Devils Need to Add a Top-Six Winger

The New Jersey Devils addressed some big-time needs this offseason. They acquired a top-four defenseman in P.K. Subban and added center Jack Hughes through the Entry Draft. They also signed unrestricted free agent (UFA) right winger Wayne Simmonds, who’ll add some physicality to the lineup, to a one-year deal worth $5 million.

Nashville Predators Wayne Simmonds
Wayne Simmonds is looking to bounce back with the Devils (David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)

Even with those moves, general manager (GM) Ray Shero still has work to do as the team could use another top-six winger before the season starts. Here are some options to help give their offense what they need to be contenders in the Metropolitan Division.

Top Targets for Shero

Yanni Gourde

Gourde’s name hasn’t been mentioned in many trade rumors if any at all. But that could change after the Tampa Bay Lightning re-sign Brayden Point and Adam Erne, who are restricted free agents (RFA). They have $5.756 million in cap space, and it’s likely they’ll both put the team over the salary cap ceiling.

Ryan Callahan’s situation will also affect the team’s salary cap as he’ll have to retire from hockey due to a degenerative back condition. His situation is fairly complicated, but when he’s placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), the Lightning will get some cap relief. At the same time, their ability to add any players from outside the organization could also be limited.

If Julien BriseBois — the Lightning’s GM — decides to make a move, Gourde would be worth a look. He had 64 points as a rookie in 2017-18 and finished with 48 this past season. He’s averaged 2.37 points per 60 minutes (P/60) over that span, so there’s no doubt he could play on a scoring line. And he’s noticeably effective at both ends of the ice, too.

Yanni Gourde RAPM
Yanni Gourde’s even-strength and power play RAPM from Evolving Hockey

Gourde has a significant positive impact creating shot attempts (Off_CF) and expected goals (Off_xG) as well as not allowing much of either on defense. He’s the perfect type of two-way forward that would help Hughes get acclimated to the NHL. He’d be worth exploring a trade for if the Lightning’s salary cap forces them to make a move.

Alex Killorn

If the Lightning are going to trade someone, Killorn may be the more likely choice over Gourde. He’s never topped 47 points and has never finished with more than 19 goals in a regular season. But his underlying numbers are fantastic, so there’s reason to believe he could thrive in an elevated role.

Since the start of 2017-18, he’s averaged 2.03 P/60 at five-on-five and has an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 54.44%. His goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals he adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, is 20.1. That places him ahead of wingers Nikolaj Ehlers, Nino Niederreiter, and Reilly Smith to name a few.

Related: Devils Likely Not Done After Simmonds Signing

Killorn is signed through 2022-23, at a cap hit of $4.45 million. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue, especially if the cap rises as expected over the next couple of years. He’s a solid two-way forward, and his numbers indicate he’d do well with more minutes, which he can get in New Jersey. The only issue is he turns 30 in September, but he’s still worth a look despite that.

Nikita Gusev

Gusev Mania is all the rage among Devils’ fans on Twitter. If you search his name and the Devils, you’ll get a ton of hits. If you look at any replies on the team’s verified account, you’ll get responses such as “announce Gusev” or “Where’s Gusev?” While that won’t affect whether management acquires him, he is worth taking a chance on.

Nikita Gusev
Nikita Gusev has been a trending topic on Devils’ social media (Photo: Alexander Golovko)

He led the KHL in scoring in 2018-19, with 82 points in 62 games. He’s 26 years old and fills one of the team’s positional needs (left wing). It’s been reported Gusev is looking for a two-year deal worth $4 million annually. There isn’t a ton of risk in a contract like that, and it’s one they could afford to take on. If his upside is what NHL scouts think it can be, he could be a steal for that price.

Devils’ Second-Tier Options

Jesper Boqvist

Boqvist is one of the organization’s top prospects. He was a second-round pick (36th overall) in 2017 but has performed like a first-round selection. He had a breakout season with Brynas IF in the SHL (Sweden), finishing with 13 goals and 35 points in 51 games, which tied him for second in U-21 scoring in the SHL with Emil Bemström.

Related: Is Devils’ Prospect Jesper Boqvist NHL-Ready?

There’s a lot to like about Boqvist’s game. He has a ton of offensive upside and could be a second-line forward in the not too distant future. He’ll be given a chance to make the team out of training camp, and there’s a good chance he will. With that said, it would be a mistake to expect top-six minutes from him right away. That’s a lot to ask of a 21-year-old with zero NHL experience, which is why Shero needs to add someone else to the mix.

Marcus Johansson

Johansson played a season and a half for the Devils, but his time with the team was marred by injuries. He was traded to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline and played well in their run to the Stanley Cup. He finished with 30 points in 58 games this season, which comes out to a 42-point pace over 82 games.

New Jersey Devils center Marcus Johansson
Marcus Johansson is still looking for a new home almost a week into free agency. (Photo from Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

A reunion seems unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either. The trade market can be an interesting place, and you never know what other teams are asking for their top trade chips. If Shero can’t land a trade, he could turn to Johansson, who remains unsigned as a UFA.

The injuries are a concern, but he’s productive when healthy. His familiarity with head coach John Hynes’ system helps, and he’d be a good fit alongside Hughes and Kyle Palmieri on the second line. A one-year deal would be ideal as it was with Simmonds. There’s not much risk involved, and if Johansson can stay healthy and rebound, he’d be a good short-term solution.

Filling Their Last Major Need

Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Hughes, and Palmieri make up a nice top six, but there’s a spot for one more winger. Simmonds could fill that role, but that would be a mistake as his five-on-five scoring rates have declined quite a bit. That’s why it’s important for Shero to find someone who can give them more punch.

His best chance at doing so will come in the trade market, whether it’s for Gusev, Gourde, or another player not mentioned here. Johansson wouldn’t be a bad choice, either, if he’s willing to sign a one-year contract, but that’s about it for UFAs. Once that need is addressed, then it’ll be fair to start talking about the Devils as playoff contenders for 2019-20.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey