The New Jersey Devils had a relatively quiet first day of NHL Free Agency, but they didn’t come away empty-handed. They came to terms with unrestricted free agent (UFA) Wayne Simmonds on a one-year, $5 million contract. The 30-year-old right wing is coming off a 17-goal season between the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators.
He’ll help add depth, but the team could still use some more additions up front. The free agent market has thinned out for the most part, but there are still a few names available who could be of interest. And there’s no doubt general manager Ray Shero will scour the trade market over the next couple of days and even weeks for help on offense and defense.
Devils Take a Chance on Simmonds
Many of the top free agents went off the board quickly yesterday afternoon and even the night before. Right wing Gustav Nyquist agreed to a four-year deal worth $5.5 million annually with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He would’ve been a great fit for the Devils, especially at that price, so that was a tough addition to miss out on.
Another player who went well below what was projected was right wing Richard Panik, who signed with the Washington Capitals for four years, at an AAV of $2.5 million. His counting totals don’t impress, but he’s been very productive at five-on-five over the last two seasons, so he would have been a good fit, too.
Instead, they ended up with Simmonds. He’s coming off a down season and really struggled after being traded to the Predators, with one goal in 17 games. His scoring rates have declined, especially at five-on-five, and his overall underlying numbers aren’t great. But Shero decided he’s still worth taking a flyer on in hopes he can bounce back.
As Corey Sznajder mentions, it was the right thing to go with a short-term contract. He won’t add much at five-on-five, but the team could use some help on the power play, which he can provide. If he can chip in 15-20 goals as a third-liner while getting power play time, then things will work out. In a worst case scenario, he can be moved at the next trade deadline for a draft pick or two, so it’s a win-win situation in the end.
Which UFAs Are Still Available?
This seems highly unlikely for the Devils, but Gardiner is still available as of this morning. They need a left-handed shot on defense, which he is, and he can play top pair minutes. His goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, is ninth best among NHL defensemen since 2016. He’d look nice alongside P.K. Subban, who was acquired at the entry draft, but his price is going to be too high so look for him to sign elsewhere.
Johansson played a season and a half in New Jersey before being traded to the Boston Bruins at the last trade deadline. He struggled with injuries but finished with 30 points in 58 games, a 42-point pace over 82 games. The team’s biggest need for the rest of the summer is finding another top-six forward. And while Simmonds’ salary may indicate that’s what he’s coming in to do, it would be a mistake.
That’s the appeal of Johansson, especially with his familiarity to head coach John Hynes’ system. But the injuries are a problem as he’s only played in 87 games over the last two seasons. There’s no doubt he can help, but it’d have to be a short-term deal (two years max) with a lower cap hit for a reunion to happen, and that seems unlikely.
Dzingel is coming off his best season as a pro, finishing with 26 goals and 56 points over 78 games. The former seventh-round pick will cash in at some point, but I’d be surprised if it were with the Devils. He can score at a good clip, but his defensive play leaves a lot to be desired. Shero doesn’t seem keen on giving term in free agency, too. And with a new deal headed in that direction for Dzingel, I think that rules him out as an option.
Ferland is a similar type of player to Simmonds; they’re both physical and can chip in some offense. The difference is Ferland does it at a better rate as he’s averaged 1.80 points per 60 minutes (P/60) since the start of 2017-18. But given his similar style of play to Simmonds, it seems unlikely Shero pursues him, especially since he’ll cost quite a bit more.
NHL Trade Market Is the Place to Be
The trade market is heating up as free agency winds down. And it doesn’t look like it’ll cool off any time soon as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche showed last night. That’ll be Shero’s best opportunity to improve his team, and there’s no reason to think he won’t pull off another move at some point.
There are more than a few teams tight on cap space, including the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. Both of these teams have targets that would be appealing, too. The Sharks agreed to a four-year deal with Timo Meier worth $6 million annually, but they still need to re-up right wing Kevin Labanc, who’s a restricted free agent (RFA). It might be tough to re-sign both, so it’d be worth seeing if he’s available.
The Golden Knights are in an even more difficult situation as they’re above the cap ceiling and need to re-sign RFA Nikita Gusev. He’s never played in the NHL but has torn up the KHL, finishing with 82 points in 62 games in 2018-19. Per Rob Vollman’s translation factor, that would equate to 65 points in the NHL, so there’s definitely potential. Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch are two other trade targets who could be of interest, also.
The Devils’ best bet for a left-handed defenseman will also come through a trade. It’s hard to say who’s available, but Shero has surprised us before. It’s also possible they roll with Sami Vatanen as Subban’s partner on the top pair. He’s played on his off hand before, as recently as this season, so the need may not be as pressing compared to the one for scoring.
There’s Still Work to Be Done
I’d be surprised if the Simmonds signing is the only move the Devils make over the next few days. Another defenseman couldn’t hurt, but it’s a solid group as is, especially if prospect Ty Smith lives up to the hype. Where Shero should focus his attention is on adding a scorer, and my guess is they acquire someone when all is said done, preferably through a trade. If they can get a top-six talent, they’ll have a pretty deep group of forwards. And I think that could give them an offense to make them playoff contenders in what should be a very competitive Metropolitan Division.
* * *