The New Jersey Devils had one of their busiest offseasons in quite some time and mostly received high marks for it. They signed Dougie Hamilton to a whopping seven-year, $63 million deal and acquired Ryan Graves in a trade to improve their defense. They upgraded their goaltending when they signed veteran Jonathan Bernier to a two-year deal. Finally, they wrapped up their busy summer when they signed Tomas Tatar to give them some scoring punch.
General manager Tom Fitzgerald also made a couple of depth moves in acquiring defenseman Christian Jaros and signing forward Chase De Leo, both of who could see action in the NHL if injuries hit. Barring something unforeseen, the Devils should more or less enter the season with the roster they have after those moves. How does each one grade out? Let’s look back on their summer as September begins with training camp only a few weeks away.
The Devils thought they had their goaltending tandem settled when they signed Corey Crawford as a free agent during the 2020 offseason. But he had a change of heart and decided to retire during last season’s training camp. That left them with a void behind Mackenzie Blackwood, and the team felt it. They finished 2020-21 with a .891 team save percentage (SV%), ranked third-worst in the NHL. Since Crawford retired, that left the Devils having to work Blackwood more than they would have liked. And that negatively impacted him, especially since the team played four games every six nights after their COVID outbreak in February.
Fortunately, overworking Blackwood shouldn’t be an issue with Bernier in the fold. He finished this past season with a .914 SV% and had a .908 SV% in his three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. Via Jack Fraser (JFreshHockey), Bernier grades out as an average 1A/1B goalie who can consistently put together quality starts and stop high-danger shots at a high rate.
The Devils are paying Bernier quite a bit, as his cap hit comes in at $4.125 million over the next two seasons. It’s a bit of an overpay, especially since Crawford’s cap hit came in below $4 million, and he was the better goalie. But it’s something the Devils had to do to get some relief for Blackwood. Plus, the Devils still have over $12.1 million in cap space, and they’re only committed to Bernier for two years. There shouldn’t be any long-term cap concerns, and he brings an upgrade to a position that desperately needed one.
Graves marked the first move of the Devils’ offseason, as they acquired him the Friday before the expansion draft occurred. The Colorado Avalanche decided to move him rather than lose him for nothing to the Kraken, which was the most likely scenario had he not been traded.
The biggest asset Graves will bring to the Devils is his steady defensive presence. He was one of the Avalanche’s best shot suppressors at five-on-five, and he’s a strong penalty-killer too. While he’s not an offensive dynamo, he’s averaged 27 points per 82 games since 2019-20, so he can chip in offensively when needed. Though nothing is a lock, it seems quite likely he starts the season on the first pair with Hamilton. He played well alongside Cale Makar with the Avalanche, so he should be able to handle playing minutes with Hamilton.
All the Devils gave up for Graves was a 2021 second-round pick and prospect Mikhail Maltsev, who was a fourth-round pick in 2016. Graves’ cap hit is a manageable $3,166,667 for the next two seasons, which should be good value for what he brings to the table. He alone wouldn’t have moved the needle significantly for the team’s defense, but adding him and Hamilton should provide a big lift.
Hamilton was arguably the biggest free-agent signing the Devils have made in years. Not even former general manager Lou Lamoriello made similar signings, especially after the 2004-05 lockout. If anything, the Devils lost marquee players like Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez through free agency. So this is different than what we’re used to seeing with the Devils when it comes to free agency.
In his three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, Hamilton averaged close to 54 points per 82 games. He’s an elite play-driving defenseman whose team is always controlling possession when he’s on the ice. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, his even-strength offense has been worth an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 43.3, ranked first among NHL defensemen. While offense is the name of the game with Hamilton, his defensive prowess is better than people give him credit for, as he handled minutes against elite competition quite well with the Hurricanes.
There’s always some risk in signing a free agent to the contract the Devils gave Hamilton. But he’s showing absolutely no signs of decline and figures to age well for a majority of the deal. He’s a game-changer for a Devils defense that was in desperate need of one. And they should feel his impact right away.
The Devils have an intriguing cast of young forwards coming up, but they still needed a veteran scoring upgrade this offseason. That’s where the 30-year-old Tatar comes in. He finished 2020-21 with 10 goals and 30 points in 50 games — a 49-point pace over 82 games. That was a down season by his standards, but his overall tenure with the Montreal Canadiens was quite impressive.
Tatar averaged close to 24 goals and 62 points per 82 games in his three seasons with the Canadiens. His on-ice results at five-on-five were among some of the best in the league for forwards as well. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 59.4 percent ranked second-best, while his expected goals percentage (xG%) of 59.8 percent ranked first. He’s an elite play-driving winger and had a substantial positive two-way impact at five-on-five:
A big part of Tatar’s success in Montreal was due to his linemates Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. But even when Tatar did not play on a line with Danault or Gallagher, the Canadiens still controlled play at five-on-five with him on the ice. There’s a good chance he’s going to get a shot alongside Jack Hughes in New Jersey, so I wouldn’t rule out him putting up some impressive on-ice results once again.
Tatar should be a significant upgrade to the Devils’ top six and help the team find the back of the net more often. He’s under contract for two seasons at a reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million, so there are no long-term cap implications to signing him either. And it always helps when you can upgrade your team when cap space is the only thing you have to give up.
Chase De Leo
To give the team some depth at forward and in the minor leagues, the Devils signed De Leo to a one-year, two-way contract. He finished last season with 35 points in 37 games for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL, whose coach the previous two seasons was Kevin Dineen. He’ll now be the head coach of the Utica Comets — the new AHL affiliate of the Devils. So it’s probably not a coincidence they brought in De Leo on a one-year deal.
Though it seems likely that De Leo will be playing primarily with the Comets, he’ll probably be on the Devils’ shortlist for call-ups if injuries strike. But when in the AHL, he should give the Comets a first- or second-line center who can help the Devils’ prospects find success. For what the Devils signed him to do — help prospects develop and be ready for NHL action when call-ups are needed — they could have done much, much worse.
The Devils’ top three defense pairs are all but set heading into the season, but injuries do happen. And when they do, Jaros seems like he’ll be the first man up, at least for now. The Devils acquired Jaros in an offseason trade that sent prospect Nick Merkley to the San Jose Sharks. He doesn’t have a ton of NHL experience, but he has played in 83 games over the last four seasons, totaling 14 points.
Jaros won’t provide much in the way of offense when he plays, but his even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 2.4 over the last three seasons. He can at least hold his own defensively when he has to play. Plus, he adds quite a bit of size on the back end, measuring at 6-foot-3, 222 pounds. For what he is, he’s a decent depth option and is an upgrade over the seventh or eighth defensemen the team’s had over the last few seasons.
Devils Had the Right Approach
The Devils’ offseason should serve as a game-changer for the franchise. Will it be enough to vault them into the playoffs? Maybe not in 2021-22, but they should be good enough to be pushing for a spot, especially if young players like Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen keep taking steps forward. They have a competent goaltending tandem, a much-improved defense, and a scoring upgrade in Tatar.
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The Devils might not have enough depth up front yet, but it’s on the way with prospects like Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer and Nolan Foote in Utica. Once they’re ready, the Devils will have the pieces in place to contend because of the moves they made this offseason. And their salary cap is looking pretty good for the foreseeable future. Spending significant money but not destroying the team’s cap situation makes for a pretty good offseason, I’d say.
Offseason Grade: A-
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