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An Early Look at the 2024 New Jersey Devils Free Agents

The halfway mark of the 2023-24 season is imminent for the New Jersey Devils. With the trade deadline in less than two months, teams are looking at their rosters to determine what they need - including their offseason plans. This post looks at the many pending free agents of the Devils.

New Jersey Devils v Tampa Bay Lightning
“A raise, you say?”
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We are just about at the halfway mark of the 2023-24 season. We are in the middle of a new year. The 2024 NHL Trade Deadline is less than two months away on March 8. The New Jersey Devils have been on the playoff bubble for months now. The optimists say they should be fine. The pessimists say they will not be. The realists may lean towards the latter between horrific goaltending, significant injuries, Lindy Ruff, bad starts to games, and the fact that it is hard to catch up in this league. The weekly division snapshot shows how hard it is, as an aside. This is all to say that this is an important time of the season for the Devils and many other teams to take a hard look at their roster and figure out what they are going to do this season.

In order for a team to do this properly, they need to be aware of who is becoming a free agent in their own organization. A decision to sell off assets may mean players on expiring contracts could end up elsewhere by early March 2024. A decision to bring in some one (or ones) or rent players mean figuring out the salary cap situation to fit everyone in. Even a decision to stand pat and do little would require looking at and trusting in those who have something to gain in the second half of the season. One would think it would be those looking for a new contract in the Summer.

This is why this post is going to take a look at the Devils’ pending free agents for 2024. From the salary cap all the way to the players themselves. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald and his team are certainly aware of it. I think we should do the same as well.

The Cap Situation as of January 12, 2024

Thanks to CapFriendly, the details and nuances of the NHL salary cap are made clearer to understand. This is crucial for the People Who Matter as the Devils are a team who can (and perhaps should) use long term injured reserve (LTIR) to their benefit. How does that work?

The most important thing is that LTIR does not “create” space. It provides relief if the team’s cap goes above the ceiling and that relief is based on when the player is put on LTIR. This is known at CapFriendly as Accruable Cap Space Limit. That relief goes away when the player is activated and the Contract Bargaining Agreement mandates that a player fit to play must be activated. CapFriendly has a whole FAQ going into the details with examples but that is the long and short of it that we need to know for this post.

As of yesterday, the Devils have one player on LTIR and one player on Season Opening Injured Reserve - which can provide some cap relief from the start of the season. Nolan Foote is on Season Opening Injured Reserve. His two-way entry level contract would have cost $863,333 to the cap. Since he is on SOIR, only $116,667 is counted against the Devils. The player on LTIR is Tomas Nosek. He was put on LTIR on January 6, 2024. That gave the Devils $1 million in relief. Due to call ups, about $724,167 is currently used from that. What this means is that the Devils are over the salary cap ceiling of $83.5 million but only by a bit. This also means the Devils really cannot make any more space for a trade at the moment.

That can change instantly, however. Fitzgerald can put Dougie Hamilton and his $9 million cap hit on LTIR seemingly at any point. Hamilton was put on injured reserve on December 1, 2023. He has already been out for over 21 days and it is expected that if he does come back, then it will be in April. Possibly for the playoffs, should the Devils qualify for them. The Devils can add a huge chunk of money to their salary relief pool and therefore have some room to add some player(s) before Hamilton is activated. And if that activation is in the playoffs, then the cap is of no concern since it only applies to the regular season. (Aside: And it pretty much has to since all 32 teams have to follow the cap rules but not every team plays in the playoffs. If you want that changed, then wait until 2026 when the current CBA ends.)

Why has Fitzgerald not done so? Simple. He does not have to. Right now, the team is cap compliant. By just over $275,000 but compliant all the same. Nosek on LTIR gives them the salary relief necessary to ice the team they have in the state of Florida right now. Unless there is a trade about to happen soon, there is no need to add to the relief pool. And it may not even need to be Hamilton. Jonas Siegenthaler being out for several weeks with a broken foot can also qualify for LTIR. Putting his $3.4 million into the relief pool may be sufficient depending on what the move is. Hamilton would make more sense since he provides more relief and he will be out for much longer as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle. The point is that Fitzgerald has some options and neither is necessary at the moment.

