Though it may feel like the NHL Draft and free agency just happened yesterday, NHL training camp is right around the corner. New Jersey Devils rookies report this Wednesday, Sept. 15, while veterans report a week later on Sept. 22. Their roster is mostly set after a busy offseason that included signing Dougie Hamilton to a massive seven-year, $63 million deal. But that doesn’t mean general manager Tom Fitzgerald can’t bring in a player or two on a professional tryout (PTO).
The Devils’ most glaring needs are for a seventh defenseman and perhaps a bottom-six or depth forward. Obviously, all the top free agents are long off the market, but there are always a few intriguing names still available as camp draws closer. That’s no different this year, and the Devils would be wise to consider someone on a PTO to spur some competition during camp and perhaps to add some depth.
Ben Hutton – Defenseman
Hutton had a rough 2020-21 season between the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs. He finished with only five points in 38 games and had some rough on-ice results, finishing with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 46.6 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 43.7 percent. His performance was well below replacement level, as he had a goals above replacement (GAR) of -5.2.
But for all his struggles this season, Hutton has had success in the recent past. He finished the 2019-20 campaign with the Los Angeles Kings with a GAR of 6.7. His CF% and xG% were both above 54 and 55 percent, respectively. He also has a good track on the penalty kill, even in his one season with the Ducks. He’s an average puck-mover and wouldn’t be a liability if he needs to step into the lineup as a third-pair defender if an injury pops up or just for a change of pace.
Alex Galchenyuk – Left Wing/Center
Galchenyuk began last season with the Ottawa Senators, but things did not go well. He only appeared in eight games and had just one goal and no assists to his name. The Senators would trade Galchenyuk to the Carolina Hurricanes, who’d then flip him to the Maple Leafs. It’s in Toronto where he found some life again, as he finished with 12 points in 26 games — a 38-point pace over 82 games. He was one of their most efficient five-on-five scorers and had a positive impact offensively.
Though Galchenyuk is a defensive liability, his time with the Maple Leafs showed he might still have something to offer offensively. While he can play center, his best days have come on the wing in recent seasons. With the right linemates, he could give the Devils some scoring depth in their middle six. I’d consider a PTO for him a long shot at the moment, but if his time with the Maple Leafs wasn’t a fluke, he could end up being worth a flyer. At the very least, he could spur some competition among Devils prospects in camp.
Mark Jankowski – Center
Jankowski finished with a career-high 32 points in 79 games during the 2018-19 season but has seen his scoring drop significantly since then, as he totaled 11 points in 45 games in 2020-21. With that said, scoring has never been his thing. His offensive game has been below replacement level in each of the last three seasons, but he is a stout defensive forward. And while he doesn’t offer much offensively, he has a strong shot and has a career shooting percentage of 13.8 percent.
The Devils are in good shape with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier as their top two centers. It’s their third-line center where things get murky. Will it be Dawson Mercer or Jesper Boqvist? Could Michael McLeod work his way up the lineup? If it is McLeod, the Devils will need to figure out who their fourth-line center will be. Giving that spot to a veteran like Jankowski makes more sense than playing a young player like Mercer or Boqvist in that spot. And even if McLeod remains on the fourth line, having someone like Jankowski as your 13th forward would be good depth to have.
Erik Gustafsson – Defenseman
Gustafsson is a polarizing defenseman, and for good reason. He’s averaged 47 points per 82 games over the last three seasons, though the 60 points he totaled in 2018-19 skews that significantly. Still, remove that season, and he’s averaged 35 points per 82 games over the last two seasons. He’s an effective offensive defenseman, but it’s his ability to defend that’s problematic. His defensive efforts have been worth a GAR of -9 since 2018-19, so whichever team he ends up with will have to keep him heavily sheltered.
Because of Gustafsson’s defensive struggles, it’s hard to see him being a regular in most lineups. But with what he offers offensively, he can be an effective seventh defenseman who checks into the lineup when needed. He’s also shown an ability to run a power play on the second unit. With the Devils’ third pair likely consisting of Jonas Siegenthaler and P.K. Subban, Gustafsson would be a good option to rotate with Siegenthaler when the team is looking to add more offense.
Colton Sceviour – Right Wing
Sceviour spent the 2020-21 season with the Penguins, where he totaled 10 points in 46 games — a 17-point pace over 82 games. He doesn’t offer much offense, but he has value there, as his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 5 since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. His overall game has been worth a GAR of 10.1, and he’s a plus defender who can kill penalties.
With the Devils having lost Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken at the expansion draft, Sceviour makes for the ideal replacement. Bastian produced at a 20-point pace last season, so Sceviour’s scoring is right on par with that. Though he may not have the size or physicality of Bastian, he’d make up for what they lost defensively in Bastian. And he should fit in well on a line with McLeod and Miles Wood if that’s how things shake out.
Travis Zajac – Center
After spending 15 seasons with the Devils, they’d end up trading Zajac to the New York Islanders, as well as Kyle Palmieri, at last season’s trade deadline in a package that netted the Devils a first-round pick. Before the trade, he had 18 points in 33 games in New Jersey — a 44-point pace over 82 games. However, that was largely due to an unsustainable shooting percentage of 20.6 percent. Once he made his way to Long Island, his shooting percentage cratered, and he totaled only two points in 13 regular-season games.
It’s fair to question how much Zajac has left in the tank. He turned 36 years old in May and has seen his production decline in the last two seasons. He did look comfortable in Lindy Ruff’s system before the trade. But bringing him back on a PTO would likely be about adding a veteran presence for a very young team, as well as some depth in the team’s bottom six. And given the Devils know him very well, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them offer him a PTO.
Devils Could Add Crucial Depth With a PTO
While PTOs do sign NHL deals often, it’s rare for one to come in and assert himself as a top scorer. There are exceptions, like Lee Stempniak, who had 41 points in 63 games for the Devils during the 2015-16 season before they traded him to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline. Otherwise, most PTOs end up filling depth roles in a team’s bottom-six or on their blue line.
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If there’s one free agent who could surprise on a PTO, it’s Galchenyuk. He has a track record of scoring, even if his production has slipped the last two seasons. The Devils play a fast-paced, rush-based system with Ruff. Galchenyuk is fairly effective in transition, so he could find success in New Jersey. But the most likely route the Devils go is finding someone who can fill a depth role, perhaps Hutton or Sceviour. It may not move the needle significantly, but with the NHL going back to an 82-game schedule and no taxi squads, having depth will be crucial to sustaining any success.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey