In this edition of New Jersey Devils news and rumors, we’ll dive into the latest rumblings from the recent edition of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast. Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek give an update on Mackenzie Blackwood and if he has a future with the organization. Goaltending is the Devils’ No. 1 need this offseason, and does he figure into that? Plus, is Jesper Bratt a prime candidate for an offer sheet in the summer? Finally, Pavel Zacha‘s days with the organization may be coming to an end.
Devils & Blackwood at a Crossroads
For those who have followed the Devils, it’s no secret that it’s been a tumultuous season for Blackwood. It started with having offseason surgery on his heel, but that was only the beginning of his issues. Before 2021-22 got underway, he was among only a handful of players unvaccinated against COVID-19. He eventually got the shot, but as Friedman reiterated on 32 Thoughts, it created a lot of hard feelings between the two sides and affected the start of the Devils’ season.
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Not only were there hard feelings over his vaccination status, but Friedman also reported there was a difference in opinion on treatment for Blackwood’s heel between his camp and the organization. It doesn’t appear to be a Jack Eichel and Buffalo Sabres situation, but it hasn’t helped matters. That likely only adds to an already strained relationship between Blackwood and the Devils.
Blackwood switched agents a couple of weeks before the trade deadline, which Friedman also mentioned. That’s not a sign of a player who’s happy with his situation and wants to stick around. Yet, the Devils might not have a choice but to run it back with Blackwood and hope he can return to his pre-2020 levels before having a rough bout of COVID and heel surgery.
Looking at the free-agent class for goaltenders, there aren’t many great options for the Devils. Darcy Kuemper is the top name and makes plenty of sense. But is Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald going to want to shell out big bucks on a goalie? The situation is so dire that perhaps he considers it, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Ville Husso could be another option, but he’s cooled down after a hot start, with a .904 SV% across his last 18 games. He recently turned 27 years old and is just breaking into the NHL this season, so there’d be risk in signing him, given the lack of track record. There’s also the trade market, but it’s unclear which teams will be looking to move a goaltender this summer. Overall, the options aren’t great, at least right now, so trying to repair the relationship with Blackwood might be in their best interest.
Zacha Could Get Dealt This Summer
Friedman and Marek didn’t give much detail about Zacha, but Friedman stated he’d be surprised if he were back with the Devils next season. Zacha’s name has been out there for the last few months, and he was connected to teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens ahead of the trade deadline.
Zacha is one of a few restricted free agents the Devils have to re-sign this summer. They have $22.8 million in cap space, but the issue is that they’ll likely be quite active in free agency and the trade market to improve their roster. That means they will have to move some salary, and he seems like he could be the odd man out. His current contract comes with a cap hit of $2.25 million, and he might be looking for double that on a new deal.
Zacha isn’t as bad a player as some fans make him out to be on social media. Having said that, paying him between $4 to 5 million a year on a new deal isn’t in the Devils’ best interest. With Jack Hughes’ eight-year, $64 million extension kicking in next season, giving that kind of money to Zacha could cause problems in a couple of years when the Devils move closer to becoming contenders and a cap team.
There are also other priorities Fitzgerald has to take care of. Jesper Bratt is in need of a new contract this offseason and could sign for something close to Nico Hischier’s $7.25 million cap hit. Damon Severson, Ryan Graves, Jonas Siegenthaler and Yegor Sharangovich are all due for extensions within the next year. And that doesn’t account for any external additions the Devils might make this offseason to improve their roster. That’s why it makes sense to deal Zacha now, and as Friedman and Marek said about Blackwood, sometimes it’s just time to move on.
Bratt a Candidate for an Offer Sheet?
After the segment about Blackwood, Friedman and Marek moved on to the rest of the Devils’ roster. In that conversation, Marek speculated if Bratt could receive an offer sheet this summer, which he also talked about on a radio show last week. Bratt is having a breakout season, with 65 points in 64 games and will be an RFA with arbitration rights this summer.
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Offer sheets rarely happen in the NHL. And the last time we saw it, it turned into a petty battle between the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens rather than using it legitimately. For those who don’t remember, the Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet (a bad one, at that). The Hurricanes matched the Aho offer sheet, but they ended up retaliating the next summer by offer sheeting Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who ended up staying with the Hurricanes after the Canadiens opted not to match the Hurricanes’ offer sheet.
Offer sheets are not supposed to be used in a petty manner as they were between the Canadiens and Hurricanes. It sure made for some fun on social media, but that’s about it. They certainly aren’t petty in the NBA, where offer sheets are a common practice teams use to improve their rosters during the offseason. That’s why I’d be surprised if a team even contemplated offer sheeting Bratt.
Personally, I don’t think we’re seeing one again for a long time after the way Aho and Kotkaniemi’s offer sheets went down. But if a team were to offer sheet Bratt, it would have to be for something significant. Since the Devils have $22.8 million in cap space, they could match most any offer sheet Bratt signs if he chooses to do so.
It’d also probably take something pricier than Hughes’ extension for Bratt to sign it. That means an average annual value (AAV) of over $8.5 million to get the Devils to consider not matching. And they’d receive quite a bit in return — two first-round picks, a second-round pick and a third-round pick (all in 2023). Teams value their draft picks — sometimes to their detriment — so that’s another reason I don’t see a Bratt offer sheet happening. Unless he asks for an outrageous extension (an AAV of $9 million-plus), I’d bet on him re-signing in New Jersey.
Devils Look to Regroup Tonight
The Devils are coming off a tough stretch of games, having lost three in a row, including blowing a 6-2 lead to the Florida Panthers on Saturday afternoon. They take on the New York Rangers tonight, who they beat 7-4 just a couple of weeks ago. The Rangers have been playing better since the trade deadline, but Igor Shesterkin has struggled lately, with an .886 save percentage across his last nine starts. That’s something to watch if he gets the nod in the final regular-season meeting between the Hudson River rivals.