The New Jersey Devils have been quiet since signing Tomáš Tatar to a two-year deal in early August. But a recent NHL transaction should have them looking at the trade market once again. The Carolina Hurricanes are $1,523,618 over the salary cap ceiling after signing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet. They’ll have to clear cap space, and Nino Niederreiter could potentially be a cap casualty.
Elsewhere, the Devils will attend the Prospects Challenge alongside the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo, New York. The three-team round-robin event will take place from Sept. 17-19, right before training camp and the preseason begins, meaning hockey is less than two weeks away.
With the 2021-22 NHL season approaching, The Athletic released their latest pipeline rankings, with the Devils slotting into the top 10 once again. Many of the team’s top prospects in Corey Pronman’s ranking should see action at the Prospects Challenge, so it should serve as a small preseason preview. Let’s dive into the latest news and notes.
Devils Should Target Hurricanes’ Niederreiter
With the Montreal Canadiens passing on matching the Hurricanes’ offer sheet of Kotkaniemi, he’s now officially a member of the Hurricanes. Since his one-year deal comes in at a cap hit of $6.1 million, that puts the team $1,523,618 million above the salary cap ceiling. They’ll have to clear cap space before the 2021-22 season begins, and Niederreiter could be a name to watch.
The Hurricanes left Niederreiter exposed for the expansion draft in July, so they may be open to moving him. He only has a year left on his deal at a cap hit of $5.25 million. And with Kotkaniemi, Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas needing new contracts next offseason, it seems unlikely the Hurricanes re-sign Niederreiter. They could look to move him instead of losing him for nothing. And if that’s the case, the Devils should jump at the chance to acquire him.
Over the last three seasons, Niederreiter has averaged 21 goals and 46 points per 82 games. His on-ice results at five-on-five have been quite impressive too. His Corsi for percentage of 56.1 percent ranks 13th best among forwards with 1000-plus minutes at five-on-five, while his expected goals percentage of 55.9 percent ranks 17th. He’s a strong two-way winger and scores goals at a high rate, even though he could be a better finisher. He ranks in the 79th percentile among his peers in wins above replacement (WAR) and is a borderline second-line winger:
With their offseason additions, the Devils should be competing for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. Adding Niederreiter would surely keep them in the conversation and could even catapult them as a favorite to make it. Here’s what a forward group with him could look like:
- Tatar – Jack Hughes – Yegor Sharangovich
- Jesper Bratt – Nico Hischier – Niederreiter
- Pavel Zacha – Jesper Boqvist – Janne Kuokkanen
- Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Andreas Johnsson
No one will mistake that group for being the best in the NHL, but there are some weapons. They should be good enough to score goals at the rate playoff teams need to. It may cost assets to acquire Niederreiter to solidify that group, but the Hurricanes are up against the cap. They have to clear salary, so they don’t have a ton of leverage. Plus, he only has a year left on his deal. He’d likely cost a second-round pick and a later pick or a low-level prospect.
And the fact he has a year left on his deal fits the way the Devils are building their team right now. Aside from signing Dougie Hamilton this offseason, general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s plan seems to be pretty clear: don’t add pricey long-term contracts that hurt the team’s cap situation. Niederreiter clearly checks that box off, and there’s a lot to like about his fit and what he’d offer the Devils. Though he’s a left-handed shot, he plays right wing, a position of need, and would add scoring depth plus defensive prowess. If that’s how Fitzgerald wraps up his offseason, there should be no complaints. And if Niederreiter thrives with the Devils, they can always look to re-sign him when the time comes.
Devils Still Highly Rated in Pipeline Ranking
In Pronman’s latest pipeline ranking over at The Athletic, which ranks an organization’s pipeline of players under 23 years old, the Devils checked in at no. 6 (From ‘NHL Pipeline Rankings: No. 6 New Jersey Devils betting on Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier to hit another level’ The Athletic – 9/2/2021). That’s a slight drop from 2020 when they were no. 2, but it’s not because of a lack of talent in their system. Rather it’s due to a few players like Sharangovich, Bratt and Kuokkanen graduating to the NHL.
The usual suspects led the way for the Devils in the ranking. Jack Hughes, Hischier and Ty Smith make up three of the Devils’ top four. Checking in at second overall is Luke Hughes, Jack’s younger brother, who the Devils drafted fourth overall at the 2021 Draft. He has the potential to become a top-pair defenseman down the road if he hits his ceiling.
Other top prospects included Dawson Mercer, Nolan Foote, Kevin Bahl and Alexander Holtz, all of whom will be playing in the AHL with the Utica Comets this season. The Devils also have a host of intriguing secondary prospects that include 2021 draft picks Samu Salminen and Chase Stillman. Overall, it’s still a deep group despite the graduations. Some of that talent is closer to being NHL-ready than others, but it shouldn’t be long before some players make themselves known in the NHL. And that leads us to our next topic.
Prospects Challenge Offers a Glimpse of Pipeline Ranking
Most of the prospects in Pronman’s ranking, at least in his top 15, will likely be playing in the Prospects Challenge in two weeks. That includes Holtz, Mercer, Bahl and Foote. Other names to watch are Reilly Walsh, Tyce Thompson and Graeme Clarke. One or two of these players may start in the NHL, but if not, they’ll be the core of what should be an exciting Comets team.
The Prospects Challenge will also give fans a look at the team’s two top goaltending prospects, Akira Schmid and Nico Daws. Both signed their entry-level deals this summer and will be making their organizational debuts. Daws finished with an .898 save percentage (SV%) in 10 games last season in the DEL — Germany’s top pro hockey league — while Schmid finished with a .921 SV% with the Sioux City Musketeers and was the USHL’s goaltender of the year.
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The Devils’ NHL tandem is in good shape with Mackenzie Blackwood as their 1A. He’ll have veteran help behind him this season in Jonathan Bernier, who the Devils signed to a two-year deal as a free agent this offseason. But he is 33 years old, meaning the Devils will need to find a long-term 1B to Blackwood at some point. Time will tell if Daws or Schmid can be the answer, but how either perform at the Prospects Challenge may give us an idea of who’s furthest along in their development.
Up front, the Devils have a slew of intriguing top prospects. Holtz could be a top-line winger in the NHL, while Mercer and Foote have top-six upside. It may not be long before any of them is playing in the NHL, and strong performances at the Prospects Challenge could start the hype train before preseason games even begin.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news and notes. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils and NHL coverage as training camp draws closer.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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