fitzgerald has done to this point in getting so many players locked up on team-friendly deals is so they can use the savings to take big swings to try to get over the hump. The Devils would be smart to try to take advantage of this opportunity while Mercer and Luke Hughes are still on their ELC, and if it means trading a 10th or 11th grader to be named later, so be it. Flags fly forever.
Between available cap space, deadline cap space, accrued cap space, and however the Devils decide to configure the backend of the roster, there should be plenty of room to add a quality NHL player or two to fill any perceived holes in the roster. Add in any other machinations to create space such as getting the other team to retain salary or finding a third team, and you see why more and more people are saying the salary cap is fake. If you are creative enough and you want the player bad enough, there’s a way to make it work and treat the cap as nothing more than a mere suggestion. We’ve seen Tom Fitzgerald be creative. Is there any reason to think he wouldn’t continue to be if he thinks a move is a potential “championship winning” move?
I don’t know how the season will ultimately play out, but we’ll have a good idea of which players may be available at the deadline and which teams will be bad fairly early into the season. Smart cap management from Tom Fitzgerald to this point has left the Devils in a really good position when compared to their peers. The Devils have plenty of ammunition to make whatever move they see fit between a mostly full slate of draft picks and a deep farm system. I don’t think Fitzgerald necessarily needs to do anything right now after having a good summer, but I also don’t think he’ll hesitate to make any additional moves to supplement what he has and try to push the Devils over the top. Fortunately, he has plenty of flexibility to continue to shape this team however he sees fit.