If August is typically the calm before the storm in the NHL season then it’s only fitting that a decent crop of free agent talent still remains ripe for the picking.
Salaries and term that might have been deal breakers in July are starting to decrease, as the calendar changes so too the demands of UFA’s who are faced with the reality of a one-year deal or camp invite.
The latter–a professional tryout, or PTO has been used in the past by all teams, though the Devils have proven to have a knack at finding success with the September afterthoughts. Historically, the Devils, under former general manager Lou Lamoriello, had ample success with PTO’s-turned-NHL contracts. Petr Sykora returned to the organization on a training camp invite in 2011, eventually earning a spot with the club that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. That same year Steve Bernier received a one and later signed with the Devils’ AHL affiliate to start the 2011-12 season playing 17 games before signing a two-way contract and being called up to the NHL. He, along with Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta made up a fourth line that became unlikely heroes throughout the Devils’ run in 2012.
A year ago the Devils once again found luck via the PTO. Jordin Tootoo and Scott Gomez were among a slew of NHL veterans who were invited to training camp with the team. Ruslan Fedotenko, Mike Komisarek and Tomas Kaberle were cut from their PTO’s, but both Tootoo and Gomez impressed and earned spots, though Gomez had to wait roughly two months for the team to open a roster spot before making his season debut with the Devils.
The two were bright spots on a rather pedestrian Devils forward group and stayed healthy once signed. Tootoo receieved a one-year extension in June. Gomez was released at the end of the season and remains unsigned.
In one of the weaker free agent classes in recent memory, GM’s were wiser than the past, opting largely to retain their own talent rather than spend. Ray Shero and the Devils were no exception. The team signed 2011 third round pick (75th overall) Blake Coleman to an entry-level deal. The team also signed Paul Thompson to a two-way contract, Thompson scored 33 goals last season playing with the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany. The only one-way contract Shero handed was to John Moore. The defensemen who split the season with the Rangers and Coyotes, signed a three-year contract to help round out the Devils defense.
While Shero has proved to be running things quite differently from his predecessor, the Devils could still use some NHL veteran experience up front and could again go down the road they’ve been largely successful with. Here’s some of the UFA’s left who could be open to a PTO with New Jersey:
1. Tyler Kennedy, RW (38 GP, 6 G, 8 A, 14 pts.)
Shero has gone to the Penguin organization to help assemble his coaching staff and find an assistant general manager, so it would come to no surprise if he looked to add a forward like Kennedy, a 2004 Pittsburgh draft pick who played 7 seasons with the organization. Kennedy was traded in 2013 to San Jose, before being shipped out to the Islanders last season at the trade deadline. Kennedy has struggled to produce offense since over the past three seasons, so he might be destined for a bottom six role wherever he goes, but could be an option for the Devils as they transition their forward group. Assistant coach Alain Nasreddine could put in a good word too. He and Kennedy played together both Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh between 2006 to 2008.
2. Martin Erat, RW (79 GP, 9 G, 23 A, 32 pts.)
It’s too early to tell if Martin Erat will be part of one of the worst trades in Washington Capitals history, a 2013 deal that sent the winger from Nashville in exchange for prospect, Filip Forsberg who went on to have a 63 point season in his first full season in the NHL.
Still, for whatever plagued Erat in the nation’s capital, where he tallied just two goals in 62, he an effective playmaker. Traded to the Coyotes at the 2014 trade deadline, the vet winger scored 32 points in 79 games. Like most of the free agents remaining, he’s likely to be relegated to third/fourth line duties, but for an incomplete forward group in New Jersey he could be an asset on the second power play unit and might be able to even jump occasionally to a top six role with fellow Czech, Patrik Elias. Though his scoring days are behind him, he still has the skating ability and speed that the Devils noticeably lacked last season.
3. Daniel Carcillo, LW (39 GP, 4 G, 4 A, 8 pts., 54 PIMs)
Over his career, Carcillo has had his share of run-in’s with the Devils, playing parts of three seasons with the Flyers and another season with the Rangers. The agitating forward whose two stints with the Blackhawks, including one last season, earned him a cup ring has proved to be an excellent role player, doing what he does best–and he can drop the gloves too, which has become a lost commodity.
