Evaluating the Devils’ free agent acquisitions won’t be as thorough as past seasons, which have seen New Jersey as an active competitor in the seldom-success story that is July 1. For fans, addressing scoring was apparent heading into the off-season. The team was shut out 19 times last season, winning just one of those contests. Despite that, GM Ray Shero opted instead to work within the organization to help plug some holes and avoid a thin free agent market. Judging by past signings, that could be a giant sigh of relief.
Free Agency Rarely Yields Success
Michael Ryder, Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe—just some of the free agent signings that didn’t go according to plan. Ryder and Havlat, did little to help an offense gutted by the loss of Zach Parise (free agency) and Ilya Kovalchuk (“retirement”). Albeit, Ryder, who wore 17 in a disastrous two-year tenure, signed days before Kovalchuk officially announced retirement from the NHL. Havlat, a low risk signing, whose string of injuries coupled with a heavy contract earned him a buyout in the summer of 2014 arrived in N.J., ready to revive his career. Havlat appeared in just 40 games for the Devils. Not the infirmary, but instead the press box became routine for Havlat, who was a healthy scratch for much of the second half of the season.
Clowe might require an asterisk: The winger signed onto the Devils on July 1, 2013–five years, $24.25 million. Since then, he’s played in just 56 games. His last appearance was Nov. 6 versus the Blues. Four concussions in roughly two months, including being sidelined nearly two months last season with one, has derailed what the Devils seemingly hoped would be that combination of size, toughness and scoring to help replace the void left by David Clarkson, who on the same day of Clowe’s big signing cashed in the biggest check of them all—seven years, $36.75 million. Clowe might never play again, and while that’s probably the best for his well being, it’s a reminder of the free agency woes that have befallen the Devils recently.
Mike Cammalleri might be the one success story as of late, helping fill a major hole on offense. The 33-year-old winger left the Calgary Flames to sign a five-year, $25 million dollar contract with New Jersey last summer. Seen as perhaps the best goal-scoring free agent available, Cammalleri netted a team-leading 27 goals in 68 games, missing time to injury. Cammalleri, 33, has four seasons remaining under contract.
Few would argue the success of Jaromir Jagr, a free agent who like Cammalleri had a fairly successful run with the Devils. The track record remains quite cloudy though for NJ: Damien Brunner, Brian Rolston, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov–reminders of why free agency rarely yields long-lasting results.
That could be one reason for Devils fans, despite immediate improvement, to be optimistic about Ray Shero’s summer shopping.
Devils Quiet on July 1
To no real surprise, the Devils were not one of the more active players on July 1, opting instead to take care of their own players, signing winger Paul Thompson, who spent last season in the Devils’ affiliate Albany, scoring 33 goals and 55 points in 73 games. Thompson, 26-going on-27 agreed to terms on a two-year, two-way contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $575,000. The team also signed 2011 third round draft pick (75th overall), Blake Coleman, who played the last four years at Miami University (Ohio), where the Plano, Texas native netted 107 points in 137 games. Jim O’Brien, who split last season with the Capitals’ affiliate, Hershey and Novokuznetsk Metallurg of the KHL. O’Brien, who combined for 41 points in 54 games, signed a one-year, two-way deal worth $575,000. All three of the forward signings will have an opportunity in preseason to try and earn a spot out of camp.
The one real dip into the free agent waters was the signing of ex-Ranger and Coyote defenseman John Moore, who agreed to a three-year, $4.8 million dollar contract. Moore, 24, became a free agent on Monday when the Coyotes failed to offer him a qualifying offer. The signing of Moore rounds out the team’s defense, as Mark Fraser and Peter Harrold were not retained. Harrold signed a one-year, two-way deal with the St. Louis Blues on Thursday.
On Friday, the club agreed to one-year, two-way deals with goaltender Yann Danis and defenseman, Marc-Andre Gragnani, both will help plug some of the holes in Albany.
Solving Scoring Woes with Low-radar Signings and Acquisitions
Prior to the opening of free agency on July 1, the club also added forward Sergey Kalinin, 24, and defenseman, Vojtech Mozik, both of whom have spent the early parts of their career in the KHL and will also have an opportunity to try and earn a spot on the NHL club.
The Devils and Ray Shero have seemed to hold the line so far–staying away from overspending on free agents and even if this is a weaker free agent, Shero has seldom used free agency to build a model of success. In Pittsburgh, Shero often used his own resources and organization for depth–though he also proved to help shape his roster’s core with trades. So far he’s made just one of those for the Devils acquiring winger Kyle Palmieri, 24, from Anaheim at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft on Friday, June 26. Palmieri grew up in Montvale, N.J., some 35 minutes from the Prudential Center and figures to have an increased role.
In dissecting most recently, both the acquisition of Palmieri and the signings before, on and after July 1 it is quite apparent that for once there could be an expectation of patience from fans, who could finally be entering a rebuild–at least in some parts of the team.
2015 Draft Pick Ready for Next Step?
One sign of hope though could be in forward Pavel Zacha, the team’s first round (6th overall) draft pick at this June’s draft, held in Sunrise, Fla. The center played just 37 games last season for Sarnia of the OHL, scoring 34 points in an abbreviated first season of major junior hockey, thanks in part to both injuries and a series of suspensions. The Devils could return him to Sarnia to continue to develop his skill set and gain experience playing North American hockey. But with a 6’3, 210 lbs., frame, the Devils might be inclined to try the forward out in training camp and at least give him a look in nine games before burning the first year of an entry-level contract, which has yet to be offered to him. The ordinarily patient Devils might have one indication that there is at least some possibility of that happening as the club did not retain Scott Gomez. Gomez, 35, rejoined the Devils after playing for four teams in seven, turbulent seasons. He re-discovered his game in his second stint with the Devils, scoring 34 points in 58 games. Gomez was perhaps the team’s best center ice option in the second half. Zacha, who plays wing and center could have the ability to step in immediately and make an impact.
Even though training camp looks to be littered with young talent like Zacha, Kalinin, Coleman, Thompson and others including 2014 first round (30th) draft pick, John Quenneville, the teams scoring issues are apparent, and the team will likely need to make a trade or delve into an even thinner free agent pool. Chris Stewart, 27, could be one name of intrigue for the Devils. The winger, who has spent parts of the last two seasons with the Wild, Sabres and Blues, scoring 62 points in 144 games over that time has had a tough time sticking due to inconsistencies in his game. Still unsigned, perhaps he finds a lower-end deal or a tryout ahead of training camp, the Devils might be inclined to offer the second of the two.
A Rebuild, or Re-tool?
While a rebuild seems to be going on, Shero and company know this can’t be a long rebuild as goaltender Cory Schneider, coming off a sensational season, where he posted a .925 save percentage in 69 starts, enters his first season of a seven-year extension. The Devils have no excuse not to be a competitive team in the Eastern Conference so long as he’s their number one guy. That, coupled with the new draft lottery process that will go into effect next year should temper any intrigue in “tanking,” not that president Lou Lamoriello would ever stomach such a process to begin with. Perhaps it might be better to call this a re-tool as most still believe Shero isn’t done yet this summer and could still make improvements via trade. Right now, looking at the roster–the Devils figure to be a team that will rely heavily on its goaltending and defense. Barring a trade offense is likely to remain a sore subject, but it’s a long way til October and with cap room to play with, Shero and New Jersey still have plenty of time to right the ship before Winnipeg rolls into town on October 9, to open the 2015-16 season
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.