The New Jersey Devils don’t have many positions of strength yet, but center does happen to be one of them. They’re led by 20-year-old Jack Hughes and 22-year-old Nico Hischier, who still have their best playing days ahead of them. But the Devils do have to figure out who’ll be lining up behind them as a 3rd-line center. Travis Zajac is no longer with the team, and that once figured to be Pavel Zacha’s spot to lose when Zajac’s time in New Jersey came to an end. However, Zacha’s breakout season playing primarily at left wing changes that outlook, and he seems to project better there in the long run.
Instead, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to figure out this offseason who could play that role in 2021-22 and perhaps beyond. Fortunately, he’ll have some interesting options available to him both externally and internally. Let’s dive into some potential fits.
The External Options
Bozak finished this season with 17 points in 31 games — a 45-point pace over 82 games. With that said, he did struggle quite a bit. His play was worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of -1.3, his lowest total since 2010-11 when he had a GAR of -0.3 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He did miss significant time with an upper-body injury, and that’s something you have to factor in with the condensed schedule.
But if Bozak returns healthy, he could be a viable option. He had a combined GAR of 12 and positive two-way value at even strength in his previous two seasons. Plus, he can kill penalties at a high level. Bozak projects to land a 1-year deal worth $1.268 million as a free agent this offseason. At that price, he could serve as a stop-gap until one of the Devils’ young centers other than Hischier or Hughes is ready to serve as a full-time 3rd-line center.
Bonino has quietly earned a reputation as one of the better 3rd-line centers in the NHL. He finished this season with 26 points in 55 games — nearly a 39-point pace over 82 games, which is about what he’s averaged over the last three seasons. His production has been consistent, but he’s been a much more valuable player than his point totals indicate.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Bonino’s play has been worth a GAR of 31.7. He’s been a highly effective two-way center, as his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 19.2, while his even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 9.1. He’s also an outstanding penalty-killer and would provide a young group of Devils forwards with a veteran voice. He projects to land a 2-year deal at a cap hit of $2.552 million. For what he offers two ways at even strength and on the penalty kill, plus his veteran leadership, he’d be well worth that price.
Even at 35 years old, Stastny continues to thrive as a middle-six or 3rd-line center. He finished with 13 goals and 29 points in 56 games — a 19-goal, 42-point pace over 82 games — in his lone season with the Winnipeg Jets. He doesn’t have the same kind of two-way prowess as Bonino, but he’s had a positive impact on offense and defense at even strength:
Over the last three seasons, Stastny’s play has been worth a GAR of 10. He’s well above replacement level offensively but also holds his own defensively at even strength. He’s not a particularly good penalty-killer, which is where Bonino has a significant edge. But Stastny makes up for it with his performance on the power play, an area the Devils need to improve too.
Stastny projects to land a 1-year deal at a cap hit of $2.076 million. That’s more than a reasonable contract, given his production and play at even strength. At his age, he may be looking to go to a contender, but there’s certainly playing time available for him on the Devils behind Hischier and Hughes if he so chooses.
Wennberg once looked like a budding top-six center with the Columbus Blue Jackets. But his play fell off dramatically after a 59-point season in 2016-17 as a 22-year-old. That led to the Blue Jackets buying him out, allowing him to get a fresh start with the Florida Panthers this season. He made the most out of the opportunity, potting 17 goals and 29 points in 56 games — a 25-goal, 42-point pace over 82 games.
Wennberg shot an unsustainable 20.7 percent this season, but he still played well. He finished with a GAR of 5.7, and it wasn’t a fluke, as he had an expected GAR of 7.9. He’s not the defensive center that Bonino, Bozak or even Stastny are, but he has some offensive value. Evolving-Hockey gives Wennberg a 21 percent chance of landing a three, four, or five-year deal. Any contract above three years would be too much term for the Devils, but signing him for two to three years at a cap hit of $3 to 4 million could make sense. He’s only 26 years old and doesn’t turn 27 until September, making him one of the younger UFAs this offseason. So that’s something to consider.
The Internal Options
McLeod seemingly came out of nowhere to become a valuable part of the Devils’ bottom six. He finished the season with nine goals and 15 points in 52 games — a 14-goal, 23-point pace over 82 games. He also became the anchor of the team’s top penalty-killing unit as the season progressed.
But for as well as McLeod did, his underlying numbers were just so-so. He finished with Corsi and expected goals percentages below 50 percent and was just about replacement level at even strength. He’s still 23 years old and is a high-end skater, so maybe there’s another level to his game. Can it be enough to be a 3rd-line center? Perhaps, but he’ll need to find more offense, so a fourth-line role may be where he settles in.
Maltsev was another young Devils forward who showed some promise, finishing this season with six goals and nine points in 33 games — a 15-goal, 22-point pace over 82 games. While his production was about equal to McLeod’s, his underlying numbers were a bit better.
Maltsev finished the season with a GAR of 1.5 and had a Corsi percentage of 51.8 percent, though his expected goals percentage was 46.8 percent. Still, there’s a lot to like about his potential. But as with McLeod, the question is, does Maltsev have enough upside to play higher up the lineup? Time will tell, but he also seems more suited to be a fourth-line center.
Mercer is one of two wild cards for the Devils in figuring out this position. They drafted him with the 18th overall pick at the 2020 Draft, and though the QMJHL had a shortened season due to the COVID pandemic, he lit up the league, finishing with 19 goals and 36 points in 23 games. He also added six goals and 17 points in nine QMJHL playoff games.
Long-term, there’s no doubt Mercer could be the Devils’ 3rd-line center. He won the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the QMJHL’s best defensive forward this past season, so the two-way presence is there. He has more than enough offensive upside to play a 3rd-line, middle-six center role too. In fact, there’s a strong argument his upside favors him being a top-six winger in the NHL, so the Devils will have an interesting decision to make with him. But starting as a 3rd-line center is an option to consider.
The second wild card for the Devils is Boqvist. He finished this season with seven points in 28 games, a slight step up from the four points in 35 games he had in 2019-20. There’s a reason the Devils used a second-round pick on him at the 2017 Draft. It’s easy to see the potential in him; he’s a high-end skater and has shown flashes of what made him one of the team’s top prospects for a few years. But it hasn’t yet clicked for Boqvist in the NHL — he’s been a below-replacement-level player; granted, he’s only played in 63 games.
Until this season, Boqvist had primarily played on the wing. But new head coach Lindy Ruff gave him a shot at center over the final four to five weeks of the season, and he had some of his better games there. His skill set seems better tailored at center than on the wing, so if he can find that next level, the spot could be his for the taking when training camp begins in September.
Depth Is Key
Finding a 3rd-line center isn’t probably priority no. 1 or even no. 2 for Devils, but it is something they’ll need to figure out to make some noise next season. Fortunately, they have options externally and internally, something that isn’t true of other offseason needs.
If they sign someone like Bozak or Bonino as a stop-gap until a prospect is ready, they should be in good shape. But if they think a prospect is ready to take over the role, they shouldn’t have any issues either. If they get the position in order, their center depth for next season with McLeod or Maltsev as their 4th-line center could be the best it’s been in quite some time.
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Advanced stats and contract projections from Evolving-Hockey
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