The New Jersey Devils have a lot of decisions to make this summer, including what the future holds for their restricted and unrestricted free agents. Some teams have re-signed some of their players, while all has been quiet from Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald. In this article, we will look at nine players who made regular appearances with the big club, so players including Chase DeLeo, Tyce Thompson, and A.J. Greer are not included. Let’s jump in and start with the team’s restricted free agents and the name that has caused the biggest stir online.
Restricted Free Agents
The 5-foot-10 Swede has been a hot topic these past few weeks. It seems like this could be a dramatic summer, so much so that Chris Harrison should be narrating it. Hockey insiders Elliotte Friedman and Kevin Weekes have shared a similar sentiment that there have been no significant contract extension talks to this point and confirmed there are several teams that would be interested in trading for Jesper Bratt.
Ryan Novozinsky from NJ.com shared that he spoke to Bratt’s agent, Joakim Persson, who confirmed they have talked with the Devils a couple of times since the offseason began. If fans recall the last time the organization and Bratt agreed on a new contract, it was four days before the season opener. Friedman mentions during a recent 32 Thoughts: The Podcast episode, that there is a theory going around that, knowing how hard the last negotiation was, everybody, is kind of preparing for a tough one here.
I do think Bratt will remain a Devil, unless a team dangles a player that Fitzgerald can’t pass up like if the New York Islanders offered Ilya Sorokin. The Swede has proven he is a capable top-line winger and prior to his breakout season was a consistent 30-plus point scorer the past four seasons. Fans will have to remain patient while negotiations continue and a solution is reached.
It was an unfortunate season for Miles Wood, who underwent hip surgery on Nov. 8, 2021. He appeared in three games this season, registering five hits and averaging 14:46 of ice time. Looking back to the 2020-21 season, he finished with 17 goals, which was tied for the team-best. His speed and physical play were missed at times this season, and fans along with the coaching staff realized no other player was able to step into his role leaving a void on the ice.
New Jersey should bring him back on a short-term deal and give him a chance to further prove himself. Some fans would be delighted to see him play alongside Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod reuniting the “BMW line”. When together the trio was praised by head coach Lindy Ruff for the energy they brought to the ice.
“The speed that Miles can play with, the physicality of a Bastian, the speed and surprisingly the goal scoring that Michael brought us down the middle,” Ruff said last year, “the intensity that (McLeod) brought inside the faceoff dot when we needed that right-handed faceoff guy. He was our only right-hander down the stretch. That line did a lot of good things for us and provided a lot of great energy.”
Pavel Zacha is an interesting case. He was ranked eighth by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, and was selected by New Jersey sixth overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-3 forward is one of the most tenured Devils, and has been with the club for the past seven seasons earning 179 points in 386 games.
His name was circulated during the trade deadline and was linked specifically to the Vancouver Canucks. As fans know, nothing transpired and Zacha finished the season in New Jersey. During his media availability, Fitzgerald did not exactly give fans a lot of faith that the 25-year-old would be back.
“Well, he is an RFA this summer and has arbitration rights. I will talk to this agent,” said Fitzgerald. “I have to really look at the big picture of how we’re constructing this team to move forward to be a playoff team. That’s our goal, that’s everybody’s goal…Where Pav fits, you know we’ll go through that process internally of what we need and does he fit. He’s a good player, he’s a really good young player. He’s got talent, size, and versatility in his game. Everybody is looking for players like that and we are no different. I just want to see where some of the ducks fall and how we want to build out this team.”
In this case, I believe a change of scenery could do wonders for Zacha. He can be counted on for 25-35 points but has never evolved into the player fans hoped for, especially when Mathew Barzal and Mikko Rantanen were selected after him. He has been haunted by his draft selection since his rookie season, and a fresh start could be just what he needs.
The 23-year-old is coming off a career season scoring 10 goals and picking up 13 assists. He has yet to play a full 82 games in the NHL, as he began the 2021-22 campaign in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Comets. Fans can’t forget his impressive game-winning goal against the Vegas Golden Knights, and it can’t be denied that he took great strides over the past few months.
The question surrounding Boqvist continues to be is he the best option the Devils have for a depth forward. This season he solidified himself as the team’s third-line center after the coaching staff moved rookie Dawson Mercer to the wing. Behind Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier the Devils have Janne Kuokkanen, McLeod, Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, Thompson, and Zacha who are all listed as centers. Kuokkanen, Mercer, Sharangovich, and Zacha were all predominantly utilized on the wing this season leaving Boqvist, McLeod, and Thompson to battle for a bottom-six center position. Time will tell if Fitzgerald will look to free agency to bolster his depth.
The young Swedish forward made an impact during his time in New Jersey with eight points, and concluded the regular season on a three-game point streak. Fans would agree that Fabian Zetterlund played himself into a new contract with the Devils. He is not afraid to shoot the puck and fired 36 shots in 14 games. He was a top player for the Comets, helping them reach the playoffs. At 22 years old it would be wise for the club to hold onto him and see what he can bring when training camp opens up.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Will New Jersey bring P.K. Subban back on a team-friendly deal? This seems to be the question, as he is a great character guy who was extremely well-liked by his teammates. The organization could bring him back for around $2 million and keep him as part of the third pairing who can help guide a rookie like Kevin Bahl or Nikita Okhotyuk, who have a chance to make the team out of training camp.
The Toronto native did not have the best offensive numbers, putting up 59 points in 189 games. He saw his ice time drop to around 18 minutes per game behind Damon Severson, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, and Jonas Siegenthaler. For the right price, I can see Fitzgerald keeping an open dialogue with Subban’s agent, but with so many young defensemen ready to jump in the team can easily walk away from the former Norris Trophy winner.
The Boston native came to New Jersey on a professional tryout and earned a contract days before the season opener. Throughout the season he became a top penalty killer for the team and finished with 15 points. He successfully carved out a role for himself and for some games even played on the top line. I took a poll on Twitter to see how fans felt about Jimmy Vesey returning to New Jersey and 42.7 percent of fans said they would. The biggest question is where does he fit into the future plans. Fans have to think Fitzgerald is looking to improve his bottom-six, which could very easily mean Vesey will not return. The return of Wood could also impact Vesey’s status as he found himself playing in his spot at times alongside McLeod and Bastian.
The 27-year-old appeared in 25 games this season and was put in the lineup when the coaching staff felt their team needed more physicality. Offensively he did not register a point and averaged 6:57 of ice time per game, which was the lowest among all skaters this season. It seems like Coach Ruff enjoyed having Mason Geertsen as an option, and based on that I could see the team bringing him back for another one-year deal as a depth player. Personally, I think the team should move on and look for a more complete player who could regularly crack the lineup and be put in a position to contribute regularly.
The young blueliner found himself spending a majority of the season in New Jersey, but only appeared in 27 games. He was utilized as a depth defenseman and slotted in when teammates were injured or underperformed. It was a tough spot, but when called upon he came in and did his job. Since he was proven to be reliable for Coach Ruff, I can see the team bringing him back to the organization on a two-way deal, giving the team insurance on the blue line if they are once again plagued with injuries or providing veteran leadership in Utica.
The one quote that constantly sticks in my mind is when Hughes said, “The team right now is not the team we are going to win with or be successful with.” How close is this team to becoming a playoff contender and how many of the team’s current pieces are replaceable? I don’t envy Fitzgerald who has will be under a microscope as he navigates the next few months. Which players do you want to see return? Leave a comment below and let me know.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.