Free agency is just about 24 hours away, and it appears to be shaping up a busy next few days. Even after Filip Forsberg re-signed with the Nashville Predators and Valeri Nichushkin re-upped with the Colorado Avalanche, it’s still a relatively strong class for unrestricted free agents. And with the deadline for qualifying offers passing yesterday at 5 PM, the crop of UFAs got even a bit better.
For the New Jersey Devils, that should likely be to their benefit. While they’re in the market for a top-six scorer, rounding out their depth up front should also be a priority; their bottom- and middle-six are the weakest part of their forward group. None of these players will move the needle significantly, but if paired with a top-six addition like Johnny Gaudreau or Andre Burakovsky, the Devils should have a capable set of forwards in 2022-23. Let’s dive into three non-tendered restricted free agents they could consider.
Danton Heinen, Left Wing
After struggling in 2020-21 with the Anaheim Ducks, Danton Heinen found new life with the Pittsburgh Penguins this past season. He finished with 18 goals and 33 points in 76 games, a significant rise from the seven goals and seven assists he posted a year ago with the Ducks. His 2021-22 production was more in line with the 14 goals and 39 points per 82 games he averaged in his three seasons before joining the Ducks.
Though far from the main cog for the Penguins, Heinen was a key depth player. He finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 54.14 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 56.8 percent. He was one of the Penguins’ most efficient five-on-five scorers, averaging 2.01 points per 60 minutes. His shooting percentages weren’t unsustainably high, and he generated a ton of rebounds off shots, a part of what the Devils need for coach Lindy Ruff’s system to be successful.
Offensively, Heinen excels off the rush. He generates a fair amount of shots off high-danger passes and gets one-timers off at a good clip while also creating enough shots for himself. In addition to his shooting, he gains the offensive zone with possession efficiently and is a decent passer as well:
Not only does Heinen have some scoring upside as a third-line winger, but he’s also a strong shot suppressor and defensive forward. Because the Penguins didn’t extend a qualifying offer to him, he shouldn’t cost much as a UFA; perhaps around $2 million per year on a one- or two-year contract. For a team that struggled to get much two-way presence in their bottom- or middle-six last season, he could be someone the Devils look to in free agency to help strengthen their depth behind whatever more prominent additions they make.
Sonny Milano, Left Wing
The Ducks not extending a qualifying offer to Sonny Milano was a bit surprising. He finished this season with 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games — a 42-point pace over 82 games — and showed some chemistry with Trevor Zegras. Who could forget the alley-oop goal they teamed up for against the Buffalo Sabres earlier this past season?
Milano clearly has some skill, and his numbers suggest there’s something to build on. Even on a Ducks team that struggled at five-on-five, he put up some pretty impressive numbers. His 52.02 CF% ranked first on the Ducks, while his 52.75 xG% was second to Adam Henrique. Even when paired away from Zegras, his CF% and xG% were just about break-even (a touch over 49 percent).
What really stood out about Milano this season was his passing. Though he’s not a particularly threatening shooter, he is a high-level playmaker. He set up his teammates for dangerous chances and ranked in the 100th percentile in that category in Corey Sznajder’s data, which he tracks manually. In addition to his passing ability, he’s also a good rush player when it comes to gaining the offensive zone, though he did struggle to exit the defensive zone cleanly:
Milano has more upside as a scorer than Heinen in a middle-six role. At 26 years old, he fits the Devils’ timeline and should not cost much more than his previous cap hit of $1.7 million. Assuming the Devils add another established top-six scorer, he’d be a good option to consider to strengthen the team’s scoring depth. That’s especially true if they need to watch the salary cap if they sign someone like Gaudreau to a lucrative contract that costs eight figures a year.
Ondrej Kaše, Right Wing
After struggling with injuries for the better part of the last few years, Ondrej Kaše finally got enough run of games to get his career back on the right track. In 50 outings with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021-22, he finished with 14 goals and 27 points in 50 games — a 23-goal, 44-point pace over 82 games.
During his Ducks tenure, Kaše showed signs of being a strong play-driving top-six winger. Unfortunately, injuries had other ideas. While those play-driving traits weren’t there this season, he did regain some of his scoring ability. His average of 1.89 points per 60 minutes ranked seventh on the Maple Leafs, and he averaged the third-most shots on goal per 60 at five-on-five behind Auston Matthews and Ilya Mikheyev.
At this point in his career, especially after his injuries, Kaše doesn’t need to be the play driver he showed he could be with the Ducks. But if he can score 20-plus goals and 40-plus points as a middle-six option while staying healthy, he has value for a team looking for depth scoring. And apparently, the Devils could be one of those teams:
I had a bit of a difficult time determining whether Veillette was speculating, but it sure does sound like he was implying the Devils may at least have some interest in Kaše. If that’s the case, they need to be sure he’s healthy. Even though he played in 50 games, he still missed over a month to end the season due to a concussion, which has been a problem for him, and he’s only 26 years old.
Related: Devils 2022 NHL Draft Review
The good thing is Kaše showed he’s still got productive hockey left in him. The bad news is there’s always going to be some risk involved because of his injury/concussion history. On the flip side, he will not be getting a long-term deal because of that history. Per Evolving-Hockey, they project him to land a one-year, $1.445 million contract as a UFA. If his medicals check out and he’s good to go to start 2022-23, he might be worth the gamble for that price.
None of these players will put the Devils over the top or should be their primary targets for adding a scorer. But say they sign Gaudreau in free agency or acquire someone like J.T. Miller or Vladimir Tarasenko through a trade, adding players like Kaše, Milano, or Heinen could be depth complementary depth options. Add them to Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and further steps forward from Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer, and the Devils should be improved up front.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017