Devils’ 2022 Free Agent Targets: Wingers

We’re officially less than a month away from free agency, and for the New Jersey Devils, it could shape up to be a busy window. They have $25,334,167 million in projected cap space available, and even after Jesper Bratt signs an extension, general manager Tom Fitzgerald should have around $19 million available to help him make some acquisitions to improve the team. 

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At his end-of-season press conference, Fitzgerald mentioned he wants to add something different up front, hinting at a scoring winger with size. Fortunately for him, this is the year to be in the market for scoring wingers bigger than 5-foot-11. There are more than a few that the Devils and Fitzgerald could target who should be able to complement Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes quite well for the next few seasons. 

Ilya Mikheyev

  • 2021-22 Counting Totals: 21 goals, 11 assists for 32 points in 53 games
  • Evolving-Hockey Contract Projection: 6 years, $5.005 million cap hit

After taking a bit of a step back a year ago, Mikheyev had a breakout season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only did he produce at a 33-goal pace over 82 games, but he had impressive underlying numbers at five-on-five. He finished the season with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 56.25 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 57.08 percent; both those numbers have been well above water for his career as well. 

Though Mikheyev might not produce at a 33-goal pace again, there’s reason to believe he can be a consistent 20-goal scorer because he’s a relatively high-volume shooter. It’s also not just about offensive upside with him. Mikheyev has plenty of two-way value, as he was one of the Maple Leafs’ best shot suppressors and defensive forwards, a reason why he’s such a great penalty killer. Overall, he’s had a strong positive two-way impact at even strength in his three NHL seasons:

Ilya Mikheyev
Ilya Mikheyev’s impact at even strength and on the power play

Though Mikheyev projects to land a six-year deal just above $5 million per year, I’d be surprised if he gets such a contract. He totaled 40 points in 93 games before 2021-22, so he doesn’t have the track record to justify getting six years. A four-year deal seems more plausible, which Evolving-Hockey predicts as his second-most likely outcome. That would come with a projected cap hit of $3.758 million, which makes plenty of sense for the Devils and gives them room to overpay a bit if they so choose. Assuming they make a more marquee addition, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound winger would be a smart signing to solidify scoring depth and improve their middle-six defensively. 

Andre Burakovsky

  • 2021-22 Counting Totals: 22 goals, 39 assists for 61 points in 80 games
  • Evolving-Hockey Contract Projection: 7 years, $6.903 million cap hit

Burakovsky had a career season on a stacked Colorado Avalanche team. But the production has been there since the Washington Capitals traded him to the Avalanche in June 2019. In his three seasons in Colorado, he’s averaged 26 goals and 64 points per 82 games. He has a shooting percentage of 17.2 percent and has not finished with a shooting percentage below 14 percent during his time in Colorado, so he can put the puck in the back of the net.  

Burakovsky has also had impressive underlying numbers at five-on-five, collecting a 55.23 CF% and 52.83 xG% in three seasons with the Avalanche. He’s been one of the team’s most efficient five-on-five scorers, averaging 2.58 points per 60 minutes; only Nathan MacKinnon has been a more efficient five-on-five scorer on the Avalanche since 2019-20. 

Where Burakovsky will help the Devils most is offensively. He’s averaged 1.14 goals per 60 minutes with the Avalanche, and he will help improve an anemic power play. Only Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews’ even-strength offense have been worth a better expected goals above replacement (xGAR) than Burakovsky’s over the last three seasons. That doesn’t mean he’s a top-three forward in the league, but he is quite good.

Andre Burakovsky Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche winger Andre Burakovsky (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Though Evolving-Hockey projects Burakovsky to land a seven-year deal worth nearly $7 million annually, I would be surprised if he got that rich of a contract. If he does, it might be a bit more than the Devils are willing to go, but a five-year deal worth just over $6 million a year is perfectly justifiable. He’s a high-end scorer and would fit in alongside Hischier or Hughes perfectly as a scoring winger with size at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. And after winning a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018 and now three wins away from one this year, he’d bring much-needed experience to the Devils.

Nino Niederreiter

  • 2021-22 Counting Totals: 24 goals, 20 assists for 44 points in 74 games
  • Evolving-Hockey Contract Projection: 7 years, $5.724 million cap hit 

Though Niederreiter may not be a big-name UFA, he has been a consistent scorer for much of his career. Since the 2019-20 season, he’s averaged 23 goals and 44 points per 82 games. And that’s with him only having totaled 11 goals in 67 games in 2019-20 before the pandemic cut the regular season short. 

As expected, Niederreiter has put up impressive five-on-five numbers in his three full seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. His 57.32 CF% ranks third behind Ian Cole and Jesperi Kotkaniemi among Hurricanes skaters, while his 56.93 xG% ranks fourth. Niederreiter hasn’t been as efficient of a five-on-five scorer as Burakovsky, but he has averaged 1.79 points per 60 minutes. That’s solid production for a middle-six winger to go along with his strong two-way impacts at five-on-five:

Nino Niederreiter
Nino Niederreiter’s impact at even strength and on the power play

Niederreiter’s current cap hit comes in at $5.25 million, so his projected deal would only be a slight pay raise from what he makes now. The part that should concern the Devils and Fitzgerald is seven years. If they’re going to give a seven-year deal to a UFA, it needs to be an elite talent like Johnny Gaudreau.  

Niederreiter is one of the better middle-six wingers in the league, but a player with his makeup usually declines much quicker than elite UFAs. That’s why giving him seven years is too risky (think Milan Lucic). If there’s a path to a four-year deal, which would keep his cap hit at a projected $4.872 million, he makes sense to fill out the team’s depth, especially if they acquire someone like Kevin Fiala. Otherwise, they’re better off looking at different options. 

Reilly Smith

  • 2021-22 Counting Totals: 16 goals, 22 assists for 38 points in 56 games
  • Evolving-Hockey Contract Projection: 5 years, $6.301 million cap hit

Though he’s had some ups and downs in his career, Smith has been a consistent second-line/middle-six winger in his time with the Vegas Golden Knights. The 31-year-old produced at a 23-goal, 55-point pace this season and averaged 2.19 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. That latter rate placed him ahead of names such as William Nylander, Mika Zibanejad and Roope Hintz, to name a few. 

Related: Devils’ 2022 Free Agent Targets: Goaltenders

Expand his stats to the last three seasons, and Smith has averaged 26 goals and 57 points per 82 games. His five-on-five scoring rate of 2.01 points per 60 minutes is better than wingers such as Patrik Laine, Sam Reinhart, and Teuvo Teravainen. Smith’s CF% and xG% have both been above 53 percent in that time frame, so he’s had solid impacts at five-on-five. 

Though he’s the smallest of the forwards listed here at 6-foot, 185 pounds, the Devils should very much be interested in him. He can play anywhere in the top-nine and put up points. He’s a veteran with Stanley Cup experience when the Golden Knights lost in their inaugural season to the Capitals. 

Reilly Smith #19, Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights winger Reilly Smith (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And while he missed time with injuries this season, Smith is durable and played nearly full campaigns in 2019-20 and 2020-21. A five-year deal isn’t unreasonable, but a cap hit of $6.3 million might be a bit rich for the Devils. If they can agree to a contract with Smith for around $5.75 million per year, he’d very much be an upgrade to their forward group. 

Valeri Nichushkin

  • 2021-22 Counting Totals: 25 goals, 27 assists for 52 points in 62 games
  • Evolving-Hockey Contract Projection: 7 years, $6.357 million cap hit

Talk about a breakout year. Nichushkin had the best season of his career in 2021-22, producing at a 33-goal, 69-point pace per 82 games. In his previous two seasons with the Avalanche, he had a combined 48 points in 120 games, but the signs of a breakout were beginning to emerge as soon as they signed him in 2019 after the Dallas Stars bought him out.

Related: Devils’ 3 Free Agent Targets This Offseason 

In his first season with the Avalanche, Nichushkin totaled 13 goals and 27 points in 65 games. He was dominant at five-on-five, posting a 56.01 CF% and 58.91 xG%, both of which ranked first on the team. He continued to build on that a season ago and has now become one of the best power forwards in the NHL.

Nichuskhin was nothing short of superb in 2021-22. He finished with a 58.54 CF% and 56.27 xG%, ranked first and third on the Avalanche, and averaged 2.49 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He tied Gabriel Landeskog for the second most goals per 60 minutes on the Avalanche’s power play, so he’ll be able to help the Devils in that regard too. But what’s most appealing about him is his even-strength play. After struggling to find his footing in Dallas, he’s turned into an elite play-driving winger with the Avalanche:

Valeri Nichushkin
Valeri Nichushkin’s impact at even strength and on the power play

Seven years for Nichushkin may be a bit risky. But at a cap hit of $6.357 million, he’s worth the risk because it looks like he’s legit and that his 2021-22 wasn’t a one-off. He’s the exact forward the Devils and Fitzgerald are looking for this offseason. Add him to the top line with Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich, and they’ll be cooking with gas at five-on-five. The only issue is there were rumors in Dallas that Nichushkin had no interest in playing for Lindy Ruff, who’s now the Devils’ coach. That was six years ago, so who knows how much that factors in now, but it is something to watch if the Avalanche don’t re-sign Nichushkin and he hits free agency on July 13. 

It’s a Good Year to Dive Into Free Agency

It’s a stronger year than usual for free agency, especially if you’re a team looking to add a winger like the Devils. They’ll have options to choose from, and that includes names like Gaudreau, Ondrej Palat and Mason Marchment, who could also be UFAs on July 13. The Devils have the cap space to add at least one winger through free agency, maybe two if they don’t trade for someone like Fiala beforehand. So I’d expect them to make at least one upgrade up front come July 13 to help give Hughes and Hischier the support they need while adding some veteran experience to the roster. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey; contract projections from Evolving Hockey