So what does this all mean for today? It means the Devils are pretty much at the limit with the remainder of Nosek’s relief being their current cap space. If the Devils need more, then they need to add more relief or move a player or two down to Utica for a little more space. They may need to do the latter for a move as the Devils have a maximum of 23 players on their roster. They do have 44 out of the maximum of 50 contracts so they can add some non-roster players (guys in trades, prospects, etc.) if necessary. Speaking of assets:

Draft Picks: More relevant for the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline, the Devils have the following picks for the next few years:

2024 - First rounder, third rounder, fifth rounder, Colorado’s fifth rounder, sixth rounder, and Nashville’s seventh rounder.

That second rounder is actually a conditional pick from the Timo Meier trade last year. It gets upgraded to a first if the Devils make the Eastern Conference Final. This may complicate any deal that involves that first round pick.

For completion’s sake, New Jersey’s fourth rounder is owned by Vancouver as that was what it took to bring Curtis Lazar to the Devils; and their original seventh round pick was also part of the Timo Meier trade last year. The fifth rounder from Colorado was a throw in from that same Meier deal. Nashville’s seventh rounder is here because Fitzgerald swapped sevenths for David Poile to make his final selection as Nashville GM. Which ended up being Aiden Fink, for the record.

2025 - Devils own all of their picks except their fifth rounder. That was traded to Dallas last July for Colin Miller.

2026 and beyond - All of their picks.

Fitzgerald can mortgage some of their prospect pool for a deal if it comes to it. But he will have to be careful about it. Should the Devils have a great (or even good) second half of their season and they go deep in the playoffs, their 2024 first rounder would go to San Jose. If not and a deal requires a first rounder, then it may end up being a 2025 or 2026 first - something that may be an issue down the road. But if the deal brings in someone for the short and/or long term, then it could be a good move. It will depend on how Fitzgerald sees his team for this season and beyond.

The Pending 2024-25 Salary Cap: The current projection is that the salary cap is going to go up by $4 million for next season. This brings the ceiling up to $87.5 million. This would give the Devils about $19.837 million to spend when their contracts in New Jersey expire. That may seem like a lot until I tell you that they have 13 players and 22 contracts on the books for 2024-25. The Devils will have to spend to make a roster next season, and Fitzgerald will have to be careful about how he does it.

The Non-Roster Pending Free Agents

As of January 11, 2024, CapFriendly has listed the following players as non-roster for the New Jersey Devils. The majority of them are with the Utica Comets. While they may not make a huge impact in the future, they do make up organizational depth. Depth that we are currently seeing in New Jersey due to injuries requiring it.

Forwards - Brian Halonen (RFA), Graeme Clarke (RFA), Arnaud Durandeau (RFA - Arbitration eligible), Samuel Laberge (UFA), Kyle Criscuolo (UFA)

Out of these five, only Clarke and Laberge have received a call-up and a game. In fact, Laberge was given a NHL two-way contract to do so. Neither have demonstrated anything (or had the chance to) that would show they deserve more games. The decision for their retention may come down to what assistant GM Dan MacKinnon thinks of their potential (Clarke and Halonen will finish their entry level contracts this season) and whether they are at least good for Utica. Dureandeau, who was acquired for Tyce Thompson, is eligible for arbitration. I doubt he files but you never know.

In the case of Laberge and Criscuolo, it will come down to whether they think they can get more of a chance in New Jersey or if they would prefer being in a different organization. Such is the reality of AHL veteran players becoming free agents.

Defensemen - Santeri Hatakka (RFA), Michael Vukojevic (RFA), Tyler Wotherspoon (UFA)

Wotherspoon is the veteran on a young Comet defense and the only one over the age of 25 signed to a NHL deal. If he is interested, then it may be worth trying to keep him just so the blueline has some continuity. Clearly, Simon Nemec and Cal Foote - currently with New Jersey - are ahead of Hatakka and Vukojevic on the depth chart. They are both going to be restricted free agents (RFAs) as their entry level contracts are ending. Hatakka has had a bit of NHL experience with San Jose; but he clearly has not moved up the chart. Again, their retention may come down to what MacKinnon thinks.

Goalies - Akira Schmid (RFA - Arbitration eligible), Erik Källgren (UFA), Keith Kinkaid (UFA)

Ah, this is the interesting one. The Devils demoted Schmid in part because they could, because they want to give him loads of work in Utica, and because they hope his time there will do him well. Two out of three is not bad - but it is not good either. An 89.3% save percentage in four games is not exactly confidence-building - even if it is not the worst Sv% on the team.

Schmid has been statistically rough this season. A 90.3% save percentage in 5-on-5 with the Devils is, well, not good but a far sight better than Vitek Vanecek. In all situations, he is rocking an 89.3% - which is also not good but also a far sight better than Vanecek. The thing is that Schmid was far better last season (92% in 5-on-5, 92.2% in all situations) in addition to being a playoff hero (Schmid was a crucial reason why the Devils eliminated Our Hated Rivals). A solid season in 2023-24 could have put him in line for a big payday and/or a very interesting arbitration case. Instead, he is set to get a raise but something a lot less lucrative. And potentially moved depending on how the organization sees Schmid’s development and/or who the Devils bring in to play goaltender if they do bring in someone new. Among the decisions Fitzgerald has to consider ahead of the trade deadline, Schmid is a part of it. Goaltending is the team’s most glaring weakness and how he assesses who he has will determine what and how he addresses it.

The more veteran options the team brought in for their system have not exactly done the job well themselves. Källgren has played in 10 games, stopped a miserable 85.3% of all shots, and allowed 32 goals over those 10 appearances. No wonder AHL-contracted rookie goalie Isaac Poulter has taken more games than him with the Comets. Keith Kinkaid is with the Chicago Wolves and has been better than Källgren. Then again, with an 87.8% save percentage in 15 games with the Wolves, it is not a whole lot better. Both Kinkaid and Källgren are pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs). I doubt the Devils will seek to bring either back even if either rebounds in the second half of 2023-24.

The New Jersey Pending Free Agents

Now we get into the players we are currently seeing today. Other than Schmid and a handful of shifts for Clarke, the non-roster pending free agents have not been visible to the People Who Matter that only follow the Devils. Let me start with a goaltender.

Goalie - Nico Daws (RFA)

The Devils brought in Kinkaid and Källgren in part because Nico Daws was going to miss the first few months of the 2023-24 season as he was recovering from offseason hip surgery. Daws would return to Utica in December. He played in two games, got a call up to be a backup, got sent down for one more game, and then got a call up to play in games for New Jersey in place of Schmid. After one good start against Ottawa on December 29 - his first NHL game since 2022 - he remains in the team’s tandem with Vitek Vanecek.

Daws has played all of four games with New Jersey. Statistically, he is not too different from Vanecek. An 89.3% in 5-on-5 play and an 89.4% in all situations is not good or much better than the other two goalies. The hope is that he can provide a calmer performance in the crease, concede fewer rebounds, and improve on those numbers. The risk is that he will be at that level where he gets chances because the other guys have floundered their shots and the coaches have to try something different. Either way, this is a big season for Daws. His ELC is ending after this season and will become a RFA. He will not be eligible for arbitration but could stand to make more than the $850,833 cap hit he currently owns. If Daws can show to the Devils that he can be a NHL quality goaltender. Perhaps enough to be with the Devils all the way through to the end of 2023-24, then he could command a nice raise with the understanding that better performances will lead to more appearances and a more lucrative deal. Whether that happens because Daws is good, Vanecek gets or stays terrible, Schmid is not brought back, and/or injuries is up in the air.

Similar to what I wrote for Schmid, Daws is part of the goaltending puzzle that Fitzgerald and his staff have to figure out for this Devils team. Should they see him as part of the solution or at least not part of the problem, then he will almost definitely get re-signed and at least get a modest bump in pay. If not, then maybe Daws gets moved. A lot can happen there. And it will impact how much is available for other decisions.

Defensemen - Cal Foote (RFA - Arbitration eligible), Colin Miller (UFA), Brendan Smith (UFA)

Cal Foote is currently up with the Devils as a spare. He has yet to play for New Jersey in a regular season game. He has 141 games of NHL experience and is effectively ninth on the depth chart. Foote is making $800,000 on a two-way deal now so if/when he gets a chance to make his Devils debut, he really needs to make it count. New Jersey could keep him around but non-qualification is possible if they are not particularly impressed. Especially if they think Daniil Misyul or Hatakka or someone else in the system can do what Foote does as coverage. Sure, Foote can file for arbitration but, right now, it will not faze the Devils management. If they like him, they can give him a fairly cheap two-way deal and let him be in Utica as the #9 defender in the organization for another season.

Brendan Smith and Colin Miller are pending UFAs. Fitzgerald traded for Miller and is being used as a regular. Smith has seen his spot taken by Kevin Bahl by the end of last season, get perhaps more chances than he should on defense, perform surprisingly well as a fourth-line winger, and then go back to defense out of seeming necessity. All while being a penalty machine of sorts. At least he scored his first goal as a Devil recently. Between the two, it is not even a competition. Miller has been the superior player to Smith in 5-on-5 from on-ice rates against the Devils to superior for-percentages by way of helping (or at least not hindering) the offense. The on-ice rates during penalty kills are more in favor of Miller over Smith. Plus, Miller is not prone to taking dumb minor penalties or getting torched by not-speedy players like Patrick Maroon. What about age? Miller has him beat there; he will be 32 next season while Smith will turn 35 next month. Which would mean Smith’s next deal would be on the books no matter what. What favors Smith is that Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff does. That is pretty much it for Smith.

Should the Devils need to keep a veteran defender - and it may be a good idea as a #6/#7 guy - then Miller should be retained. My concern is that the Devils really like Smith so they will find a way to keep him. Either should be cheap to retain as they are older defensemen who know they are playing deeper on a blueline in normal circumstances.

Forwards - Dawson Mercer (RFA), Michael McLeod (RFA - Arbitration eligible), Nolan Foote (RFA), Shane Bowers (RFA - Arbitration eligible), Tyler Toffoli (UFA), Chris Tierney (UFA), Max Willman (UFA), Tomas Nosek (UFA)

Among these eight forwards up for new deals in the Summer, three are definitely low on the depth chart. Bowers, a pending RFA with arbitration rights, and Willman, a pending UFA, are up with New Jersey on an emergency loan basis. Bowers just made his Devils debut in Tampa Bay last night while Willman has played 4 games with the Devils. Willman earned a contract in camp as a PTO player while Bowers was acquired for Reilly Walsh’s rights. It is possible the Devils try to keep one or both to strengthen Utica and to continue being depth coverage. It is possible the Devils let one or both go and repalce the other freely.

The same can apply to Chris Tierney, although he is a bit further up the chain than Bowers and Willman. Tierney has played in 19 games with the Devils and you would be forgiven if you forgot that since he has played so little in most of those games. He has averaged just over seven and a half minutes per game, he has three assists to his name, and his 5-on-5 rates are not good. Tierney is simply depth coverage to fill in a spot. As a pending UFA, the Devils could and perhaps will move on unless Tierney shows something in the next few weeks as he continues to get games. The best case scenario is that he does get appearances when the forwards get healthier. The worst is that he ends up in Utica at some point.

As for Nolan Foote, he is only in this section because SOIR is listed under New Jersey. Nolan Foote’s ELC ends this season. As 2023-24 may be a lost season for him, I can see him getting a NHL minimum two-way contract to see what he can do in 2024-25. That would be fine, I think, for both sides. He is 23 so it would be put up or shut up time, but we shall see. Tomas Nosek is on LTIR and his season has been absolutely ravaged with injury. He really has not got a chance to get going with just six appearances with the Devils. For Nosek, he is a pending UFA and he is 31. The goal for this season is to be able to come back at some point and show he is 100% and that he still belongs in the NHL. The Devils may let him seek an opportunity elsewhere to start again either way. But my own hope for Nosek is that he is able to show what he can do because he really has not.

Of course, the other three forwards are way more interesting to discuss. They each have a lot to prove.

Let us consider Tyler Toffoli, the pending UFA, first. He was acquired by the Devils for the pick acquired from Damon Severson’s sign-and-trade and Yegor Sharangovich. Toffoli seemed like a great fit from the start. A veteran shooter who can rip feeds from The Big Deal and Jesper Bratt seemed like a great idea. And it did as Toffoli scored seven goals within the first nine games of the season in October. The problem is that he has since put up nine goals and ten assists over the next 30 games. While that is not bad on its own, it does mean he was hot in October and has since cooled off big time.

The good news is that Toffoli has some great on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play, suggesting that he is really helping the Devils’ cause in pushing for more offense. And he can contribute plenty in the offensive zone. The not as good news is that Toffoli has a lot of those great rates thanks to The Big Deal and Bratt, although it is a great connection that both sides benefit from. From observation, Toffoli’s lack of quickness and off the puck movement (especially on defense) makes it hard accept he belongs with those two when he is not shooting and producing. I almost want to suggest that Alexander Holtz could probably do the same thing as Toffoli but for a lot less money, more effort on defense, and with the potential of improving given that he is young and Toffoli is not. Clearly, the Devils do not see it that way with Holtz or Toffoli.

Toffoli will turn 32 in late April and will be coming off a contract that paid him $17 million over four seasons, which made for a cap hit of $4.25 million. His overall scoring numbers look like he is justifying that kind of a salary or even a slightly larger one. 16 goals in 39 games is really good. Only 34 players in the entire NHL as of January 11 have more than 16 goals. Can Toffoli sustain such a high rate of scoring in the second half of the season? Can he contribute more when he is not getting on the scoresheet? Most importantly, how long do you think Toffoli can keep this up? He will be 32 and so it is a question as to whether he keep playing like this in the future. The last thing that Fitzgerald needs is another contract like Ondrej Palat’s on the books where, despite how much you like what things he does, he cannot meet the value of the deal and it is going to be stuck on there. Cap problems do not form from giving the likes of, say, Jesper Bratt a cap hit of $8.8 million. It comes from throwing big dollars at middle-six players like Palat and potentially Toffoli. How Toffoli does in the second half of 2023-24 is going to determine a lot about what he can command in the Summer in both dollars and term. I still think caveat emptor is going to apply even if Toffoli goes off in, say, February 2024.

Now let us move to another winger that sometimes is asked to play center even though I think he should not: Dawson Mercer. The DAWG was more or less a puppy with zeroes on the scoresheet for his first nine games and only nine shots on net - with four shot-less games among those first nine games. The slump was real. Then Mercer broke it and has since put up 13 goals and eight assists in the next 30 games. Mercer is 22 and had 27 goals and 56 points last season. All while not missing a single game (and none since making the Devils in 2021-22.) While he may not reach those plateaus in this season, I think he is carving himself a long-time role on this team.

The question I have is whether the Devils will see him more like Bratt or more like Jack Hughes, and Nico Hischier. After last season, I was onboard with the idea of paying him a big, fat, eight-season contract extension sooner rather than later. Now it is looking like the Devils not going that route was a good move and I would be wrong. Mercer, whether it is due to his teammates or being switched between center and wing, has not put up good 5-on-5 rates compared to Hughes, Hischier, Toffoli, or the next guy in this post. This season so far has shown that he may not be all that much of a play driver, which is the kind of player you do want to lock down for a long time if they can do so at the NHL at a young age. Mercer is bouncing back well from his slump and he has plenty of skill on the puck, but I do not think he is playing like someone you want to give $7 million per season over the next eight seasons.

The Bratt route would mean a short bridge deal, say two or three seasons, where Mercer can show his capacities. This is what they did to Bratt and while his negotiations did get contentious for a bit, all is good. Bratt got paid extremely well and he is honestly living up to that contract as he is one of the top scorers in the NHL. Mercer can follow the same path. Mercer is quite good as a player and I do want to believe he is a part of this team’s core. The question is going to be is whether he is $4-6 million good or $6.5+ million good. The good news for Fitzgerald is that Mercer is coming off his ELC. There is no arbitration filing to force his hand. The not so good news is that whether the big money comes now or in a few years, Fitzgerald will have to plan around that given the other massive contracts he has on the books. Again, the Palat deal is really sticking out like a sore thumb here.

This issue will also apply to the last forward on this list: Michael McLeod. Some have taken to calling him Motor Mike. McLeod is having a career year. He has been forced to play higher up in the lineup than before. And he has been Actually Good. After years of being on the low end of the Devils’ on-ice rate stats at 5-on-5, he is among the Devils’ best this season. He has set a career high in goals with 10 already in this season and he is on pace to break his career high of 26 points from last season. He is also on pace to break his career high of shots in a season as he has 65 now and he set it with 90 last season. McLeod was a fourth-line center to provide energy, faceoff wins, penalty killing ice time, and energy. Not bad but hardly valuable. This season, McLeod has thrived when given even more responsibilities, more ice time, and linemates with the intent to attack and push the play forward instead of dumping it away or flinging long passes in the hopes for Miles Wood to get on to them.

A part of me wants to believe McLeod being freed from Miles Wood has allowed this rejuvenation of his career. A different part of me just wants to say that he is in a contract year and he is absolutely playing like it. McLeod was re-signed for $1.4 million for just the one season. More than anyone else on the team, McLeod has out-performed his contract. He is in line to get a big raise. And this is a situation Fitzgerald has to manage delicately.

The reality is that McLeod is 26 years old and I doubt he has only now “figured it out” in the NHL after five-plus pro seasons and 280 games in the league. I do think that he has shown he can be more than just a depth guy. However, when Hischier and Hughes are healthy, McLeod is a bottom-six center. McLeod is not going to be used in a power play situation unless the coaching staff has no other option. McLeod is rarely going to be used in an extra man situation. Only recently would you see him take a shift in overtime beyond a faceoff. And the reality is that bottom-six centers who can kill penalties well are not the hardest players to find. Sure, McLeod is a top-tier faceoff taker with a 66.2% winning percentage in 548 draws. I do not think that makes him particularly valuable. Sidney Crosby, for example, has a 60% winning percentage but that really is not what makes him exceptional at his advanced age. Nor is it a major reason why Vincent Trocheck or John Tavares get big minutes and play big roles. It is useful in spots but it alone does not make a player great. There is a reason why David Steckel can fit into the “Let’s Remember Some Guys” category. This is all to say that while I appreciate what he is doing now, let us not forget that he is still a bottom-six center on this team whose usefulness is still going to be limited. For all of the “You need guys like him to win it all!” comments I see about him, I will remind you that he has been on this team for a while and I have yet to see the Devils win it all. Good, yes. But crucial? Not so fast.

I will point out that McLeod does have some more importance than, say, Toffoli, because there is no center in the organization that can do what McLeod does except for Haula, whom Lindy Ruff wants to keep as a center right now for reasons. Whereas you can look to Holtz in the next 40ish games and see if he can do what Toffoli does but for less money, that option does not really exist for McLeod. So I can agree that McLeod is not fully replaceable. I disagree that he is crucial or someone the Devils need to lock up for a long time.

Which is something that Fitzgerald really has to be careful with even if he keeps the next contract to a couple of seasons. Just as I wrote with Toffoli, teams get into cap trouble when they overpay players not high up in the lineup. McLeod is indeed having his best season ever and while he is not going to fall off the proverbial cliff at age 27, he could get way, way more than he should for the role the Devils want to pay him. He is a pending RFA with arbitration rights, so the Devils do have a little control. Not much; I can almost see the filing happen just to make a deal happen sooner rather than later. If the Devils can convince him to get paid on the level of Erik Haula ($3.15 million), then that is something justifiable. Something McLeod can probably achieve without needing to somehow top his best season ever in his seventh NHL season or beyond. If he wants Toffoli money ($4.25 million) or more, then I would hope Fitzgerald starts to balk at that.

