Devils Should Have Some Decent Targets in the Free Agent Market

Yesterday marked the deadline for NHL teams to file qualifying offers to their restricted free agents. There are always a few surprise players who don’t receive qualifying offers, and yesterday was no different. The biggest shock came when the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t tender Pius Suter a qualifying offer. He’ll now become an unrestricted free agent when free agency begins at noon tomorrow. The 25-year-old Swiss forward finished with 14 goals and 27 points as a rookie this season. If the Blackhawks don’t have plans to re-sign him, the New Jersey Devils should be all over trying to add him to their roster. 

Other notable RFAs who did not receive qualifying offers and will become UFAs include Ryan Donato and Ondrej Kase. Donato has had an up and down NHL career after being a promising prospect, but he still has something left to offer an NHL club. Meanwhile, Kase’s career has taken a 180 in the wrong direction due to injuries. Still, he could be a low-risk, high-reward signing if his health checks out. Let’s dive into why he, Suter and Donato could be free-agent fits for the Devils. 

Suter Addresses Significant Roster Need

We’ll start with Suter, who probably shouldn’t be a UFA at all. He was on pace to finish with nearly 21 goals and 40 points in an 82-game season. Even though he’s 25 years old and had plenty of pro experience playing in Switzerland, that’s still impressive considering it was his first NHL season. 

But it wasn’t just Suter’s counting totals that impressed; his underlying numbers were rock solid too. He finished this season with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 6.3, ranked third on the Blackhawks behind Connor Murphy and Alex Debrincat. Overall, he was a sound two-way forward who produced at even strength and showed good finishing ability:

Suter’s ideal role in New Jersey would be as a third-line center, as he’s arguably their best option to fill that need. You’re not going to find many UFAs who are 25 years old and have 20-goal, 40-point potential in them and can play the position. If worse comes to worst, he can play left wing as well. Another thing to consider is it probably doesn’t hurt that he and Hischier are both Swiss and only have a few years difference in age. That might not seem like a big deal, but sometimes that matters to free agents.

Per Evolving-Hockey, they predicted Suter to land a four-year deal at a cap hit of $4.178 million as an RFA. That may seem like a decent chunk of change to give a player who only has one year of NHL experience and did not receive a qualifying offer. But Suter is very good at the role he plays and is worth that price. Since he’s only 25 years old, signing him to a four-year deal locks him up through his prime. Given his age, underlying stats and production, I’d be hard-pressed to believe the Devils can find someone who better fits their long-term plans as a third-line center than he does. 

Donato, Kase Could Be Cheap Depth Wingers

Donato has bounced around a bit since breaking into the league with the Boston Bruins in 2017-18. He’s played for three teams in four seasons and will be on his fourth whenever he signs a new deal during free agency. Though he struggled with the San Jose Sharks in 2020-21, he was the victim of some poor shooting luck. In 50 games, he fired 104 shots on goal but only converted on 5.8 percent of them for six goals. 

Related: Devils 2021 Draft Haul Fills Needs, Adds Promise

Yet, Donato provided value to the Sharks, even through his shooting woes. He finished with a GAR of 5.4 this season and was above replacement level offensively, specifically on the power play. That’s not too different from 2019-20 when he finished with a GAR of 6.5 and provided similar offensive value to the Minnesota Wild’s lineup. 

The Devils need some high-end scoring wingers, more than what Donato can add. But they also need to fill out their depth, and he might be able to do that on a cheap one-year deal. He could fill in as a bottom-six winger capable of chipping in 10-15 goals a season while giving the Devils a boost on the power play, something they need to address this offseason as well. 

Ryan Donato San Jose Sharks
San Jose Sharks winger Ryan Donato (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for Kase, he once looked on his way to becoming one of the league’s top wingers. But injuries have derailed his career, as he’s only played in 88 games over the last three seasons, including just three during 2020-21. With that said, his results have been quite impressive when he has played. He has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 55.1 percent over the last three seasons, ranked 21st in the NHL for forwards with 500 minutes of ice time at five-on-five. His expected goals percentage isn’t too shabby, either, as it sits at 52.1 percent. 

And when Kase has played, he’s been an efficient scorer, averaging 1.86 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. That’s a touch better than forwards such as Sam Reinhart, who the Buffalo Sabres just traded to the Florida Panthers, and Ondrej Palat. The key with Kase is his health, specifically concussions, which is why he missed 52 games in 2020-21

Related: Devils News & Rumors: Holtby, Meier & More

Concussions are nothing to mess around with, but if his health checks out, the Devils should at least consider taking a flyer on Kase. He’s 25 years old and is going to come on a very cheap one-year deal. He could give the team a nice upgrade on the wing in their middle six, assuming he can stay healthy. That makes him an ideal low-risk, high-reward type of signing the Devils should still consider, given where they are as a franchise. 

Suter Should Be Atop Devils’ Free Agent Board

If there’s one unqualified RFA who perfectly fits the Devils’ needs, it’s Pius Suter. His age fits right in with the team’s timeline and young core. He’s a stout two-way forward who produces, and he’d really solidify the team’s depth down the middle with Hughes, Hischier and Michael McLeod or on the wing if that’s where he ends up. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Suter is as good as Blake Coleman. But he’s the type of player the Devils could use since they dealt Coleman at the trade deadline during the 2019-20 campaign. And that makes him a no-brainer free-agent target for the Devils when the market opens at noon tomorrow. 

* * *

Advanced stats from Evolving-HockeyNatural Stat Trick