It’s been a rough few years for fans of the New Jersey Devils. Over the past seven seasons, the Devils have finished last or second-last in their division five times. New Jersey has eclipsed the 90-point plateau only once in the past six campaigns. And since 2011-12, when a sixth-seeded Devils outfit went on a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey has managed just one playoff victory.
But with the Devils selecting Jack Hughes first overall and acquiring Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban over the weekend, are we on the cusp of a New Jersey resurgence? Not necessarily, at least not without some significant additions over the summer. But here’s the good news: with $28 million in cap space with which to play and only a few depth re-signings to worry about, the Devils are well-positioned to be aggressive this summer and reshape what is, at the moment, a flawed roster.
Up front, the Devils will need to supplement their Taylor Hall-led attack and fill at least three spots this off-season. One, of course, will go to Hughes, while Joey Anderson and Jesper Boqvist are expected to battle for full-time roles. Pending RFA Pavel Zacha should return for fourth-line duty, all the while providing New Jersey decent depth down the middle. But that doesn’t address the need for scoring help on the wings, though there are a few options the Devils can consider.
One intriguing target for New Jersey could be Gustav Nyquist, who is set to become a free agent after a 22-goal, 60-point campaign that was split between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks. There’s going to be competition and a relatively high price tag for Nyquist’s services, however, which may lead the Devils to search for a cheaper option. If that’s the case, Brandon Pirri would be worth a look. He scored at a near 30-goal pace with the Vegas Golden Knights despite missing time with a pair of injuries and time spent as a healthy scratch or in the minors, and he’d be considerably cheaper than a top- or middle-six scorer such as Nyquist.
On the backend, Subban instantly becomes the Devils’ best defenseman – and I dare say one of the best in the post-Scott Niedermayer era. Prior to Subban’s arrival, Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Damon Severson did not constitute a group that was going to get the job done, and Will Butcher took a big step back after a strong rookie campaign. That leaves something to be desired on the blueline, though what flexibility New Jersey has is questionable.
The Devils have $23 million tied to four defenders for 2019-20, with Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick each due new deals as RFAs. That could limit New Jersey’s interest in spending on defensemen. However, Greene and Vatanen will be UFAs next summer, and while the hope is Ty Smith will be ready for the big show, adding a veteran defender – Anton Stralman, perhaps? – this summer could provide a stopgap option. If the Devils are thinking long term, Jake Gardiner might be a fit. The asking price there, however, presents a potential hurdle.
It’s the goaltending situation that is most in need of addressing, though. Cory Schneider had his roughest season to date with a mere six wins in 26 contests. Rookie Mackenzie Blackwood was far from the answer despite going 10-10-0. And Keith Kinkaid was shipped out at the deadline despite playing in half of the Devils’ games.
The problem is the free agent goalie market isn’t exactly ripe with talent. Sergei Bobrovsky is the only true starter available, though Petr Mrazek and Robin Lehner, should they not re-sign with Carolina Hurricanes the New York Islanders not re-sign, respectively, have to be top targets. It’s not as though the 2020 goaltending crop is much better, either, with Braden Holtby unlikely to leave Washington and Corey Crawford, Jimmy Howard and Jaroslav Halak, among other potential free agents, playing well past their prime. That leaves the trade route, but nobody on the block looks like much of an upgrade at this point unless the St. Louis Blues’ Jake Allen can find a way to revive his career.
New Jersey probably wouldn’t want to entertain taking on much salary in the crease without moving Schneider, anyway, and that is essentially an impossible task given his disastrous campaign. Blackwood becomes an RFA next summer, but Schneider and his $6-million cap hit are on the books for three more years.
And while the Devils have the cap room to have some fun this summer, they must also be cautious. Hall is going to be a UFA next summer and keeping the 2018 Hart Memorial Trophy recipient around has to be a priority, one that is going to require cap space and plenty of it. But New Jersey also has to convince Hall to stick around, and making a big splash this summer by adding a few key pieces – and subsequently taking a step forward – might be the perfect way to do just that.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.