As we approach the end of the 2020-21 NHL regular season, the New Jersey Devils are gearing up for an important free agency after another disappointing season. General manager Tom Fitzgerald has plenty of cap space to work with, and it is imperative that he makes good use of it to help support the development of their young core. Jack Hughes, Pavel Zacha, and Ty Smith have all seen fairly steady progress in their game(s), but there just isn’t enough talent around them for the team to be competitive. Devils fans are getting tired of the losing. And with the rebuild seemingly taking longer than expected, a few signings over the offseason could really help New Jersey push their way back into relevancy.
This year’s free agency class consists of only a few upper-echelon players like Alex Ovechkin, Taylor Hall, Gabriel Landeskog, Dougie Hamilton, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Out of all of those names, the most likely target for New Jersey would probably be Hamilton, a right-handed offensive-defenseman who is currently having a fantastic year (40P, 51GP) for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes are nearing the cap-ceiling, and that isn’t even considering the fact that they will have to re-sign restricted free agents Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas, who will both probably command significant money and term for their first big NHL contract(s). This makes it that much more likely for a team with a ton of cap space (like New Jersey) to swoop in and make an offer that a cap-strapped team like Carolina simply cannot match.
Hamilton, at this point in his career, is a veteran defenseman who could not only be a top point producer for the Devils but also a leader both on and off the ice. He could slot in well on the right side, and he could teach Ty Smith a lot about the game. Another thing to mention: if the Devils were to bring back Will Butcher for another year or two, Hamilton could potentially help to revitalize his career, which has been on the downswing since his rookie year in 2017-18. They play similar styles, and in all honesty, Butcher hasn’t had many great partners on the blue line throughout his career.
Additionally, the acquisition of Hamilton could open up potential trade opportunities for a player like Damon Severson, another right-handed defenseman on the Devils that receives both a ton of praise and criticism from fans for his play. Severson is a top-4 defenseman, and players of that quality could fetch a significant return to help strengthen a weak forward group. Fitzgerald should definitely be listening to offers on Severson, but a trade doesn’t seem all that likely to happen unless an exceptional offer is made for the 26-year-old who is just entering his prime.
A Need for Veteran Leadership and Grit
The Devils lost a great amount of veteran leadership and grit when Blake Coleman, Andy Greene, and Wayne Simmonds left the team through free agency/trades. The same happened again just this past deadline, where New Jersey moved on from Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri in exchange for (mostly) futures. It was a move that needed to happen, but the trade with the Islanders only made New Jersey even more inexperienced. The team has a very young roster — one of the youngest in the league, and players like Hughes and Smith should not have to figure it all out on their own. Further help is needed up front.
Rounding Out the Forward Group
A few more experienced forwards the Devils should consider signing are Paul Stastny, Brandon Saad, and Nick Foligno. These players have a combined 2,581 games played, and while they may not be the point producers they used to be, they could all be brought in on value contracts to help guide the young core along the way.
Paul Stastny is a center who can win faceoffs, which is something the Devils desperately need, as they have been atrocious at the dot all season long. Stastny has endured nine playoff runs, seeing several conference finals appearances throughout his fifteen years in the National Hockey League. He is producing at a 45-point pace throughout a full 82-game season this year and would slot in nicely as a third-line center behind Hischier and Hughes.
While Stastny would be a great fit down the middle to help teach Hughes on faceoffs, both Saad and Foligno would be nice complementary pieces to play on the wings of both Hughes and Hischier. Both players can bring a sandpaper element to the game, (Foligno especially), and both players can still produce points — just not at the level they were once capable of. Saad is a two-time Cup winner who played a pretty significant role in creating the dynasty that was the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the 2010s.
And even though Foligno hasn’t won a cup or even gone on a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs just yet, he has had a few big moments in his limited postseason time. Not to mention that he was the captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets for around five years before getting traded to the Maple Leafs just a few weeks ago.
Stabilizing the Defense
Even if the Devils were to sign Dougie Hamilton and keep Damon Severson over the offseason, they could still use at least one or two more veteran defenseman to help round out their top-6 and provide some stability for what has been a horrendous defensive core. There are plenty of names that could be a good fit for New Jersey in the 2021 free-agent class, but Jason Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson are both particularly good options out of Arizona for where the Devils are currently at in their rebuild.
Hjalmarsson is a three-time cup winner who played a major role in the Blackhawks dynasty (even more so than Saad). The experience under his belt is invaluable, and while he may not bring much offensively, he could immediately help stabilize the back end at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. He will block shots, lay the body, and overall, just be a very safe option on the left side of the blue line. Demers is more of the same, except he is a right-handed shot. Both defensemen are exactly what New Jersey needs right now.
A Veteran Between the Pipes
The Devils’ goaltending situation has been a disaster this season, with all three of Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Wedgewood, and Aaron Dell possessing a GAA around 3.00 or more. Blackwood is still young, and he’s likely the goalie the organization wants between the pipes for the future, considering the promise he has shown, but it’s clear that he needs help. A halfway-decent defensive core would certainly help a lot, but why not bring in a veteran goaltender to help out your young, struggling goaltender of the future?
There are many names that could be great options as the backup goaltender next season; New Jersey just needs to sign one of them. The most realistic and likely targets would be one of Peter Mrazek/James Reimer from Carolina, Dave Rittich (now out of Toronto), or maybe even the elderly statesman, Mike Smith. Each goaltender could help decrease Blackwood’s workload while manning the crease for the 20 to 30 games they are needed between the pipes.
This offseason should be rather simple for Fitzgerald and the Devils. Further veteran presence is needed at just about every position on the ice. Hughes, Smith, and Blackwood especially, all need more experienced players to guide them and help take the load off their shoulders so that they can play the game freely and continue to work towards their potential. There aren’t too many big names the Devils could realistically be in on, but Dougie Hamilton is one of them, and if he were to sign in New Jersey, perhaps the team could find themselves a little bit closer to a playoff spot than the bottom of the league next season.