Today is Aug. 30, and with Labor Day this weekend in the States, it means NHL training camps are right around the corner. That also means PTO season is upon us. The New Jersey Devils roster is more or less set at this point, but bringing in a couple of players on PTOs to spur camp competition or fill some depth roles could never hurt. With some notable unrestricted free agents still available, let’s look at a few the Devils could invite to camp on PTOs.
Tyler Motte, Left/Right Wing
Motte does score a bit from time to time, as he’s averaged 19 points per 82 games for his career, but his value lies in his defensive makeup. His even-strength defense has been worth an average of 1.8 goals above replacement (GAR) over the last three seasons. And he’s a strong penalty-killer, something the Devils could use a bit more of in their forward group.
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Though Motte’s shot suppression numbers are a bit suspect, part of that came from playing on a Vancouver Canucks team that’s been one of the weakest defensively over the last few seasons. After getting traded to the New York Rangers at last season’s trade deadline, his defensive numbers improved quite a bit. It only came in a nine-game sample because he suffered an injury, but his defensive impacts suggest it could be legit, making him a worthy PTO candidate.
Victor Rask, Center
Though Rask isn’t the middle-six center he was during his first few years in the league, he has righted the ship over the last couple of seasons. He finished with 23 points in 54 games in 2020-21 and 21 points in 47 games this past season — an average of nearly 36 points per 82 games. Even though he’s shown he still has some offense left in his game, his defensive play has been quite good over the last three seasons:
With plenty of uncertainty as to who’ll be the Devils’ fourth-line center this coming season, it would not be surprising to see them bring in Rask on a PTO. He’s averaged an overall GAR of 4.8 over the last three seasons, above the 2.6 GAR Michael McLeod has averaged. His defensive impacts are better than McLeod’s, and he has more offensive ability. If it doesn’t work out, a younger player like Jesper Boqvist or Tyce Thompson will be the team’s fourth-line center. But there’s no downside to having Rask at camp.
Nathan Beaulieu, Defenseman
After signing Brendan Smith and acquiring John Marino this summer, the Devils’ blue line is the best it’s been in quite some time. Still, most teams carry seven defenders to start the regular season, and it doesn’t make much sense to have a prospect sitting in the press box as the seventh defenseman more often than not. That’s where bringing in Beaulieu on a PTO makes sense.
Beaulieu’s last two seasons in the NHL have not gone well. His impacts have fallen off across the board, and he’s had a GAR below replacement level. With that said, the Winnipeg Jets haven’t exactly been the gold standard for defense in recent seasons, and it’s not like the Devils would be asking him to play regular minutes. If he shows well in camp, he signs as the team’s seventh defenseman behind Smith instead of having a prospect like Nikita Okhotiuk, Reilly Walsh or Kevin Bahl sit in the press box.
Calvin de Haan, Defenseman
If the Devils want to add a little more experience on the back end, de Haan may interest them, especially on a PTO. He’s not the defenseman he used to be, but it appears he also has some decent hockey left in him. He played 69 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2021-22 and fared quite well on a poor team. He played relatively difficult competition but still ranked in the 66th percentile in even-strength defense:
De Haan doesn’t defend the rush as well as Smith, but he does defend the forecheck quite well (retrievals, retrievals success in the visual above). With the Devils, he’d play in a third-pair role and would have much easier minutes than he did with the Blackhawks. That would likely move Smith into the seventh defenseman role, but that’s a good problem to have. If de Haan shows well, the Devils’ defense will be better for it. If it doesn’t, it means Smith or Bahl, Walsh and Okhotiuk showed well enough to make the team and play as regulars.
Zach Aston-Reese, Left/Right Wing
It’s a bit surprising that Aston-Reese hasn’t yet found a new NHL team for the 2022-23 season. Like Motte, his value comes defensively. The difference is that Aston-Reese is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. He’s averaged a GAR of 3.8 when it comes to his even-strength defense over the last three seasons, and he’s had a strong positive impact suppressing shots.
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Per Chris Johnston, the Devils were reportedly interested in Aston-Reese earlier in free agency. He’s a Staten Island, New York native, so he’s from the New York City metro area. Kevin Weekes also reported earlier this summer that Aston-Reese was skating at the Devils’ practice facility in Newark, New Jersey. That last bit is more coincidence than anything else, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Devils bring him in on a PTO, given their interest and him being from the area. If he is one of their PTOs, he’d probably be a good bet to make the team on a cheap one-year deal.
PTOs a Good Way To Fill Depth
There are still a couple of noteworthy players available in free agency, most notably Evan Rodrigues and Sonny Milano. While they may have to take PTOs to earn new deals, both players finished with over 40 points in 2021-22 and should be able to find standard contracts before training camps get underway. They’re both more than good enough to avoid resorting to PTOs, which is why I didn’t mention them as options.
As for the Devils, they already have 13 forwards on their roster (a trade or waivers is likely coming down the road) and at least six defensemen capable of playing in the NHL. A PTO or two may seem counterintuitive, but most teams sign at least a couple of players to PTOs. I’d expect New Jersey to do the same, even if it’s only to spur some competition among their prospects in camp. But if a player on a PTO shows they belong, that can only help the team’s depth.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey