The New Jersey Devils enter the offseason with another opportunity to fine-tune their roster in hopes of making the postseason in 2022-23 for only the second time since they advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. They showed glimpses of their talent in 2021-22, led by core players Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton, but they lacked the consistency to sustain their momentum. A lack of stability in net and poor team defense needs to be addressed for them to become a contender in the Eastern Conference.
The Devils would also benefit from adding more experience up front, with one of the younger rosters in the NHL. The free-agent pool consists of a few players looking to cash in on their regular-season success, including Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri, and Filip Forsberg, as well as some centers and wingers who could provide depth. Here are three free-agent targets general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald should consider adding during the offseason.
Gaudreau raised the bar this season, playing in all 82 regular-season games with a career-high 40 goals and 75 assists. He has the opportunity to become a roster’s cornerstone piece this summer, and the Devils have the cap room to sign him, even though Bratt will receive a multi-year extension after his incredible year in 2021-22.
Adding Gaudreau to a line with Hughes or Hischier would make the Devils more dynamic and give them a premier player who has been durable in eight years with the Calgary Flames. The Devils’ 2019 first-overall draft pick missed 33 games this season, and the team captain was out for 12 games and missed a combined 59 games the last two seasons. Adding Gaudreau should give them a dependable offensive player to boost that line.
Gaudreau had a $6.75 million average annual value (AAV), which will increase with his new deal. His new AAV could be as much as $2 million more for the next six to eight years since he is in his prime. He is a native of Salem County, NJ, and signing with the Devils might appeal to him if he is interested in playing near his hometown.
He, Kadri, and Forsberg each increased their offensive numbers this season which will be difficult to replicate, depending on where they sign. Gaudreau is the most likely of the three to see an insignificant drop in his numbers, even though another 100+ point season is a lot to ask of him, especially if he leaves the Flames.
Given Bratt’s pending extension and the acquisition of a starting goalie via free agency or trade, if Fitzgerald can afford to sign the New Jersey native, he should make an offer for the top free agent on the market. However, signing Gaudreau will limit his ability to make other additions to fill important needs.
Andrew Copp is worth considering if Fitzgerald passes on or is unable to agree on a contract with the top free agents. He will be in line for a big payday as a significant piece of the New York Rangers’ success since they acquired him from the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline. He will not cost more than Gaudreau annually and should fit well throughout the lineup due to his versatility.
“I try and excel in every way I can. Versatility playing center, wing, face-offs, special teams both sides, and play strong defensively. Just try and do a little of everything and make the players better around me.”
Darren Dreger mentioned at the end of April the Rangers are interested in making sure he remains with the organization beyond the season: “In Andrew Copp, talk about a chemistry experiment that has been highly successful. Perfect fit with Artemi Panarin. I’m told the New York Rangers are going to push hard – hard to extend Andrew Copp, we can understand why.”
Rangers GM Chris Drury agreed to part with a lot in exchange for Copp at the deadline: Morgan Barron, two conditional second-round picks – one of which will become a first-round selection now that the Rangers are playing in the Eastern Conference Final – and a 2023 fifth-round pick. So, it is understandable why Drury is motivated to make sure he remains with New York.
Copp has also improved his offensive game after being known for his strong defensive game and finished with a career-high in goals (21) and assists (32) in 72 games during the regular season. During the playoffs, he has been one of the team’s significant offensive players, after Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Panarin, with six goals and seven assists in 17 games.
His flexibility allows him to be paired with Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier on the wing, and he could fill in at center should injuries affect the Devils. He is known for his defensive play, is effective on the penalty kill (PK), and is good at winning faceoffs. The team needs to improve their defense, and signing players who are skilled in this area will give them a boost. Fitzgerald could offer Copp a six-year deal with an AAV between $5-$5.5 million.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forward is often overshadowed by Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and/or Victor Hedman. Still, his impact on the club’s success cannot be denied, particularly during the postseason where he tallied the game-winning goal against the Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on June 5. Through 14 playoff games, he is tied with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for the team lead in goals with six.
Stamkos emphasized his teammate’s importance in big moments after his deciding goal: “Pally… elevates his game at the time the team needs him the most. For the guys that know Pally and have been here as long as we have, as long as I have, I mean, it’s not surprising to us to see him come up clutch in those moments. Huge, huge moment for us, for this series, for the momentum going into Game (4). Pally’s a guy that no matter what situation, no matter what stage, he’s Mr. Reliable,” (from ‘Vintage Ondrej Palat’: Lightning’s Mr. Reliable adds another big-time moment,’ The Athletic, 6/5/22).
The Lightning will not be able to afford to hold onto Palat given their cap situation. If he signs with the Devils, he would bring championship experience to a young squad looking to break its cycle of missing the postseason. He is an underrated signing for Fitzgerald to consider as they need more quality depth forwards beyond their young core of Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, and Yegor Sharangovich.
Palat’s most recent contract was a five-year deal with a $5.3 million AAV that included a no-trade clause (NTC) during three of the five years and a modified no-trade clause (M-NTC) in the last season. Expect him to agree to something similar – $5.5 to $6 million per season for the next five to six years. If the Devils can sign him to a four-year deal, that would be ideal. However, if Fitzgerald thinks a player of his caliber is what they are missing, he may need to overpay or convince him that this is a good spot for him, given that he has been with a contending team for most of his career.
Fitzgerald has another important offseason as he tries to add the best players available to help the Devils contend for a playoff spot in 2022-23. A consistent starting goaltender and better team defense will benefit their chances of not being at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. Their talent is capable of leading the club, but they need the right assistant coaches and better players to help improve fundamental mistakes at five-on-five and on special teams.
Sharangovich, Jonas Siegenthaler, Ty Smith, and Dawson Mercer are young players who will be restricted free agents (RFA) within the next year or two, which is another concern the general manager needs to be aware of in deciding what players to target this offseason. Another season for the young players to develop will help them, but they lacked a veteran presence when they suffered injuries and or lost players to COVID protocol. Better luck keeping their star players healthy will help their chances, but we also know they need better depth options throughout the roster.