Last week, I covered the three best contracts for the New Jersey Devils entering this season. With 13 free agents left to sign next summer, many players are essentially campaigning for a payday. With that said, general manager Tom Fitzgerald signed and acquired some contracts he probably wished he didn’t. Here are my picks for the three worst contracts on the 2022-23 Devils.
When the Devils signed Tomas Tatar in the summer of 2021, it was seen as an instant upgrade to the top-six. New Jersey was in desperate need of another winger, and he seemed like a natural fit alongside fellow European Nico Hischier. He would also provide a veteran influence on a team filled with youth. Fitzgerald put pen to paper with Tatar, signing him to a two-year contract paying him $4.5 million annually.
At the time, Tatar was coming off a 30-point season with the Montreal Canadiens, playing in 50 games. However, he would play in only five playoff games, putting up just one assist. Last season, his first in a Devils uniform, Tatar matched that 30-point pace. The only issue is those points were over 76 games versus 50, and he had a career-low minus-22. For someone who was supposed to slide into the Devils’ top-six, it didn’t end up working out.
Granted, Tatar’s career has had plenty of ups and downs. During his time with the Red Wings, he was a consistent 40-50 point performer, but he struggled during his brief time with the Vegas Golden Knights. Upon his arrival in Montreal, he reinvigorated his career, scoring back-to-back 20-goal seasons. It’s possible that he returns to that form with an improved Devils team around him, but $4.5 million seems like too much money for someone who has so far struggled to fit in with New Jersey’s system.
No matter what situation he’s put in, Andreas Johnsson is a success story. The former 7th-round pick out of Sweden was never supposed to be an everyday NHL player, let alone play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After a career 2018-19 season, in which Johnsson scored 20 goals and 43 points, GM Kyle Dubas signed him to a four-year contract paying him $3.4 million per season. The Leafs went through some trouble staying cap compliant, so he was traded to the Devils in the 2020 offseason.
The 2020-21 season in New Jersey was something that both Johnsson and the Devils would like to forget. In 50 games with the red and black, he only had 11 points (five goals and six assists) and a career-low shooting percentage of 7.7. Last season, Johnsson rebounded to score 35 points. He had more goals (13) in 2021-22 than total points in 2020-21 (11). After the successful campaign, his name swirled in trade rumors, but nothing came about.
While Johnsson’s contract is one of the thirteen up after this season, he does have a modified no-trade clause. If the team is out of playoff contention at the trade deadline, it may be easier to move another forward instead of him, depending on the 10 teams on his list. The winger is entering his age-28 season, the prime of his career. If he can improve on his 35-point campaign, he could actually find himself worthy of an extension from the team.
The decision to sign Ondrej Palat on July 13 should pay immediate dividends for the Devils. The 10-year veteran spent his entire career with the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring 423 points in 680 games. And not to be forgotten, he also won two Stanley Cups with the team in back-to-back seasons. Much like the Maple Leafs, the Lightning were up against the salary cap, and re-signing the Czech winger proved to be difficult. After failing to sign Johnny Gaudreau, Fitzgerald pivoted and gave Palat a five-year contract worth $6 million per year, complete with a no-movement clause.
The man known as “Pally” quickly made an impact with the Bolts, with 59 points in his rookie year. He would finish second in Calder Trophy voting behind superstar Nathan Mackinnon. The next season, Palat improved and scored 63 points, his career high to date. That same year saw the Lightning advance to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, coming up short against the Chicago Blackhawks. Even though he hasn’t hit the 50-point plateau since 2016-17, Palat has scored double-digit goals in every season except 2018-19, and he can be a reliable option for this team.
My two fears with this contract are the length and clauses. Signing a 31-year-old to a five-year contract is a gamble, and the move was made to help the team in the short term. However, as the contract goes on to the later years, the Devils might have some buyer’s remorse. Palat may still produce 40-point seasons for the next few seasons, but it’s not certain that he can continue that pace to warrant $6 million per season.
All in all, though these three contracts may not be perfect, they can still pay off in dividends. Both Tatar and Johnsson are playing for paydays next summer, which may result in higher point totals. Palat could come strong out of the gate, making Devils fans forget the Johnny Gaudreau saga. Nonetheless, the team looks stronger on paper compared to last season, and with so many players hungry for the playoffs, we may see the best of them come 2022-23.
Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.