If there’s a position of strength for the New Jersey Devils, it’s at forward. They have a young core led by two former first overall picks, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, and have budding wingers in Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen. They also have a slew of promising prospects on the way, led by Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer and Nolan Foote.
Still, it couldn’t hurt the Devils to add some proven scorers if they want to have a real shot at competing for a playoff spot in 2021-22. They’ll likely look to the trade market for a young, scoring winger. But they’ll also have a few options available to them in free agency. Here are a few wingers that Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald should target when free agency begins on July 28, none of whom should break the bank.
Though Schwartz’s production slipped a bit this season (21 points in 40 games), he’s quietly been one of the better two-way wingers in the league during his career. He’s averaged 52 points per 82 games since the start of the 2018-19 season, even after struggling in 2020-21. At five-on-five, he’s averaged 1.79 points per 60 minutes, which is the kind of production you’d expect of a second-line winger.
Schwartz doesn’t offer much on the power play, but his real value lies at even strength. Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, he has an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.3 percent, while his Corsi percentage (CF%) sits at 52.5 percent. His even-strength defense has been above replacement level in each of the last three seasons. And it’s not a fluke, as his expected goals above replacement (xGAR) indicates as much. Overall, his regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) chart shows a positive two-way impact at even strength.
There is some concern about the dip in Schwartz’s production this season, but there’s reason to believe he’ll bounce back. From 2017 to 2020, he had an individual point percentage of 78.4 percent, but that dropped to 62.5 percent this past season. IPP is usually helpful in predicting when a player will bounce back from a down season or regress after a random scoring bender. In Schwartz’s case, it shows the former. He projects to land a 3-year deal at a cap hit of $4.757 million, fair value for what he offers. He’d give the Devils a capable two-way winger who can play top-six minutes and won’t hurt their long-term cap situation with a 3-year deal.
Devils fans know Palmieri quite well, so I won’t spend much time on background information. He was the Devils’ most consistent goal-scorer until they traded him to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. With that said, he did have a down season, finishing with 10 goals and 21 points in 51 games.
Part of Palmieri’s struggles this season were due to some poor shooting luck. He finished with a shooting percentage of 8.5 percent, which was well below his 12.5 career shooting percentage. But it wasn’t for the lack of chances, as he still generated about the same shots on goal per 60 minutes as he did in his previous three seasons. And he actually generated more high-danger chances per 60 minutes this season than he had from 2017 to 2020.
Palmieri should return closer to the 20 to 25 goal-scorer he was with the Devils with some better shooting luck. The question is, could the two sides reunite? It’s pretty rare to see a player re-sign with a team after they’ve traded him away. But Palmieri grew up in New Jersey, and he has plenty of ties to the area. He projects to land a 3-year deal at a cap hit of $4.219 million, a touch cheaper than Schwartz. His even-strength impact is close to on par with Schwartz’s, and he offers much more on the power play than Schwartz. And after all, if you’re going to spend in free agency, it’s not a bad idea to do so on a player you’re familiar with like Palmieri.
Tatar is perhaps the most under-the-radar winger in this year’s free-agent class. Some free agents will likely get paid more than him, even though there’s a good chance he ends up being the more productive player. Over the last three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he’s averaged 61.7 points per 82 games. At five-on-five, he’s averaged 2.49 points per 60 minutes, ranked 19th in the league among forwards with 1000-plus minutes at that game state.
But if you thought Tatar’s scoring rates were impressive, his underlying metrics are even better. The Canadiens have just run teams into the ground with him on the ice. His CF% of 59.4 percent ranks second in the entire league among forwards since the beginning of 2018-19, with teammate Brendan Gallagher the only one ahead of him. His xG% of 59.8 percent ranks first, so he’s an absolute monster at five-on-five. His RAPM chart puts into perspective how strong of an impact he has at even strength:
Tatar’s contract projects to come in at three years and a cap hit of $5.236 million. If I were Fitzgerald, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign him to a similar deal. But it also wouldn’t be a surprise if Tatar costs less than his projection. He’s been a healthy scratch in the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final since Game 6 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s probably depressed his value, and if that’s the case, he should be the Devils’ top priority if they’re looking to add a scorer through free agency.
Saad spent this season in Colorado after the Chicago Blackhawks traded him to the Avalanche during the offseason. He finished with 15 goals and 24 points in 44 games — a 27-goal, 44-point pace over 82 games. Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, he’s averaged 26 goals and 46 points per 82 games. At five-on-five, he’s averaged 2 points per 60 minutes, so he has pretty respectable scoring rates for a top-six winger.
That’s where most of Saad’s value comes as well. His even-strength offense since the start of 2018-19 has been worth a GAR of 13.1. On the other hand, his even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of -7.4, though it has improved on a year-to-year basis (it was slightly below replacement level this season).
Saad’s contract projects to come in at four years and a cap hit of $4.944 million. The defensive concerns are real, but he can succeed in a sheltered role or with responsible two-way forwards. In New Jersey, that’d mean playing on a line with either Hughes, who was a possession hawk this season, or Hischier, a responsible two-way center. Though Saad will be 29 years old at the start of next season, he’s not showing signs of decline. On a 4-year deal, the Devils should be free of his contract by the time his play begins showing legit signs of falling off. So he seems worth the risk, given he can produce 20 to 25 goals consistently.
Coleman became a fan favorite in New Jersey before the Devils traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2020 Trade Deadline. Since then, he’s won a Stanley Cup and is on the verge of winning his second one in less than a year if the Lightning as they have a 3-0 series lead over the Canadiens.
Coleman has been an integral part of the Lightning’s middle-six, helping them become a powerhouse. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged 41 points per 82 games while averaging 1.69 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. So while he may not be as much of a scorer as the other players on this list, he’s still pretty capable.
Yet, Coleman has very much been a valuable offensive player, as his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 15.2 since 2018-19. He’s a reliable two-way player and can play almost anywhere in the lineup. Plus, he plays with a bit of an edge while still producing offensively, something the Devils could use in their lineup.
Coleman’s deal projects to come in at four years and a cap hit of $4.698 million, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he cost a bit more money. The Lightning’s consecutive runs to the Stanley Cup have likely added to his value, given how he’s played for them. The Dallas Stars, Coleman’s hometown team, seem like the favorites to sign him. But it’s probably a good bet Fitzgerald and the Devils at least attempt to bring him back because of what he’d add to the team’s lineup.
Second-Tier Free Agents the Way to Go
Tatar seems like the perfect fit for the Devils’ roster as a top-six winger, especially if he signs below his value. But any of these wingers would provide scoring and even-strength upgrades, as well as a veteran presence. With that said, do not expect Fitzgerald to go crazy in free agency to make improvements. If they add a free-agent winger, it likely starts and ends with one. Anything else will either come from their prospect pool or the trade market.
It’d also be a surprise if the Devils pursued a big-name winger like Gabriel Landeskog or even Zach Hyman through free agency. Their best path is to look for shorter-term deals that won’t hurt their long-term cap situation, such as the players listed here. So that should be how things unfold when free agency opens on July 28.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017