Devils Should Steer Clear of These 6 Free Agents

All the offseason talk has been about who the New Jersey Devils should target to improve their roster. But what about players they shouldn’t pursue, especially when it comes to free agency, which opens on July 28. General manager Tom Fitzgerald will have plenty of cap space to work with when free agency begins, even after acquiring Ryan Graves

But just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you should dish out high-priced contracts in free agency. That becomes especially true when a majority of unrestricted free agents are 28-30 years old and will be on the downside of their careers after signing free-agent deals. Hand out one bad contract, and you could be facing an avoidable salary cap bind a few years down the road. With that, here are six UFAs that the Devils should steer clear of on July 28. 

Philipp Grubauer

Grubauer has been a solid netminder since his days with the Washington Capitals. Since the trade that sent him to the Colorado Avalanche, he’s become one of the better starters in the league. He was even a Vezina finalist this season after finishing with a .922 save percentage (SV%) and a 30-9-1 record. It’s no secret the Devils need a 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood, but Grubauer may not be their best option. 

On the surface, his numbers look pretty good. Grubauer has a .918 SV% over the last three seasons, which is more than respectable for a starter. But take a look under the hood, and there are some concerns. He’s finished with a negative goals saved above expected (GSAx) in two of the last three seasons and has a GSAx of -0.54 since the start of 2018-19. For what Grubauer will cost, Fitzgerald would be best off looking to other free agents such as Petr Mrazek or Jonathan Bernier. They’ll cost less money and years and fit the team’s plans much better for the next couple of seasons than Grubauer does. 

Phillip Danault

If you didn’t know who Danault was before the Stanley Cup Final, you’re probably well familiar with him by now. He finished this season with 24 points in 53 games — a 37-point pace over 82 games. But where he made a name for himself is with his stellar two-way play during the Montreal Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. 

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens center Phillip Danault (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The issue with Danault isn’t his talent. Over the last three seasons, his play has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 25.6 and wins above replacement (WAR) of 4.7. He’s also had very strong two-way impacts at even strength. But the problem here is the contract he projects to land as a free agent. Per Evolving-Hockey, they predict Danault will fetch a seven-year deal at a cap hit of $6.236 million. He’s an outstanding player, but signing him for that price doesn’t make much sense for the Devils. 

For starters, they’re paying Nico Hischier $7.25 million annually through the 2026-27 season. Jack Hughes will be a restricted free agent next summer and is likely due a significant pay raise from his entry-level deal. The Devils do need a third-line center, and Danault is one of the best in the league. But tying down that much money in one position is not the smartest team-building strategy. Their best bet is to sign someone more affordable like Nick Bonino or Tyler Bozak in free agency if that’s how they choose to fill their third-line center vacancy. Or they could look at an internal option such as Dawson Mercer. 

Mike Hoffman

The Devils need goal-scoring, and that’s what Hoffman has done in the NHL for quite some time. He had an up-and-down season and was a healthy scratch at times, but he still finished with 17 goals and 36 points in 52 games — nearly a 27-goal, 57-point pace over the 82 games. The problem, though, is how he scores those goals. 

Related: Devils Get the Ideal Top Defenseman With Graves Trade

Hoffman knows how to score on the power play. That’s his bread and butter. But the production at five-on-five just isn’t there, as he’s averaged 1.57 points per 60 minutes since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. It’s not just his scoring at even strength, either; his play at that game state has been below replacement level over the last three seasons. 

Hoffman projects to land a five-year deal at a cap hit of $5.65 million after signing a one-year contract with the St. Louis Blues last offseason. Considering he’s a power play specialist at this point in his career, that’s a poison pill of a contract waiting to happen. That means the Devils should stay far away from him if they’re looking to improve their scoring. 

Tyson Barrie

After a rough stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Barrie rebounded in a big way with the Edmonton Oilers this season, finishing with 48 points in 56 games. He’s always been known for his offense, as was the case in 2020-21. His even-strength offense was worth a GAR of 6.7, and he was a significant contributor to the Oilers’ power play. 

Tyson Barrie Edmonton Oilers
Tyson Barrie, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

With that said, defending has been a problem for Barrie. His even-strength defense was below replacement level this season and has been worth a GAR of -9.3 since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. He projects to land a seven-year deal at a cap of $6.753 million, which is a lot of money to pay for a defenseman who struggles to defend. The Devils need a right-handed shot on their blue line, but there’ll be cheaper options that offer more defensively than Barrie does. 

Brandon Montour

Another right-handed defenseman, Montour finished this season with 18 points in 50 games between the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. He was struggling mightily with the Sabres before they traded him to the Panthers. In 38 games in Buffalo, he had a GAR of -4.9, but that improved to 5.5 in 12 games in Florida. 

Related: Devils News & Rumors: Bertuzzi, Parise & More

Still, it’s best to look at the whole picture with Montour, and the results are not great. He’s been a below-replacement-level defender over the last three seasons, and that includes 62 games with the Anaheim Ducks before they traded him to the Sabres. So it’s not just because he played on a bad team in Buffalo. He projects to land a five-year deal at a cap hit of $5.452 million, which is a significant overpay for what he offers. Like Barrie, the Devils would be best off looking at other options. 

Zach Hyman

Finally, there’s Hyman, who’s been one of the more underrated wingers in the NHL over the last few years. He finished this season with 15 goals and 33 points in 48 games — a 25-goal, 56-point pace over 82 games. That tracks with his production over the last three seasons, as he’s averaged about 55 points per 82 games. 

Though he’s not the first player you think of when it comes to the Maple Leafs, he’s been one of their best offensive forwards. His even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 19.6 since the start of the 2018-19 season, and he plays a grind-it-out style of hockey that most coaches would love to have on their team. That’s where some of his issues arise, however. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Hyman’s playing style has led to injuries over the last couple of years. He missed time with an MCL sprain this season and missed the start of 2019-20 after tearing his ACL in the 2019 Playoffs. Knee injuries are not anything to shrug off, and it’s something any team should consider when signing him. He projects to land a four-year deal at a cap hit of $5.325 million, which is reasonable. But based on some reporting this week, it certainly seems like he could get much more than that. If that’s the case, the Devils should stay far away. There will be other free-agent wingers with similar value to Hyman but will cost much less to sign in both years and dollars. 

Focus Should Be on Trades and Not Free Agency 

The Devils haven’t been big free-agent spenders since Lou Lamoriello was their general manager. I wouldn’t expect that to change much this offseason unless they pursue Dougie Hamilton. With that said, I do think they’ll make depth signings in that second tier of free agents who won’t command overwhelming term and money. Their big moves are likely to come through the trade market, and given how they want to build the team, that’ll be their best approach. 

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Advanced stats from Evolving-HockeyNatural Stat Trick