It appears we’re inching ever closer to a Jan. 13 start date to the 2020-21 NHL season. If that’s the case, that means we should start seeing some more transactions over the next new few days and weeks leading up to the start of training camp.
Although the New Jersey Devils reshaped most of their roster during draft week, they could have some more moves up their sleeve. They need to sign a couple of their key restricted free agents in Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood. And they have the cap space to add maybe one more player from outside the organization. Let’s take a look at what they may do in the lead-up to playing live games.
Re-Signing Bratt, Blackwood
This will be a matter of when and not if the Devils sign these players. Bratt totaled 32 points in 60 games last season, while Blackwood finished with a .916 save percentage (SV%) and was one of the best goaltenders in the league from December until the season came to a halt in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bratt struggled to start the 2019-20 season, but he was a different player after the team fired head coach John Hynes and replaced him with Alain Nasreddine. He finished the season as one of the Devils’ best two-way forwards after showing marked improvement defensively. And that should make him a fixture in their top six under new head coach Lindy Ruff.
Even with NHL teams watching their finances more carefully due to revenue loss from COVID-19, it shouldn’t affect what Bratt’s new deal looks like all that much. He should still end up receiving a two to three-year contract that pays him somewhere between $3 to $3.5 million annually.
The same holds true for Blackwood as well. The Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed Tristan Jarry to a three-year extension in October that pays him $3.5 million annually. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Blackwood’s new deal were almost identical to Jarry’s, given their career numbers are near mirror images of each other.
Between re-signing Blackwood and Bratt, that should leave the Devils with around $10-11 million in cap space. And that leads us to the next section.
Free Agency Still an Option
The Devils are not going to spend to the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling under any circumstance. Still, having $10-11 million in cap space should give them room to add one more player. One way they could do so is by diving into the free-agent market, which still has some notable names in it. Among the top free agents who still need homes before the 2020-21 season begins are Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Andreas Athanasiou, and Sami Vatanen.
We’ll start with Vatanen, who played for the Devils before they traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2020 Trade Deadline. He logged consistent top-four minutes for the Devils and saw plenty of time on both special teams units. The team could use another defenseman, so maybe they look to him on a short-term deal for the upcoming season.
Granlund and Hoffman are intriguing options, but it’s unlikely the Devils pursue them. Instead, finding some depth scoring for their middle-six would make more sense. And that’s where Athanasiou and Duclair would make sense.
Both Duclair and Athanasiou are poor defensive players, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call them liabilities. But both wingers know how to score, specifically Duclair. He played in 66 games last season and totaled 23 goals and 40 points, which translates to a 29-goal, 50-point pace over 82 games. Ruff would have to manage his minutes and keep him out of defensive situations. But he could be a savvy pickup on a short-term deal to bolster the Devils’ depth scoring.
Devils Can Still Weaponize Cap Space
While there are still some good free agents available, that ship has likely sailed for the Devils. If they’re going to make another addition before the season starts, there’s a good chance it comes through the trade market rather than in free agency.
Why’s that the case? For starters, there are more than a few teams that need to get cap compliant before the season starts. To do so, they’re likely to look to the trade market to shed salary for financial flexibility. There are only a few teams who have the cap space to take on a contract or two, and the Devils are one of them.
The Devils already helped the Toronto Maple Leafs create some cap space when they acquired Andreas Johnsson in exchange for prospect Joey Anderson. The next team they could look to help out is the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose cap problems are no secret at this point. They’re $1.9 million OVER the cap ceiling and still have to re-sign RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak.
Cernak would have been a good fit for the Devils, but the Lightning aren’t trading him. The most likely scenario is they move someone like Alex Killorn or Ondrej Palat (or both) to give themselves some cap relief. The Devils don’t have the cap space to take on both, but Killorn would be a good fit for them.
Despite being 31 years old, Killorn is still an effective two-way winger. He’s an efficient five-on-five scorer, plays a physical game, and is a high-end penalty killer. His contract runs through the 2022-23 season and comes with a cap hit of $4.45 million.
If the Devils aren’t on Killorn’s no-trade list, they could acquire him and a sweetener (a draft pick or prospect) to round out their roster for the 2020-21 season. And he should still leave the team with around $5.5 million in cap space after they re-sign Bratt and Blackwood.
We’re Almost There
At a minimum, the Devils will re-sign their two key RFAs before the new season starts. Their lone free-agent signings in October were Corey Crawford and Dmitry Kulikov. I wouldn’t rule out another free-agent deal, but it seems unlikely unless they’re able to sign someone to a bargain.
The area to watch for the Devils is the trade market. General manager Tom Fitzgerald isn’t going to make a trade for the sake of making a trade. But if the right deal presents itself, it’d be a surprise if he passed on the opportunity to make the team better.
One way or another, we’re getting closer to live hockey games. If the season starts on Jan. 13 and isn’t delayed further by COVID-19, it’ll have been almost 10 months without a Devils game. And if we’re lucky, another transaction or two should kick off the lead-up to the team’s first game.