The New Jersey Devils significantly upgraded their defensive corps this offseason with the additions of both Dougie Hamilton (signed for 7 years/$63 million) and Ryan Graves (trade via Colorado Avalanche). Hamilton, a legitimate number one defenseman on most teams, will headline New Jersey’s top pairing for the better part of the next decade. At the same time, Graves has the size, skill, and youth to be a reliable top-four option for the foreseeable future. As far as offseason checklists go, put a green checkmark down next to defense. But what about the offensive side of the ice?
If the Devils truly intend on being a competitive team in the East this season, they’ll need some offensive upgrades as well. With general manager Tom Fitzgerald on the record saying that the team is ready to take the next step in their rebuilding process, it only makes sense that he will look to upgrade a Devils offense that finished 26th in goals for in 2020-21. (from ‘LeBrun: Thumbs up for Devils trade, latest on Zach Hyman and Gabriel Landeskog’ The Athletic, 7/16/21) So with a whopping $22 million of cap space available and most of the high-end free agents gone, what are his options?
At this point, the trade block seems like the place to find some real difference makers. Here are three targets the Devils should take a look at.
Jake DeBrusk, LW, Boston Bruins
It’s no secret that the Bruins and inconsistent winger Jake DeBrusk are prime candidates for a divorce this summer, as Claire Mezzina has pointed out for The Hockey Writers. Boston went on a shopping spree for bottom-six forwards on the first day of free agency and their subsequently tight cap situation seems likely to be relieved by the 24-year-old’s contract.
But while DeBrusk’s $3.675 million cap hit is an obstacle for the Bruins as goaltender Tuukka Rask remains unsigned, it would barely bother a Devils team that has cash to burn. Sure, the Boston left winger had his problems in 2020-21 (just 5 goals in 41 games), but he’s also shown a penchant for scoring by potting 46 goals in the two seasons prior.
Depending on Boston’s ask, this could be a great opportunity for the Devils to find another piece that fits their rebuild timeline. Jersey needs goalscoring, and if DeBrusk clicks with the team and rediscovers his finishing skills, he could find himself with a long-term contract offer when he becomes a restricted free agent after 2021-22.
Rickard Rakell, RW, Anaheim Ducks
On the final year of his contract after what feels like a decade-long stint on the trade block, it would be surprising if the 28-year-old found himself on Anaheim’s roster after this season. While some may question if Rakell fits in New Jersey’s timeline, they only have to look to Hamilton, who is the same age. Fitzgerald’s desire to compete now means that a veteran or two will be in the Devils’ locker room come October. Ideally, a two-time 30-goal scorer like Rakell would be among the initiates.
Rakell’s contract, like DeBrusk’s, ends after this season and carries a similar $3.78 million cap hit. He will be an unrestricted free agent after 2021-22, which could be dangerous for New Jersey, considering the assets they would give up in order to acquire him from Anaheim. It’s a tricky situation as the winger has been on a downward trend for the past three seasons, but then again, so have the Ducks. The Devils haven’t been much better in the standings, but their group of young forwards is starting to come into their own.
Should Rakell be given a chance in their top six, it would be a good bet that he regains his scoring touch. He scored just nine goals and 19 assists last season, but it’s hard to believe that’s all the Duck has to offer going forward.
Timo Meier, RW, San Jose Sharks
Perhaps the most popular choice among Devils fans, Meier is the safest choice on this list if the team wants a proven product in his prime. Naturally, that also means he’d be the most expensive of the three.
Meier scored 12 goals and 19 assists in last year’s shortened season for an equivalent of 46 points in a normally scheduled campaign. Before that, the young Shark had scored at least 21 goals in each of his first three full NHL seasons, including one exceptional 66-point outing in 2018-19. Despite their place in the standings last year, the Sharks have a ton of money on the books and could be influenced to move the 24-year-old for the right price. Meier will make $6 million through the 2022-23 season.
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That figure isn’t exactly easy on the cap for most teams, but it could be for a New Jersey squad with a ton of flexibility. At 24, Meier fits the timeline for the Devils if they can retain him long-term. He’s pretty much the best of both worlds on this list as he boasts the youth of DeBrusk but the proven ability of Rakell to produce points. Plugging him into the top-six next to, say, fellow Switzerland native Nico Hischier would immediately make the offense more dangerous.
Offense Is Needed Sorely, But Not Urgently
You’ll notice that a few headliners who have been at the center of trade speculation lately are missing from this list—namely, Vladimir Tarasenko, Johnny Gaudreau, and even Jack Eichel. While any of those three guys would indeed be an immense upgrade for the Devils, it doesn’t seem likely that Fitzgerald is quite ready to surrender the treasures that would surely be required to acquire them. Nor should he be. The Devils, while making good progress, are still in the thick of their rebuilding phase. The team likely won’t be ready to contend for a Stanley Cup for at least another two years. Trading away important future assets would be counterintuitive to their progress.
Yes, Fitzgerald stated that the team is ready to compete. But realistically, he didn’t mean for the Cup just yet. He’s simply ready to escape the bottom of the standings and start playing meaningful games. If the Devils are still in the hunt for a playoff spot with 20 games left, that would be a huge victory. Trading for an Eichel or Gaudreau is something you do when you’re on the cusp of greatness.
New Jersey might be there in the near future, but they just aren’t close enough yet.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.