The New Jersey Devils got strong play from plenty of their young players during the 2020-21 season. Yet, they managed to finish with a 19-30-7 record and have the 4th-best odds at the June 2 draft lottery. It’s clear there’s some work to do in New Jersey this offseason, as they have quite a few needs to address to improve their roster.
Fortunately, general manager Tom Fitzgerald has an arsenal of assets to work with this summer, ranging from draft capital to just over $37 million in cap space. So what are the Devils’ biggest needs, and how should Fitzgerald go about addressing them? Let’s look at their roster deficiencies and briefly go over some potential targets that could suit them this offseason.
Backup Goaltending a Must
Goaltending has been a problem for the Devils for quite some time. They thought they had addressed it last offseason when they signed Corey Crawford to a 2-year deal. But he had a change of heart and decided to retire just before the 2020-21 season began. That left Scott Wedgewood as Mackenzie Blackwood’s backup, and while he had some good moments, the Devils need to find an upgrade.
Blackwood and the rest of the team’s goaltenders had gotten off to a good start this season. But it was all downhill after the team had a COVID outbreak that affected a majority of their players. The Devils’ team save percentage (SV%) of .891 was 3rd-lowest in the league, a range they’ve more or less been in over the last few seasons. With that said, Blackwood had a rough bout of COVID and noted in his exit interview that his breathing didn’t feel normal until there were about 3-4 weeks left in the season. That’s almost a full three months after he had COVID.
In all, Blackwood finished the season with a .902 SV% and did close out with a .909 SV% over his final eight starts. I don’t think there’s any long-term concern with his down season, given that COVID seemed to be the most significant factor. With the Devils not in the playoffs, he’ll have close to four months to recover before training camp begins in September.
But while there isn’t cause for concern with Blackwood, there is as to who will be backing him up next season. Crawford would’ve been the ideal 1B, but things didn’t work out, so Fitzgerald and the front office are back to the drawing board. Fortunately, this free-agent class of goaltenders is one of the deepest in quite some time.
It’d be a surprise if the Devils spent big money on a netminder. Blackwood is their guy, and they have a couple of promising prospects in Akira Schmid and Nico Daws that could be 1Bs a couple of years down the road. That means they’re likely to look to someone on a short-ish deal similar to the one Crawford signed.
A few names to watch are Jaroslav Halak, Antti Raanta and James Reimer. Halak, Reimer and Raanta have been solid 1Bs for quite some time and would make sense on two- to three-year deals. The Devils likely don’t want to hand out long-term contracts with Blackwood being their future and Daws and Schmid coming up. So targeting netminders like Halak, Raanta and Reimer make sense.
Upgrading the Blue Line Should Be Next
Before going over what the Devils need on the back end, let’s take a look at their current depth chart.
- TBD – Damon Severson
- Ty Smith – P.K. Subban
- Jonas Siegenthaler – Will Butcher
- Connor Carrick
Ryan Murray, who spent this past season with the Devils, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so he’s excluded from the depth chart. It’d make sense to re-sign him, but until that happens, he’s off the chart since it’s no guarantee he returns.
But even if the Devils do bring back Murray, they likely need two blueliners heading into the 2021-22 season. Though Butcher found himself in the lineup over the season’s final 20 games, he struggled for most of the campaign and probably could use a change of scenery. His skating isn’t good enough for head coach Lindy Ruff’s fast-paced system, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team left him exposed for the Seattle Expansion Draft.
Subban rebounded a bit this past season after having the worst season of his career in 2019-20. Still, he’s in the final year of his contract, so 2021-22 could be his last ride with the Devils. That means they’ll need to find a long-term solution for whenever he departs, and this is where things get a bit tricky.
The first place to look is free agency, where right-handed shots Dougie Hamilton and Adam Larsson head the class. Hamilton is a bonafide top-pair defenseman, but will the Devils shell out the $8-9 million annual salary he’ll probably command? Perhaps, but they’d probably need to move Subban’s $9 million cap hit to do so. Larsson does not have the flash of Hamilton, but he’s an underrated defensive defenseman and was originally a Devils’ draft pick in 2011. Though it appears he won’t even hit free agency, according to Elliotte Friedman.
If the Devils strike out on those two, they’ll have to get creative because there’s not much else in free agency. That’ll mean heading to the trade market, and with the expansion draft looming, there’ll be players available. If the Edmonton Oilers don’t protect right-handed defenseman Ethan Bear or the Minnesota Wild decide to trade Matt Dumba because they don’t want to lose him to Seattle for nothing, the Devils could be a team who takes advantage.
Another team to watch on the trade market is the Colorado Avalanche. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to protect Devon Toews or Ryan Graves for the expansion draft. Toews is the better of the two, but both would be significant upgrades to the Devils’ blue line, even if they’re left-handed shots. Either would be able to fill the void left by Murray if he signs elsewhere.
Goal-Scoring Winger and a Third-Line Center
If there’s a strength to the Devils’ roster, it’s up front. There are some budding regulars in Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen, who are showing they’re capable of being middle-six wingers in the NHL. Pavel Zacha played on the wing for a good chunk of the season and had his best campaign to date, scoring at a 57-point pace over 82 games. The catch is the group’s oldest forward is Andreas Johnsson, and he’s only 26 years old.
Because of that, Fitzgerald will need to add some proven scorers if a group led by 20-year-old Jack Hughes and 22-year-old captain Nico Hischier wants to take a step forward next season. The free-agent class for forwards isn’t the strongest, but there are some intriguing options. If Brandon Saad or Jaden Schwartz make it to free agency, the Devils could look to them for help on the wing. There’s also the possibility they bring back Kyle Palmieri after trading him to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. Sam Reinhart appears to want out of Buffalo, so he’d be a sensible trade target if that’s the route the Devils choose.
Though the Devils are in good shape at center with Hughes, Hischier and Michael McLeod, they’ll need a third-line center if Zacha stays at left wing as he should. Nick Bonino is one of the game’s more underrated third-line centers and would make sense on a short-term deal. The team could also look to bring back long-time Devil Travis Zajac after trading him to the Islanders in the Palmieri deal.
Overall, the Devils’ group of forwards needs the least work from their position groups. They have a strong collection of prospects led by Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote and Dawson Mercer, who are working their way towards becoming regular NHLers. That should keep Fitzgerald from spending big money and committing long-term contracts to free-agent wingers. If he can add some help without breaking the bank, that should be the way to go.
2021 Offseason Shaping Up to Be Busy
Even though the Devils made progress in developing their young players, there’s work to do this offseason. If they want to take a step forward next season and at least be playing meaningful games in March and April, Fitzgerald will need to make additions.
Finding a backup goaltender is a priority. The Devils won’t have much success if Blackwood is starting 60-65 games next season, so they need someone who can ease his workload. Improving the defense in front of him would be a big help too. And if Fitzgerald manages to add some proven forwards, the Devils can make legitimate strides in 2021-22. So that should set things up to be quite active once the offseason kicks into full gear in July.
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