The New Jersey Devils will be faced with tough decisions when forwards Erik Haula, Tomas Tatar, and Miles Wood become unrestricted free agents. Haula has made clear that he wants to stay, and his season-long synergy with Jack Hughes makes his return likely.
Wood, the second longest-tenured player on the roster, is a tougher call. After being a healthy scratch for four playoff games against the New York Rangers in the first round, Wood will likely test free agency and could price himself out of New Jersey. Finally, Tatar reinvigorated his play during the regular season but did little to quell the whispered concerns of his past postseason ineffectiveness. After first addressing his priority restricted free agents (Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier), general manager Tom Fitzgerald will need to scour the market to find a fit and value to replace Wood and Tatar to ensure success while staying under the cap. That search should end with Jesper Fast.
Metropolitan Division Difference-Maker
Fast has ascended from a sixth-round pick in 2010 to become a difference-maker in the Metropolitan Division. He first earned praise with the Rangers as the ultimate team player, then as one of the pillars of the toughest forecheck and penalty kill in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“He just plays hard, and he’s got enough skill to complement people that do have skill. There’s such an honesty to his game, and it certainly is infectious throughout our lineup. He’s an important piece to the puzzle here.”David Quinn, Head Coach of the New York Rangers at the 2020 Trade Deadline
Fast is also beloved by his teammates; he was the first Ranger to receive the Players’ Player Award for five straight seasons – awarded to the player judged by his teammates who “best exemplifies what it means to be a team player.” He is also known for his toughness and consistency, exemplified by his series-winning overtime goal for the Hurricanes against the Devils in Round Two of the 2023 Playoffs after missing an open net earlier in the game.
Fast Fills Needs
The Devils thrived this season by addressing their needs for offensive versatility and defensive responsibility during the offseason and at the deadline. Few players available on the market fit both categories better than Fast; he’s similar to Haula only from the wing. He has the offensive skills to complement Hughes and Hischier but also possesses the grit and responsibility to be relied on to shut down top-line forwards. Like Haula, Fast plays on both the power play and the penalty kill and has a knack for scoring clutch goals.
Should the Devils have to move Wood, Tatar, and/or get priced out of keeping Yegor Sharangovich, Fast is a credible replacement for all three; he combines the toughness and speed of Wood with the versatility of Sharangovich and Tatar’s experience. In seasons when he has played at least 50 games, he has never had fewer than 99 hits. He would continue Fitzgerald’s trend of adding players who can fill multiple roles, add grit, and have playoff experience. He also would add another right-handed option for the power play.
Fast’s experience is one key advantage over Wood or even Tatar. He has played 80 playoff games and is coming off perhaps his best performance in the postseason. After the ‘Canes lost Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty to injuries, Fast stepped up and became the team leader in goals with six, including a power-play and short-handed marker, and two overtime-winning goals.
Cap Space at a Premium
Given that the salary cap will likely not rise by more than $1 million next season, general managers will be forced to get creative this offseason. According to Cap Friendly, the Devils are projected to have approximately $34 million in cap space, but that is with only 12 players signed. After inking Meier, Bratt, Michael McLeod, and Kevin Bahl, the team will have closer to $14 million to sign the remaining RFAs and find value on the UFA list.
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Two seasons ago the Devils had to overpay players like Tatar and Dougie Hamilton to get them to come to New Jersey. Now they are a sought-after destination for free agents. Wood and Tatar made a combined $7.7 million this season, so it’s reasonable to believe that Fitzgerald can sign Fast for less than half of that while improving his club.
AFP Analytics projects that Fast will sign a two-year contract worth just under $2.4 million annually. Fitzgerald should be willing to go as high as $3 million. Signing Fast to replace Tatar and Wood would allow him to re-sign all of his RFAs, including the enigmatic Sharangovich while adding a potentially valuable piece for next season’s postseason run.
Fast would also make room for young players seeking to break through to get an opportunity, which is needed for salary cap health. His ability to play anywhere in the bottom nine means head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff can develop Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote, and Graeme Clarke at their own pace. Conceivably, Ruff could have a top six composed of Hischier, Mercer, Meier, Bratt, Hughes, and Holtz, combined with a bottom six composed of a combination of Fast, Haula, McLeod, Lazar, Palat, Sharangovich, Bastian, Boqvist, and Foote. There is no downside to signing Fast; he is a perfect fit for the Devils.