The NHL has been on pause for over a month now due to the coronavirus, with the remainder of the regular season still up in the air and facing a possible August ending if a restart even happens. That means notable offseason dates, like free agency, will likely be affected too.
But even though NHL free agency may not begin on its usual date of July 1, that doesn’t mean teams can’t beginning looking at European players looking to make the jump to the NHL. Some clubs have already done so, as the Calgary Flames are close to signing 22-year-old Swedish defenseman Johannes Kinnvall.
While Kinnvall would’ve been an ideal fit for the Devils, there are other intriguing names available from overseas. There isn’t an Artemi Panarin out there this time around, but the Devils could still fill some glaring holes on their roster by signing a European free agent or two.
Suter was the top scorer in the NLA — the best league in Switzerland — with 30 goals and 23 assists in 50 games. He’s spent his entire pro career in his native Switzerland and has been a consistent scorer in the NLA. But the 2019-20 season marked his best yet, and it’s gotten the attention of NHL teams looking for forward depth.
What’s most noticeable about Suter’s jump in production is the way he scored his goals. He’s only 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, but he plays bigger than his size. He scored plenty of goals in and around the crease, and that’ll likely be his bread and butter if he makes his way to the NHL. He’s also a decent playmaker and can play either left-wing or center.
The catch with Suter is his NLA contract runs through 2022-23, but it has an NHL-out clause that kicks in this summer. His plan is also to wait until after July 1 to sign an NHL deal when he has a better idea of where teams stand (From ‘What we’re hearing about the Blackhawks in the wake of the suspended NHL season,’ The Athletic – 3/13/2020).
Assuming July 1 is when free agency begins, the Devils should have a good idea of where their NHL roster stands once the free-agent frenzy dies down. If they think filling out their bottom-six needs more work, Suter should be on their radar. They had no depth scoring this season, and his ability to get goals from the dirty areas is something they could use on their third or fourth lines.
Nättinen may be a familiar name to some of you. He was a second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2015, but his stint in North America was short-lived. He had 12 points in 55 games with the San Diego Gulls (AHL) in 2017-18, his only pro season in North America. He returned to his native Finland for the 2018-19 season, where he suited up for JYP in the Liiga, a move that seemed to help him. He finished the 2019-20 season with 55 points in 54 games and was one of the Liiga’s top-five players.
Although the Devils are in good shape at center, Nättinen is still worth a look. His scoring rate in the Liiga would translate to 38 points in the NHL, an ideal point total for a bottom-six forward. He also has good size, at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, something the Devils could use in their bottom six, especially if he can contribute 30-40 points.
Some of you may remember Nesterov from his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He never managed to become a regular on their blue line, but he was still a solid depth piece. He played in 132 NHL games and totaled 33 points, an average of 20.5 points per 82 games. He also had positive underlying numbers in his time in the NHL.
As Corey Pronman of The Athletic states about Nesterov, “he’s a good player, albeit an unspectacular one. He is an above-average skater, he’s got some skill and he moves the puck very well. His playmaking isn’t elite, but he can stretch the ice, and he makes a lot of clean exits. He can defend fine due to his mobility and IQ. In the NHL, he could be a bottom half of the roster type, close to what he was in his last stint.” (From ‘Pronman: Top free agents from college hockey, major junior and Europe,’ The Athletic – 2/27/2020).
With all due respect to the Devils’ bottom pair and depth defensemen, they all struggled mightily in 2019-20 because they could not exit the defensive zone cleanly or stretch the ice. That would make Nesterov a clear upgrade as a fifth or sixth defenseman because he can do that much more effectively. So he should be a player of interest to the team’s management.
Suomi finished this season as the second-leading scorer in the Liiga, with 57 points in 57 games, placing him ahead of Nättinen and Jesse Puljujarvi in total points. He was also named the second-best player in the Liiga and was one of the best even-strength point producers in the league.
Suomi’s scoring rate would translate to 37 points in 82 NHL games. That’d be a solid total for someone who’d play a bottom-six role, but there are some concerns about him. He’s an average skater, which isn’t the best for a forward who’s 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. With that said, anyone who scores at the rate he did, especially at even-strength, deserves a look in the NHL. If placed in the right role, he can likely find some success as a bottom-six forward. Like Suter, he can either play left-wing or center, so his versatility should appeal to NHL clubs too.
Lehtonen is arguably the best defenseman in the world who doesn’t play in the NHL. The 26-year-old blueliner finished last season with 49 points in 60 games (0.82 points per game) for Jokerit in the KHL, which translates to 54 points over 82 games in the NHL. For context’s sake, the next best scoring rate for a defenseman in the KHL was between Slava Voynov and Nick Bailen, who both averaged 0.69 points per game.
It was hard to find highlights of Lehtonen, but what stood out most from what I managed to view was his shot and offensive instincts. He has a hard and accurate shot he’s able to get through traffic. He’s also not afraid to jump into high-danger scoring areas when his team is on the rush.
More often than not, players who come over from Europe end up playing depth roles in the NHL, but Lehtonen has higher upside than that. Does that mean he’ll be an instant 50-point defenseman? Not necessarily. But any team that signs him could be getting someone who can play top-four minutes right away. He has good size, at 6-foot, 196 pounds, so the more physical style of play in the NHL shouldn’t be a significant concern, either.
Lehtonen’s contract with Jokerit runs through next season. But it appears they’ll let him pursue an NHL career this summer. He’ll likely have plenty of suitors, and the Devils should be one of them since they need a top-four, left-handed defenseman in their lineup. He’ll cost less than what most NHL free agents will since he’s eligible for a one-year, entry-level contract. So it’d be wise for them to bid for Lehtonen since it’s highly unlikely they’ll pay top dollar for an NHL free agent this summer.
Who Makes the Most Sense for the Devils?
There’s a decent crop of European free agents this offseason. Though if the Devils are going to go all-in on one of them, it should be Lehtonen. Because their biggest need on defense is finding a left-handed, top-four defenseman. There are a few of those worth pursuing among NHL unrestricted free agents (UFA), like Torey Krug and Brenden Dillon. But that doesn’t mean the Devils shouldn’t consider Lehtonen.
Other than Will Butcher and Damon Severson, the Devils lack defensemen who can move the puck effectively. Lehtonen’s offensive instincts are what drive his game, making him the perfect fit for the team. I could see him playing alongside Severson or P.K. Subban in their top four, as well as getting some ample time on the power play. He’s also three years younger than Krug and should cost much less to sign as a UFA. That makes him a prime target for the Devils, and it would take care of their most significant defensive need heading into 2020-21 without breaking the bank.
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NHL scoring rate conversions from Dobber Prospects
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