The New Jersey Devils have had a busy last few weeks. From drafting Šimon Nemec second overall at the NHL Entry Draft to signing Ondrej Palát in free agency and acquiring John Marino in a trade this past weekend, there’s been plenty of additions to their roster. And it’s probably not safe to rule out some more moves before all is said and done.
Some of those moves will include a bit of housekeeping, namely re-signing their restricted free agents. With yesterday’s 5 PM deadline for RFAs to file for arbitration, Jesper Bratt, Vitek Vanecek and Tyce Thompson elected to file for arbitration. Hearings have not yet been scheduled, but it’s rare to see the two sides reach a hearing without having agreed to a new contract.
Thompson missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. When he did play, it was mainly in the AHL with the Utica Comets, so reaching an agreement before an arbitration hearing should be pretty straightforward. Instead, we’ll look at Bratt and Vanecek and what an extension could look like to avoid arbitration. Plus, are the Devils interested in signing Zach Aston-Reese in free agency? All that in this latest edition of Devils news and rumors.
A Possible Comparable for Vanecek
To strengthen an obvious need in goaltending, Devils acquired Vanecek from the Washington Capitals ahead of Day 2 of the NHL Draft in exchange for second- and third-round picks on Day 2. He’s yet to eclipse the 100-game mark for his career, but his numbers so far are pretty decent.
In 79 games in his two years in the NHL, Vanecek’s totaled a .908 save percentage (SV%), just above the league average of .903. He has a solid five-on-five SV% of .922 and has stopped .827 percent of the high-danger shots he’s seen at that game state. He’s in line for a raise from the $716,667 cap hit he had on his previous deal, but how much of a raise will he get from the Devils?
Evolving-Hockey has Vanecek projected to land a four-year deal at a cap hit of $5.341 million, but it’d be a surprise if he got that much. It’s not always easy to find comparables for goaltenders, but Tristan Jarry could be one. In October 2020, the 25-year-old signed a three-year extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins at a cap hit of $3.5 million. At the time, he had 62 games under his belt and a .914 SV%, which isn’t far off from Vanecek, who’s 26 years old.
If the Devils decide to go the bridge-deal route with Vanecek, which seems to be the most feasible route, the Jarry extension would probably be the lower end of his cap hit. The two sides will likely agree to a three-year deal as the Penguins did with Jarry, but Vanecek’s cap hit may come in a bit higher, closer to $4 million. Either way, I’d expect the two sides to reach an agreement before an arbitration hearing occurs.
Bratt Will Get Paid
Bratt’s contract status has been one of the biggest topics of conversation surrounding the Devils this summer. He’s coming off a season in which he totaled 73 points in 76 games, the best mark of his career. After signing a bridge deal with the Devils two years ago, he’s now looking at a significant payday that could make him one of the team’s highest-paid players.
What Bratt and the Devils agree to will be interesting, but it should be a significant number north of $6 million per year. As of this writing, the two most notable RFAs to sign new contracts this summer have been Brock Boeser and Kevin Fiala. Boeser agreed to a three-year extension with the Vancouver Canucks at a cap hit of $6.65 million, while Fiala signed a massive seven-year deal at a cap hit of $7.875 million.
I’d bet good money that Bratt and his camp are looking at both Boeser and Fiala’s contracts and considering them as comparables. Over the last three seasons, Boeser has averaged 27 goals and 62 points per 82 games, while Fiala has averaged 32 goals and 75 points per 82 games. Compare that to Bratt, who’s averaged 22 goals and 61 points per 82 games.
However, while Bratt is in line for a big payday, he only totaled 30 and 33 points the previous two seasons. There are extenuating circumstances (team struggles, COVID/COVID-shortened schedules) that led to Bratt producing below 40 points in his previous two seasons. But it’s still doubtful the Devils will pay him Fiala money and more than Jack Hughes ($8 million cap hit) or Nico Hischier ($7.25 million cap hit) on a new deal.
At least in dollars, Boeser’s extension seems like a more favorable comparable, and you can probably argue Bratt is the better player. Boeser may be the better goal scorer, but Bratt’s a plus-skater who can drive his own line and facilitate play, something Boeser can’t do. A cap hit of $6.65 million seems reasonable for Bratt, and ultimately, it’s probably close to where he and the Devils agree on an extension, just with more term than the Canucks gave Boeser.
Devils Interested in Aston-Reese?
Early this morning, TSN’s Chris Johnston reported that the Devils showed interest in Aston-Reese in the early stages of free agency. The 27-year-old Staten Island, New York, native totaled 15 points in 69 games between the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins this past season.
Aston-Reese has averaged 24 points per 82 games for his career. He doesn’t offer much scoring, but he is one of the top defensive forwards in the game. In his last three seasons with the Penguins, before they dealt him for Rickard Rakell at this past trade deadline, he averaged 1.86 expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He’s one of the best shot-suppressing forwards in the NHL and has had a very strong positive impact defensively since the start of the 2019-20 season:
The Devils’ bottom-six is already quite crowded as is, so I’m not sure I see a place for Aston-Reese as things stand. I do get why they’re interested in him, though. He’s an elite defender who kills penalties and can forecheck, so he’d add something different to the lineup. If he remains unsigned heading into camp, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Devils brought him in on a professional tryout (PTO). But otherwise, signing him doesn’t seem feasible at this time, given the roster’s makeup.
Arbitration Hearings Seem Unlikely
Though they filed for arbitration, it’s unlikely any of Thompson, Vanecek and Bratt will reach their arbitration dates without new contracts. Arbitration can be an ugly process where the team argues that a player isn’t worth as much as he wants. It can damage the relationship between the two sides, so it’s rare to see players who file for arbitration make it to their hearings unsigned. It may take a week or two for new contracts to get signed before an arbitration date, but that’s the more likely outcome than a hearing.
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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