The free-agent frenzy has come and gone, with the New Jersey Devils having made arguably the biggest splash of the summer. Dougie Hamilton is the best defenseman they’ve had since Brian Rafalski was on their roster, and he’ll surely provide a significant boost. Meanwhile, in net, signing Jonathan Bernier will give the team much-needed stability alongside Mackenzie Blackwood.
But even after signing Hamilton and Bernier, the Devils still have some holes to address. Aside from needing a top-six winger, they could also use a depth scorer in a middle or bottom-six role. There are a few intriguing names worth considering in that regard, none of whom should break the bank. And while their defense pairs are as good as set, they still need to find a seventh defenseman to fill out their roster. None of the following players will move the needle significantly. But for what they’ll cost, they could be good low-risk, high-reward depth options.
The older brother of Carolina Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov, Evgeny, found himself a UFA after the Detroit Red Wings did not tender him a qualifying offer. He had a decent season in Detroit, finishing with eight points in 21 games — a 31-point pace over 82 games. He was an efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 1.69 points per 60 minutes, ranked fourth on the Red Wings. His on-ice stats weren’t great, but the only player on the team to finish with an expected goals percentage (xG%) above 50 percent was Taro Hirose, and he played in just six games.
Though Svechnikov, a former first-round pick of the Red Wings, hasn’t panned out in the NHL, he’s still only 24 years old. The Devils need a depth winger or two, and he can play either left or right wing. Evolving-Hockey predicts for him to land a cheap one-year deal at a cap hit of $897,100, which is about as low-risk of a signing as you can get. Though his 2020-21 production came over a small sample size, he showed there’s still talent to be had. So taking a gamble on the former first-round pick as a reclamation project may not be a bad idea.
If the Devils don’t find a third-line center through free agency or a trade, they’ll likely stay in-house to fill the role. From Michael McLeod and Jesper Boqvist to possibly Yegor Sharangovich, they have options. But the latter two have played on the wing plenty, and if they remain there moving forward, that could move McLeod up the lineup. That means general manager Tom Fitzgerald would have to solidify the team’s center depth.
That’s where Brassard could help. Though he’s not what he used to be, he’s still an effective two-way, bottom-six center. Brassard finished this season with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 5.9 and had strong defensive impacts at even strength. He doesn’t offer much in the way of five-on-five scoring anymore. But as a fourth-line center, the Devils could do much worse. A group of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, McLeod and Brassard down the middle would get the job done, at least for 2021-22.
Speaking of finding a third-line center, how about Tyler Bozak? Though he finished with 17 points in 31 games in 2020-21, he had one of his worst seasons in recent memories. He finished with a GAR of -1.3, the first time he’s been below replacement level since 2010-11. With that said, injuries likely played a significant role in his struggles. In his previous two seasons, he had a GAR of 3.7 and 8.3, respectively. Assuming he’s healthy to start 2021-22, he seems like a good rebound candidate.
Bozak’s predicted UFA deal came in at one year and a cap hit of $1.268 million. Unless the Devils look to the trade market for someone like Adam Henrique, who’s reportedly on the block, Bozak is easily their best option as a third-line center. If he rebounds, he should be good for 35-40 points while offering defensive prowess at even strength and on the penalty kill. Not too shabby as a potential stop-gap option until a prospect like Dawson Mercer is ready for the gig full time.
Donato also finds himself a UFA after not receiving a qualifying offer from the San Jose Sharks. After putting up 14 goals in 62 games — an 18-goal pace over 82 games — in 2019-20 with the Minnesota Wild, he had some rough shooting luck this season. Donato finished with six goals in 50 games and shot 5.8 percent on 104 shots on goal. His shot and chance generation was quite good, however. He averaged 5.32 high-danger chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five, second-most on the Sharks. That was also only .01 less than he averaged in the prior season with the Wild.
The Devils need depth scoring as much as they need a top-six winger, and Donato can provide that depth. If his shot and chance generation remains the way it has the past two seasons, he should see better shooting luck in 2021-22. That could result in him finishing closer to the 18-goal pace he was on in 2019-20. He should come on a cheap one-year deal as well, making him worth taking a flyer on, given the potential for a rebound.
Koekkoek spent 2020-21 with the Edmonton Oilers, where he struggled quite a bit. He finished the season with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 41.5 percent and xG% of 45.3 percent. With that said, he had positive results with the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning over his previous two seasons. Even with his struggles in 2020-21, he has a CF% of 49.5 percent and xG% of 51.5 percent since the start of 2018-19. That speaks volumes to the results he posted before joining the Oilers.
The Devils have had a tough time finding a seventh defenseman who could give them capable minutes over the last few seasons. Koekkoek isn’t going to light the world on fire when he needs to play. But he’d give the Devils that reliable seventh defenseman they’ve been seeking for some time, and he should come on a cheap one-year contract.
With the Devils having lost Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, they’ll have to find someone to fill his role. They’ll have some internal options, namely Fabian Zetterlund, who could slide in as a fourth-line winger. But if they’re to look outside the organization, Sceviour is worth their attention. He doesn’t offer much in the way of offense, but he’s a good shot suppressor and has had a positive impact on defense over the last three seasons:
Sceviour’s averaged 19 points per 82 games since the start of 2018-19, which is about what Bastian was on pace for this season. His defensive impacts are a touch better than Bastian’s, so he should be able to fill his role well. My guess is the Devils try to fill what they lost in Bastian from within the organization. But Sceviour is their best option available on the market and should not cost more than $1 million on a one-year deal if that’s the route they decide to go.
Hutton had a rough season between the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, finishing with a GAR of -5.1. However, he did have a strong season with the Los Angeles Kings in 2019-20, totaling a GAR of 6.7 while having a positive two-way impact at even strength. He also has a solid track record of being an effective penalty-killer, even through his struggles with the Ducks.
It’s unlikely Hutton would be a regular among the Devils’ defense pairs. But as their seventh man, he’s right up there with Koekkoek as the team’s best option. He won’t cost more than a minimum deal for one year, and like Koekkoek, he’d be better than most of the seventh defensemen the Devils have had in recent seasons.
Galchenyuk had an interesting 2020-21. He signed with the Ottawa Senators last offseason but barely cracked their lineup, playing in only eight games. They’d trade him to the Carolina Hurricanes, but he’d find himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs before he ever played a game in Carolina after the Hurricanes traded him just days after acquiring him.
It’s in Toronto where Galchenyuk found some new life. He finished with 12 points in 26 games with the Maple Leafs — nearly a 38-point pace over 82 games. He was an efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 2.19 points per 60 minutes, and had xG% of 57.57 percent. By the time the season concluded, he had a positive impact offensively at even strength:
Galchenyuk’s defensive game will always be an issue, but he legitimately played well offensively in his short stint with the Maple Leafs. Whatever they did to get his game back on track seemed to work a bit. He’d likely be playing alongside skilled players in New Jersey and could fit in well with Lindy Ruff’s more offensive-minded system. If he could produce at close to a 40-point pace with the on-ice results he had in Toronto, he’d be a nice addition to the Devils’ middle six if all else fails in adding a scorer.
None of the players on this list will move the needle significantly for the Devils. But they could fill out some of their depth concerns for a minimal cost and at low-risk levels. Donato or Galchenyuk could offer some scoring help, while Koekkoek or Hutton could give them that seventh defenseman they need behind Jonas Siegenthaler and P.K. Subban on the depth chart. They may only be depth options, but it never hurts to have that in what will hopefully be an 82-game season in 2021-22.
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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