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2021 New Jersey Devils Offseason Primer

New Jersey Devils offseason
As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the New Jersey Devils offseason.

New Jersey Devils Offseason Primer

One of the more interesting developments in New Jersey was the creation of a new player development position. They brought in Meghan Duggan to help coordinate the development of their AHL and ECHL prospects. She’s well known for her creativity on and off the ice and will be creating progress plans for each of the kids. Results won’t be seen for a couple of years, realistically, but designating someone to be focussed on that one job won’t hurt. That’s the good news.

The Devils weren’t expected to succeed in 2020-21, and boy, did they live up to that expectation. While they didn’t finish last in their division, that was only by virtue of the Buffalo Sabres joining them in the East. But that’s okay! Everyone knew going in that this was a transition year. It was the first full season with coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Tom Fitzgerald. Young guys were going to get their chances, backed up by the number of veterans being shipped out. Former GM Ray Shero made a lot of expensive moves in anticipation of a strong 2019-20 season, and this was a course reversal. Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri were traded, Sami Vatanen and Nikita Gusev lost on waivers, and all without immediate returns. And the young team, well, they got burned. A lot.

Pending Free Agents

There’s not much work to do with decisions on unrestricted free agents. Scott Wedgewood was… adequate last season, and at league minimum. Defenceman Ryan Murray might get an offer, but it’s not going to be close to his current $4.6 million. Matt Tennyson is a classic veteran tweener who’s in a perfect position to lose his job to Kevin Bahl but could get another deal for being good with his role. His ability to play the right side doesn’t hurt, either.

Where it gets interesting is the SEVEN entry-level deals expiring among the forward corps. In no particular order: Nick Merkley, Marian Studenic, Nathan Bastian, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, and Michael McLeod are all 22 or 23 years old and all of them had some time with the big club. Even A.J. Greer  – despite getting into just a single NHL game – should get a bit more than just a qualifying offer. Just because they have the room, doesn’t mean they should overpay. This New Jersey Devils offseason has to be worked with an eye several years to the future.

Getting Big

The biggest impact was from Sharangovich with 16 goals and 30 points over the full season. He and Kuokkanen established the team’s line of the future with Jack Hughes, giving fans every reason for optimism. Hughes took over Zajac’s spot when the veteran was traded away and they did well enough to have writers thinking up line names for 2021-22. Both the wingers here are due for a big raise, with Sharangovich’s scoring giving him the premium. The team has to love the idea of these players growing into an effective unit together. They’ll have at least until 2025 when the kids become UFAs.

Settling In

Bastain and McLeod teamed up with the “greybeard” Miles Wood for a surprisingly effective bottom-six trio. Not as obviously productive as the top three, but used differently and given fewer minutes. That they stuck for the year may have been a lack of options, but it got their nose in. The team’s going to want more from them.

Fight For It

Merkley is starting to break in, getting 27 games in this season. He bounced lines a bit, including some time with the Devil’s leading scorer Pavel Zacha. But he showed enough skill to have him fighting for a spot next year. It’s an awfully crowded group he’s in, and he’ll need to score to stand out, as will Studenic. The slight Slovak has the farthest to go to get a seat at the table, and will most likely start off in Utica. That shouldn’t hurt him much, though, as he should get the ice he needs to show off in the AHL.

The wild card is A.J. Greer. Greer is a productive AHLer with 38 NHL games experience, but he’s also 24 years old. While Zajac and Palmieri were traded mostly for the picks, if the team can get some of Greer’s scoring to translate to the NHL they could really use him. If he’s going to break through at all, it has to be now.

Blue Line Blue

Jonas Siegenthaler is going to return, likely as a third-pair defenceman behind Will Butcher and Ty Smith. He’s a pretty good safety net that came over from the Washington Capitals. He missed six games with COVID-19, unfortunately, so only played eight with the Devils last season. But with 100 games in the NHL, you can see who he is. A solid, low-cost, third-pair defender with little offence.

Salary Cap Outlook

It’s odd to think of the team with P.K. Subban‘s $9 million ticket as having the lowest payroll in the league, but here we are. By the end of 2020-21, the Devils were carrying a dozen players on entry-level deals. That, obviously, is going to change this year, but not by a whole lot. Almost $7 million is coming off the books with the retained salary deals for Zajac and Palmieri ending alongside Mike Cammeleri’s buyout. As noted, there aren’t a whole lot of players looking to break the bank after a season where the team finished in the bottom-five in goals for and against.

Major Likely Departures

Ryan Murray is obviously an NHL defenceman and would be in a lot of teams’ top-four. It’s easy to see him coming back after the New Jersey Devils offseason when the expansion not-really-a-draft happens. It’s harder to see him coming back at anything like that price, though.

Major Likely Re-Signings

The biggies are Sharangnovich and Kuokkanen.  Pitching a longer-term deal carries risk, of course. This was literally the first full season for either of them. But it was controlled use by Ruff that got these results, and there’s little reason to think they will backslide. The players will want to bet on themselves. The team will show them a lack of history. If they keep it short – two years – then expect the numbers to be relatively low.
The other RFAs are going to follow this pattern. Sharangovich is going to lead the way, as his single NHL season showed off his scoring touch. The others are going to get signed, make no mistake. But after he and Kuokkanen get paid the other young RFAs aren’t likely to make a big scoring impact next season.

Potential Free Agent Additions

Currently, Subban is five years older than any other Devil signed for 2021-21, and he’s all of 32. Bringing in a veteran on the blue line for some reliable depth wouldn’t hurt. Either would a backup goalie with a better record than Wedgewood. James Reimer would be an upgrade, though a much more expensive one. If you want to take a wild swing, perhaps they are one of the teams that makes a pitch for Chris Driedger. With Mackenzie Blackwood only costing $2.8 million for the next two years, they could afford to platoon the net.

But by the sounds of it, the team is willing to wait one more year with this young squad to see if they can step higher with a year’s experience. It doesn’t exactly hurt that next year’s draft class looks brilliant, either.

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