Either way, the next deals with McLeod, Mercer, and Toffoli are likely going to be on hold. It is in their best interests to see how the rest of 2023-24 goes before their people goes to the negotiation table with the Devils. A hot run or two for Toffoli would be ideal. Mercer continuing to produce and contribute, possibly with an outside shot at 50 points, would be ideal for his second contract situation. McLeod continuing to prove that he is legit and that he may not decline after this season would be best if he wants to secure a bigger deal. Even if Fitzgerald wants to talk contract sooner rather than later, but I doubt their agents will let that happen.

And the same applies for all of the other players discussed in this post.

Last Takes

In my opinion, the most crucial decision remains the goaltending position. Does Fitzgerald trade for one? Does he believe in Schmid and Daws? How does he handle Vanecek, whom has been utterly awful this season? Remember Vanecek is the guy Fitzgerald traded for to stabilize the net last season, which did work out well. Until there is an answer in net, that is going to drive Fitzgerald’s hand for the other pending free agents.

The RFAs are mostly going to be kept. The question for Mercer, McLeod, Schmid, and Daws is going to be how much and for how long. My preference for those four are in that order. As much as the goaltending decisions will change the landscape of what Fitzgerald does, I do think Mercer is the most important of the four to keep pleased.

The pending RFA skaters in Utica will get minimal deals. As will Nolan Foote. I would not be totally shocked if a couple are not qualified like Halonen, Vukojevic, Durandeau, or Bowers. Or if they get swapped for other minor league or fringe players like the Devils did with Walsh last June. But I can seem them retained to keep some consistency going with the Comets.

The UFAs are a mix of guys I am more than fine to see go at the end of 2024 and others I could see sticking around. Laberge, Criscuolo, Källgren, and Kinkaid are free to go in my view. I can see Wotherspoon returning on a NHL deal to help what would still be a young blueline in Utica. I can also see Tierney and Willman moving on unless they developed a preference to stay in the organization. I really am worried about how much Toffoli can command in both salary and term. I would like to see Holtz get a chance in his spot. Being able to save some money, even if it is for a season (Holtz’s ELC ends in 2025) is valuable to a cap team like the Devils. Even if they do not see Holtz they way I do, I really am cautious about handing potentially 3-5 seasons to a 31 year old shooter who looks great when he’s hot and less so when he’s not. I would rather see that $4.25 million coming off the books fund McLeod and one of the RFA goalies instead. Likewise, I am fine with Smith walking but I have the time and interest in another season from Colin Miller. If letting Toffoli walk opens that up to, then so be it.

And from there, I have a general idea of what I think the Devils should be aiming for by the trade deadline and in the offseason. That is: getting some kind of a goaltender, looking for a middle-six winger, and if I cannot keep Miller or Smith, then adding a veteran defenseman who can help eat minutes and take some of the work off John Marino or Jonas Siegenthaler, whom have both been real bad at points this season. It will be tight given the confines of the cap, but that is the reality of the Devils now. They are a salary cap team and so they need to squeeze value out of as many dollars as they can. Especially since this situation will not go away soon with eight players signed through 2027 making significant money. After all, Holtz, Luke Hughes, and Kevin Bahl will need new deals among others in 2025.

Of course, if a NHL team with a NHL goalie better than Vanecek (which is almost all of them right now) comes calling and wants, say, McLeod, then I am absolutely going to at least listen to the pitch. No, I did not say make the deal. Relax. The point is that a lot can change between now and March 8, nevermind the draft in June or the first day of free agency on July 1, 2024. The answer to the goaltending question is going to be key as to how it all goes down from now until later.

Your Take

I know it is a lot to take in and entire posts alone can be (and will be if not already have been) written about the next contracts of Mercer, McLeod, or Toffoli alone. Again, now that we are entering the halfway point of the season, this is something Fitzgerald and his staff have taken stock of and need to keep in mind as they consider trades and acquisitions by March 8 and any planning beyond this season.

I now put the questions to you. What would you do with Schmid and Daws knowing they need new deals? Would you offer a big extension to Mercer or give him a Bratt-like bridge deal for 2024-25? Do you want the Devils to keep Toffoli and, if so, for how much? How much do you think McLeod can command and how much do you think the Devils can afford for him? Who would you let go unless they have a big second half of the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils pending free agents in the comments. Thank you for reading.