NHL Free Agency is set to begin in just about 24 hours, and it should be quite the frenzy as it’s one of the deeper classes in recent summers. When the market opens at noon tomorrow, the New Jersey Devils will have $25 million in salary cap space.
General manager Ray Shero has never spent big in free agency, and I expect more or less the same when things get going. But there are some unrestricted free agents (UFAs) he should be looking to target, especially up front.
Devils Will Have Options at Forward
Shero addressed his defense by acquiring P.K. Subban at the Entry Draft. Now it’s time for him to add some scoring, and that’s where free agency can help. Artemi Panarin would provide a massive lift, but it appears he’ll be signing with either the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, or Florida Panthers.
Where the best value lies is in the second tier of UFAs. Names like Gustav Nyquist, Mats Zuccarello, Joonas Donskoi, and Richard Panik are all players that would help the organization add scoring depth. And they shouldn’t break the bank for the most part.
Nyquist is coming off one of his best seasons, finishing with 60 points in 81 games, his most since 2014-15. He had strong five-on-five shot rates and averaged 2.10 points per 60 minutes (P/60). His numbers have been steady over the last three seasons, and he’s not showing any signs of decline. That’s important given he’s 29 years old and is likely to land a long-term deal.
Related: Nyquist, Panik Should be Devils’ Top Free Agent Targets
Zuccarello is another winger who should fetch himself a nice looking contract when he signs on the dotted line. He had 40 points in 48 games in an injury-shortened season, but there’s no doubt he can still play. Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reported Zuccarello is looking to land a five-year deal. He’s 32 years old, so I think that’d rule him out for the Devils. But if they can keep his term below what Portzline reported, he’d be a fit.
Neither Donskoi nor Panik put up the counting totals Nyquist or Zuccarello do, but they’re still solid scorers. Donskoi has averaged 1.62 P/60 since 2016-17, while Panik has averaged 1.81 P/60. Both players will benefit from fresh starts, and they won’t cost as much as Nyquist or Zuccarello will. If that’s the route Shero prefers, then those could be his top targets.
Another forward who could make sense is Joe Pavelski. Kevin Kurz of The Athletic reported that appears Pavelski’s time with the San Jose Sharks is coming to a close. He is 34 years old, so a long-term contract isn’t an option. With that said, something along the lines of three years would make sense.
The organization has a lot of young talent, especially after drafting Jack Hughes with the first overall pick. Adding a veteran like Pavelski would go a long way on and off the ice. And it’s not like he can’t play anymore as he’s coming off a 38-goal season. They also have the money to fit him in, so it’s definitely worth checking in with his camp to see if there’d be any interest.
Stay Out of the Market for Defensemen
Unlike the group of forwards, the class of defensemen is as bare as it gets, especially after Erik Karlsson re-signed with the Sharks. Jake Gardiner is the best available, and he’s going to get paid like it. He’s a left-handed shot, which fills an organizational need, but he’s going to price himself out of their range.
It’s rumored Gardiner will fetch something that pays him at least $7 million annually over seven years. He’s worth that kind of money. But for a 29-year-old who’s had back problems, that isn’t exactly the best fit for their long-term plans.
The next big name available is Tyler Myers. They’re set as far as right-handed shots go after acquiring Subban. But even if they weren’t, signing Myers would not be a great idea. He has a goals above replacement of minus-1.2 over the last three seasons, which means he adds fewer goals to his team than a replacement-level player. He’s going to get a lot of money, but it looks like it’s going to be quite the overpay.
After Myers and Gardiner, the class dries up quite a bit. There are names like Ben Chiarot, Ben Hutton, and Jordie Benn who can provide depth, but they won’t give the Devils anywhere close to the lift they need on the left side of their blue line. That’s why it’s best to look to the trade market for additional defensive help instead of looking for a UFA.
The Goals for Free Agency
Two things need to be done in free agency. The first is to spend some money on scoring. There’s more than enough talent available where Shero shouldn’t be afraid to spend some of their cap space, but I wouldn’t expect a spending spree, either. Signing Nyquist or a combo of Donskoi and Panik would be their best options.
Related: Could Frolik Be the Devils’ Next Trade Target?
The second thing is to stay out of the market for a defenseman. And when I mean stay out of it, I mean not spending a single dollar. Gardiner would be a great addition, but he’s going to cost too much. Otherwise, there isn’t anyone worth pursuing, which is why the trade route is the better option. If Shero can do that while improving their offense, then the Devils will come out a better team when the dust settles on free agency.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey