Devils Shouldn’t Pursue Filip Forsberg in Free Agency

It was another difficult season for the New Jersey Devils in 2021-22, but there were positives to take away. Among those positives were Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt turning into top-flight scorers that saw all three produce at 70-point or better paces. For Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald, the next step will be finding additional offensive threats to help complement those players for next season and beyond. 

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If free agency is the path that Fitzgerald chooses, there will be plenty of options for him. One name he could look to is Filip Forsberg, who has yet to sign an extension with the Nashville Predators after finishing with 42 goals and 84 points in 69 games this season. If he hits the open market, he will be in line for a significant pay raise from his $6 million cap hit. With the Devils still trying to build a playoff contender, it’s easy to see why Forsberg would be a fit. But they should be wary of pursuing the pending unrestricted free agent. 

What’s Behind Forsberg’s Career Year?

Forsberg has always been a high-end scorer, but he took his game to another level in 2021-22. His 42 goals and 84 points were career highs, but his underlying numbers were also among some of the best he’s ever posted. He averaged 2.90 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, the most he’s ever averaged at that game state. His expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.33 percent was also his best since 2015-16, when he had an xG% of 58.47 percent. 

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Not only did Forsberg thrive at five-on-five, but he also had career-best marks on the power play. He averaged the second-most points per 60 minutes of his career, as well as the second-most goals per 60. Roman Josi and Juuse Saros get a lot of the credit for the Predators’ success this past season, as they should. But they probably don’t make the playoffs without Forsberg scoring the way he did. 

Filip Forsberg Nashville Predators
Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, for as good as Forsberg is, there are reasons to be concerned about pursuing him as a UFA if you’re the Devils. The number one red flag is his shooting percentage. Forsberg is a 12.9 percent shooter for his career but finished shooting 18.6 percent this season; that number was well into the 20s in the early part of 2021-22. 

The second is Forsberg’s power-play production. This season, he finished with 26 points on the power play, the most of his career. From 2018-19 to 2020-21, he had a combined 30 points on the man advantage. He also shot 19.61 percent on the power play, the second-highest mark of his career. Combine that with his 17.22 shooting percentage at five-on-five, and you’d be smart to bet on shooting regression. 

If we dive deeper into Forsberg’s underlying numbers by looking at his goals and expected goals above replacement (GAR, xGAR), there are even more reasons to be concerned about giving him a lucrative contract in free agency:  

SeasonGARxGAR
2018-197.911.9
2019-206.84.3
2020-211.84.1
2021-2222.627.5

Forsberg’s GAR and xGAR in 2021-22 were extreme outliers compared to his three previous seasons. That’s not only because of his individual shooting percentage, but it’s also because the Predators shot 11.9 percent with him on the ice at five-on-five, the highest mark of his career. It’s not a total guarantee Forsberg regresses, but there are plenty of factors to suggest that will happen in 2022-23. If that’s the case, where does he end up? 

From the 2018-19 to 2020-21 seasons, Forsberg averaged 30 goals and 64 points per 82 games. That’s first-line production, but is it worth the contract he’ll get this summer if he doesn’t sign with the Predators? Via Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, they predict his most likely deal as a UFA signing with a different team to come in at seven years with a cap hit of $9.458 million. With the Devils having other needs to address besides a scorer and their own UFAs and restricted free agents to sign, that could pose some problems. 

Devils Have To Be Smart With the Salary Cap

The Devils have a projected $25,344,167 in cap space to work with this offseason. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like fitting in Forsberg would be much of a problem. However, they have a handful of their own RFAs to take care of this summer. 

Related: Devils Trading 2nd Overall Pick Seems Unlikely

The most notable RFA is Jesper Bratt, whose extension will likely come in around $6 to $6.5 million per year for six or seven years whenever he signs it. His current contract has a cap hit of $2.75 million, so that’ll be close to $4 million in added cap space. The Devils also have to get Miles Wood, Jesper Boqvist, and Pavel Zacha re-signed, though it sure appears Zacha might get traded at some point during the offseason. 

Then there’s the other offseason needs the Devils have to take care of, most notably goaltending. What they decide to do in net remains to be seen, but if they pay up for someone like Jack Campbell in free agency, that could be an additional $5 to $5.5 million in cap space. Hypothetically, let’s say the Devils’ biggest offseason moves are signing Forsberg and Campbell and re-signing Bratt. That’s close to $22 million in cap space taken up. Not only does that affect this offseason’s salary cap, but it makes things tight for 2023 when some more notable names need new contracts. 

Andreas Johnsson Dawson Mercer Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
Andreas Johnsson, Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Next summer, the Devils will have to re-sign Ryan Graves, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler and Yegor Sharangovich. They might not retain all four players, especially since Luke Hughes may be ready to contribute along the blue line a year from now. But they will all get pay raises, specifically Siegenthaler and Sharangovich. 

If Forsberg regresses and returns closer to the 30-goal, 64-point player he was in his three previous seasons, is he worth over $9 million a year? I think the answer to that is pretty clearly no. Could he still be a 40-goal scorer playing alongside Jack Hughes? It’s possible, but it’s a big gamble to take on someone who doesn’t have a history of being a 40-goal scorer. 

It’s also worth mentioning that after giving Dougie Hamilton a seven-year, $63 million deal last summer, the space for adding another big contract is getting slim. With Hamilton, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and probably Bratt, the Devils will have four players with cap hits above $6 million. If Fitzgerald wants to add another high-profile winger, he has to be sure he’s getting his money’s worth, and that’s not a guarantee with Forsberg since it does look like he should regress.

There Are Plenty of Options Besides Forsberg

There’s no doubt the Devils could use another scoring winger, but they don’t have to sign Forsberg or Johnny Gaudreau to accomplish that goal. One) because of the stated cap reasons. Two) there should be plenty of other options to choose from via free agency or the trade market.

Jeff Marek already connected the Devils to Kevin Fiala a few weeks ago. While he will also be expensive to re-sign on a new contract, he should come in a bit below $8 million a year if the Devils acquire him from the Minnesota Wild. He’s averaged 32 goals and 74 points per 82 games over the last three seasons, so that would be getting your money’s worth compared to Forsberg. But if not Fiala through a trade, the free-agent class looks pretty deep at the moment. 

Kevin Fiala Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild winger Kevin Fiala (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

We’ll get into more detail about these players over the coming weeks, but wingers like Ilya Mikheyev or Valeri Nichushkin would make sense if Fitzgerald wants to add a scorer who is hard to play against and can forecheck effectively. While he might not be as hard to play against as Nichushkin or Mikheyev, Andre Burakovsky could also be someone the Devils target. Most of these players should cost much less than Forsberg to add to the salary cap, which makes more sense for the Devils given where they are as a team. 

There will come a time when the Devils should go after a big fish like Forsberg in free agency. Right now is not that time, however. After finishing 27-46-9 this season, they have too many needs to address, most notably in between the pipes. They should also be looking to build the deepest roster possible, specifically up front. And signing Forsberg to a deal that pays him $9 million or more as a UFA when it’s no guarantee if he lives up to such a deal takes away the cap flexibility to build the deepest roster the Devils and Fitzgerald can heading into 2022-23.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey; contract projections from Evolving-Hockey