As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The second batch of Offseason Primers will feature Metropolitan Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the New Jersey Devils offseason.
New Jersey Devils Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
This is the first offseason new general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to navigate all by himself. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have a lot on his plate in terms of meaningful free agents. Their most important re-signing this offseason has to be rookie goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, who’s a non-arbitration-eligible RFA. The Devils’ other non-arbitration-eligible RFAs are Joey Anderson, Jesper Bratt, Nick Merkley, and Colton White. Pending RFAs eligible for arbitration include Mirco Mueller, John Hayden, Brett Seney, and Josh Jacobs.
The Devils’ pending unrestricted free agent list is pretty abbreviated as well. It consists of Kevin Rooney, Fredrik Claesson, Brian Strait, Ben Street, Julian Melchiori, and Zane McIntyre. Dakota Mermis and Brandon Baddock are Group Six UFAs.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Devils have a rather cushy salary cap situation to deal with this offseason, unlike most other teams. Even with the flat cap crunch that has teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs in a serious bind, the Devils still have plenty of room to spare. According to the team’s CapFriendly page, they have a whopping $26.25 million in cap space to mess with this offseason.
As the Devils look to take steps out of their elongated rebuild, don’t expect many names to depart New Jersey this offseason. Aside from some AHL depth, expect the Devils to retain most of their younger pending free agents in order to build chemistry and continue to develop their prospect pool.
Blackwood was a crucial part of making sure the Devils didn’t completely collapse this season. The 23-year-old rookie started in 43 of the Devils’ game and posted a decent 22-14-8 record. While not enough to offset Cory Schneider‘s poor performance and get the Devils into the playoffs, Blackwood still showed multiple signs of real promise for the Jersey squad. However, he was still a rookie who now has only 70 games of NHL experience.
Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) doesn’t currently assess goaltenders, so we’ll have to look at comparables here. The most recent one that comes to mind is Jordan Binnington – a goalie with relatively little experience that emerged as his team’s starting goalie. The Blues awarded him a two-year, $8.8 million deal worth $4.4 million a year for his troubles. Blackwood can expect a decrease from that amount since Binnington won a championship with the Blues. Therefore, a fair assessment seems to be a two-year deal worth roughly $3.5 million a year. It still leaves the Devils with $22.75 million in cap space.
A surprise rookie performance three seasons ago has turned into solid offensive consistency for Bratt. A sixth-round pick in 2016, Bratt turned heads back in the 2017-18 season at 19 years old when he tallied 35 points in 74 games. While he’s been plagued by injuries since then and has struggled to play a full season, he’s hovered between 30 and 35 points each year. While he still might have some room to grow as a player (he’s still only 21 years old), he seems to have established himself as a solid third-line scoring winger for now. Evolving-Hockey projects a three-year deal worth roughly $3.21 million per season, bringing the Devils down to $19.54 million in cap space.
While he’ll never quite live up to his first-round-pick potential, Mueller has turned into a capable NHL defenceman who can play in a third-pairing role. After six NHL seasons and 185 games of experience, Mueller has shown that that’s all he’ll likely ever be. The Devils won’t hold on to him in hopes that he’ll grow into a core piece of the team, but they’ll hold onto him short-term in hopes that he can serve as a dependable injury replacement of a mentor for a younger defenceman. EH’s contract projection tool agrees with this, stating only a one-year deal is likely. It’s a cap hit of roughly $1.38 million, still leaving the Devils with $18.16 million to use in free agency.
Potential Free Agent Additions
This is where it all gets interesting for the Devils. They have some young pieces that are coming along in Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Nikita Gusev. If they want to make moves to accelerate their rebuild and thrust them into a playoff position, they have cap space to weaponize and make it work. Blackwood is fine as a starter, so they likely won’t spend a lot of time trying to invest in another goalie.
However, there are plenty of other big names that the Devils could attract in free agency in order to bolster both their offence and defence. On the wings, Mike Hoffman presents an interesting case if he hits free agency. The Devils need to replace the spot vacated by Taylor Hall on their first line, and Hoffman could certainly fill the void. With a 70-point season in his pocket, he could mesh with Hischier and Kyle Palmieri to build a deadly trio. On the open market, Evolving-Hockey projects he’ll receive a five-year deal worth $6.56 million a year. New Jersey would still have $11.6 million to spend. Outside of Blackwood, Palmieri is a high priority for New Jersey Devils management this offseason. Having a player who wants to play in New Jersey is big. It will be in the best interests of both parties to get an extension done now instead of after the 2020-21 season.
Aside from Will Butcher (who struggled this season with his usage), the Devils are currently paper-thin on the left side. While P.K. Subban has rebound potential on the right, they still need someone to fill in as his partner. The Devils will likely look for a more defensively-oriented presence for that job, and while options are thin, they could look at acquiring either Joel Edmundson or Brenden Dillon. While neither is a true first-pairing defenceman, they’d complement Subban better than anyone else on the roster and could do a nice job filling in. They’re both projected to make a cap hit in the high $3 million range, so they’d definitely be affordable in the Devils’ eyes.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Metropolitan Division:
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