5 UFA Forwards for Devils to Target

The NHL has announced free agency will take place on Oct. 9, which is exactly three weeks away from today. The New Jersey Devils have not been big free-agent spenders since Lou Lamoriello was their general manager, and that probably won’t change this offseason. But they have $26 million in available cap space, so I’d expect GM Tom Fitzgerald to use some of it to make a signing or two. 

One area where they could use some help is on offense, both in their top-six and their depth lines. It’s not a deep free-agent class at forward, but there are a few decent options. Let’s take a look at some potential targets for the Devils. 

Mikael Granlund

The Nashville Predators acquired Granlund as part of the trade that sent Kevin Fiala to the Minnesota Wild. But it’s been tough sledding for Granlund since the trade. He has 35 points in his last 79 games, which is a significant dropoff from where he was with the Wild. 

But Granlund was one of the more underrated scorers in the league before the trade. He averaged 64 points per 82 games from 2016-19, as well as 1.94 points per 60 minutes (points/60) at five-on-five. Since the trade, his scoring efficiency has dropped noticeably, as he’s averaged a mere 1.15 points/60 with the Predators. His impact hasn’t been the same, either, as his play has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 0.8. 

It’s a bit hard of what to make of Granlund. He’s 28 years old, and players’ performances don’t usually drop off a cliff like that unless they’ve had injury problems. That hasn’t been an issue for him, and it’s worth noting the Predators have underachieved as a team over the last few seasons. 

Mikael Granlund Nashville Predators
Nashville Predators’ forward Mikael Granlund (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Granlund had a GAR of 20.6 over his final 140 games with the Wild, and that was only a year to two years ago. It’s fair to ask if he’s in decline, but the drop in play was so stark, he could be a good bounce-back candidate with a change of scenery. The question is, “at what cost?”

Per Evolving Hockey, they project Granlund to land a seven-year deal as a UFA, with a cap hit of $6.525 million. That said, it’d be a surprise if he got that kind of lucrative deal, given his struggles with the Predators. If he’s willing to bet on himself and take a short-term deal to right the ship, he’d be a fit for the Devils. He’s solid at both ends of the ice, and if he rediscovers his scoring prowess, he’d be a fit alongside Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes as a right-winger. 

Jesper Fast

Fast has spent his whole seven-year career with the New York Rangers and has been productive in that time, specifically over the last three seasons. He finished with 29 points in 69 games this season and has averaged close to 33 points per 82 games since 2017. 

Related: Devils Should Stay Clear of Hoffman in Free Agency

Though Fast is not an offensive juggernaut, he’s averaged 1.56 points/60 over the last three seasons. That’s a touch better than Jordan Staal, Ryan Strome, and Calle Jarnkrok. Fast doesn’t shoot the puck a ton (he’s averaged 1.18 shots on goal per game). But he has a 12.7% career shooting percentage, so he knows how to find the back of the net. 

Another area where Fast can add value is on the penalty kill. His shot and chance suppression rates on the kill aren’t great, but that could be related to systemic issues with the Rangers’ penalty kill. The Devils have had one of the best penalty kills in the league over the last few seasons, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if his penalty killing numbers improved with them. 

Jesper Fast New York Rangers
New York Rangers’ winger Jesper Fast (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fast should be a relatively inexpensive signing for the Devils, as he projects to land a three-year deal, with a cap hit of $2.9 million. He played for three seasons under new Devils’ coach Lindy Ruff when he was an assistant coach for the Rangers, and that familiarity may help Fast’s case. Plus, he’d be a good depth addition to the Devils’ bottom six, where they could use a boost. 

Evgenii Dadonov

Dadonov got his career started in the NHL, but it did not go well. He had 20 points in his first 55 games and ended up leaving for the KHL after the 2011-12 season. That move proved to be beneficial, as he’d go on to be a star in the KHL. He finished with 66 points in 54 games for SKA St. Petersburg in 2016-17 then made the return to the NHL when he signed with the Florida Panthers

Since returning for the 2017-18 season, Dadonov has been one of the Panthers’ best players. He’s averaged 66 points per 82 games, as well as 2.28 points/60 at five-on-five. That latter number ranks 28th in the league among forwards with 1000-plus minutes logged and is better than John Tavares, Taylor Hall, and Nikolaj Ehlers, to name a few. 

Dadonov has also impacted the game at a high level. His overall play has been worth a GAR of 36 since 2017, but where he gets it done is on offense — his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 28.1. His RAPM chart also shows a positive offensive impact at even strength. 

Evgenii Dadonov EV & PP RAPM Type (per 60), standardized, 2017-20 (via Evolving Hockey)

Dadonov is not going to be cheap, as he projects to land a six-year deal, at a cap hit of $7 million. That’s way out of what the Devils will be looking to spend in free agency, especially since he’s 31 years old. 

But if there’s a path to a three or four-year deal, Dadonov could make some sense for the Devils. He can play either wing and would be a significant upgrade to the team’s top six. It’d still cost them around $5-6 million a year on a three or four-year deal, but the shorter term would make it more manageable. 

Tyler Ennis

Ennis looked like he was on his way out of the NHL just a couple of seasons ago. But he’s revived his career and managed to become a reliable middle-six forward. He finished this past season with 16 goals and 37 points between the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers, the best season he’s had since 2014-15 when he had 20 goals and 46 points. 

Ennis has averaged 1.66 points/60 at five-on-five over the last three seasons, which is a bit better than Kevin Labanc, Clayton Keller, and Anthony Beauvillier. That said, he’s averaged much less ice time than those three, but it shows he’s been an efficient scorer in the minutes he’s gotten. 

Overall, Ennis is a comparable player to Fast, though he may offer a bit more offensively than Fast. Ennis’ overall play has been worth a GAR of 9.1 over the last three seasons, so he has something to offer to a team as a depth player. 

Tyler Ennis Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers’ forward Tyler Ennis (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Nor should he cost the Devils all that much to sign, as he projects to fetch a three-year deal, with a cap hit of $3.1 million. Ennis played for Ruff when he was the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach, though he struggled in his last couple of seasons with the Sabres. 

But that was a long time ago, and he seems to have figured out how to play as a speedy, middle-six winger. And with Ruff looking to play a fast-paced style of hockey with the Devils, that could make him a fit to shore up their scoring depth. 

Craig Smith

Smith was a Predators’ fourth-round pick at the 2009 Draft and has spent his whole career with the team. He’s totaled 330 points in 661 career games and has finished with 20-plus goals in five of his nine NHL seasons. He finished 2019-20 with 18 goals and 31 points in 69 games. 

Though not one of the league’s top offensive wingers, Smith has quietly been a very efficient scorer. He’s averaged 2.01 points/60 at five-on-five, ranked 73rd in the league among forwards with 1000-plus minutes at that game state since 2017. For comparison’s sake, that’s a bit better than Mika Zibanejad, Matthew Tkachuk, and Blake Wheeler. 

Smith’s overall play over the last three seasons has been worth a GAR of 36.3. That ranks 29th in the league among all forwards, largely because of his offensive impact at even strength. And that impact becomes clearer when looking at his RAPM chart. 

Craig Smith RAPM
Craig Smith EV & PP RAPM Type (per 60), standardized, 2017-20 (via Evolving Hockey)

Smith projects to land a three-year deal, with a cap hit of $4.4 million. For what he brings to the table, he’d be the ideal UFA target for the Devils. He’s an efficient scorer, shoots the puck a lot, and won’t break the bank. If there’s one downside, it’s he’s 31 years old. But if all it takes to sign him is a three-year deal, there’s not much of an argument against pursuing him. 

Devils’ Best Options Are…

If the Devils decide to add a forward or two through free agency, they won’t have a ton of viable options. Dadonov is a good fit in terms of his skill set, but he’ll be well out of their price range. Plus, age is a factor, and it’s hard to picture the Devils giving a 31-year-old a seven-year deal. 

The perfect targets for the Devils are Smith and Fast. Smith should be an affordable option that would upgrade their top-six, and it’d be easy to see him on the second line with Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt next season. Fast won’t light up the scoresheet, but he’s a reliable bottom-six forward who can kill penalties. 

Related: 5 UFA Defensemen for Devils to Target

There’s probably a case for the Devils taking a chance on Granlund, but only if on a short-term deal. Given his struggles as a member of the Predators, that might not be so far-fetched, either. That said, Smith is still a better option for their top six. If the Devils end up with him, plus a player like Fast, their offense should see noticeable improvement in 2020-21. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick; GAR and contract projections from Evolving Hockey

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