Like Kennedy, Carcillo began his career in pro hockey with the Penguin organization, a 2003 draft pick, and was teammates with new assistant head coach Alain Nasreddine in Wilkes-Barre. So it might not be out of the question that the once hated-Carcillo returns to the Metro division, this time in red and black. The Devils could use some of the toughness too with Mark Fraser gone and Jordin Tootoo showed flashes of effectiveness in a top-six role. While he’ll likely return to the fourth line, Tootoo has proved to be an effective energy guy for the Devils, which is why the team could value him spending more time on the ice and less time in the box. Carcillo would help take the burden off of Tootoo entirely and allow a Devils team that projects to be somewhat younger to protect its new faces.
4. Cody Franson, D (78 GP, 7 G, 29 A, 36 pts.)
The Devils seemed to solidify their six-man defense with the acquisition of John Moore on July 1, and with a young core that includes Damon Severson, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas to go along with veteran Andy Greene, the Devils defense could be an area of strength for years to come. Still, the team lost some of its veteran presence with captain Bryce Salvador, who is still mulling over his future plans and could retire, was not re-signed. Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser, who both played respectable minutes in the absence of Salvador and Severson, who missed 31 games with an ankle injury last season, were also not retained, Harrold signing a two-way deal with the Blues on July 2.
The Devils could use a veteran like Franson at camp to at the very least challenge for a job and help push Merrill and Gelinas, who both struggled with consistency last season. If Franson was to make an impression it could also allow the Devils to use its young blueline depth to help reel in some offensive creativity via trade. Franson himself has proved capable of being an offensive threat from the back end and has avoided major injury throughout his six-year NHL career that included stints with the Predators and Maple Leafs.
5. Brad Boyes, RW (78 GP, 14 G, 24 A, 38 pts.)
It was a little surprising when the Florida Panthers decided to buyout the final year of the 33-year-old forward’s contract. Boyes, who signed a PTO with the Panthers in 2013 showed flashes of the kind of offensive production that had him twice lead the St. Louis Blues in goal scoring in 2007-08 and 2008-09. It’s no secret the winger’s offense has dried up as of late, but a 21-goal season in 2013-14 followed by a 38-point season last season was the highest point total for Boyes since 2010-11, where he split the season with the Blues and Sabres, ultimately scoring 55 points in 83 games. While Boyes may not fill into Shero’s youth movement up front, he could be a decent veteran pick up who can play in multiple roles in the thin top-9 group. His health has been relatively strong as of late and unlike some of the other buyouts this summer his numbers haven’t dropped off the face of the Earth. The Devils figure to be a team with some offensive concerns still, which is why Boyes could have the opportunity to again be an impact guy.
Jan Hejda, D (81 GP, 1 G, 12 A, 13 pts.) Veteran defenseman with some offensive upside. Like Franson, could help push some of the young guys in camp. He’s 37, but has played in all but 5 games in the last two seasons with the Avalanche.
Jiri Tlusty, C (72 GP, 14 G, 17 A, 31 pts.) Tlusty, who was traded last season from Carolina to Winnipeg still has the wherewithal to manage as a top-9 forward with skating ability and an offensive upside. He has reached the 20-goal threshold just once, 23 in 2012-13. He’s an unfinished product even at 27, but has some skill, some size and some two-way ability. At a reduced rate and short term, he’s not a bad add.
Curtis Glencross, LW (71 GP, 13 G, 22 A, 34 pts.) Glencross is a nine-year NHL vet, who has shown flashes of upside as a scoring winger, but as of late a culmination of injuries and bouts with consistency have hurt his real potential to play consistently in a scoring role. The Devils though, who lack consistency up front across the board might present an opportunity for the ex-Flame, Capital to find his game.
Neal McHale began contributing to The Hockey Writers in 2015, covering NHL hockey and the New Jersey Devils. He also writes for Inside Hockey. Previously, he’s served as a correspondent to the Big East Conference and a staff writer for The Setonian. He graduated from Seton Hall University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations.