The New Jersey Devils are once again in a prime position to weaponize their cap space this offseason. Their current salary cap projections forecast them to have $26 million once the offseason begins, giving them ample opportunity to improve their roster.
That won’t be the case for many teams due to the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million due to revenue loss from COVID-19 and the suspension of the regular season. One of those teams happens to be the St. Louis Blues, as they’re projected to have a little over $2 million in cap space. And that’s without Alex Pietrangelo, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, on the books. That’s where the Devils can help the Blues free up money for Pietrangelo, and they’ll have plenty of options to do so.
Dunn had a strong rookie campaign in 2017-18 and looked to be on the verge of a breakout season after posting 35 points in 78 games in 2018-19. That didn’t happen, as he only finished with 23 points in 71 games this season. But the 23-year-old still remains one of the more promising young defensemen in the game.
Dunn finished with a Corsi share (CF%) of 55.21%, ranked 13th among NHL defensemen (min. 250 played) this season. His expected goals share (xGF%) was also among the league’s best defensemen, as it ranked 49th. Granted, he was not playing hard defensive minutes, but the results are encouraging. His overall body of work suggests he has breakout potential, as well.
Dunn has had a positive impact at both ends of the ice, as well as on the power play. The Blues would surely love to keep him around. But if they sign Pietrangelo to a massive extension, they’ll have to move a couple of contracts to do so. It’ll also be hard for Dunn to crack a Blues’ top four that consists of Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, as well as Marco Scandella and Justin Faulk.
That wouldn’t be the case on the Devils, however. They need a top-four, left-handed defenseman on their blue line more than anything else. They also need one who can move the puck effectively, and Dunn checks off all those boxes. He’d likely cost a bit in a trade, but not at a price that’d mortgage the Devils’ future. So he should be at the top of new general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s wish list on the trade market.
Alex Steen and a First-Round Pick
Steen was once a reliable forward capable of putting up 50-60 points in any given season. Those days are a thing of the past, but he’s still a useful bottom-six forward. He finished with 17 points in 55 games this season, a 25-point pace over 82 games.
Steen’s underlying numbers in 2019-20 were pretty respectable, as well. He had a goals above replacement (GAR) of 6.9 and an xGF% of 50.84%, so he can still play. The Devils need depth at every position, including up front, and Steen can still provide that, even at 36 years old.
The thing with Steen is his contract only runs for one more season, but it comes with a cap hit of $5.75 million. He’s not worth that kind of money anymore, so the Devils would have to get something else in return. And it’d likely be some kind of draft pick.
The Toronto Maple Leafs cleared cap space last summer by trading Patrick Marleau and a first-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes. It’d presumably take that for the Blues to move Steen to free up money for Pietrangelo and other roster moves. And if it does, it’d give the Devils four first-round picks if it’s a 2020 selection.
There’s also the possibility of acquiring a prospect to take on Steen’s contract, though it’s not likely. Scott Perunovich is the Blues’ best prospect, but they’re not giving him up to shed salary. Nikita Alexandrov is an intriguing prospect, but he may not be valuable enough for the Devils to take on Steen’s deal. After that, it’s slim pickings. So the Devils would be better off acquiring a draft pick and adding that asset to their stockpile.
Schwartz has spent his whole career with the Blues and has been one of their most consistent forwards for the last nine seasons. He finished 2019-20 with 57 points in 71 games and has averaged 61 points per 82 games over the last three seasons.
Schwartz’s underlying numbers are also among some of the best in the league since 2017. His CF% ranks 21st, while his xGF% ranks 25th for forwards with 1000-plus minutes played. His GAR of 30.7 places him between Alex Radulov, Eric Staal, and Nikolaj Ehlers. And he’s one of the most underrated two-way wingers in the league.
The Blues would probably like to keep Schwartz around. He’s under contract for one more season, at a cap hit of $5.3 million, but their cap situation may not allow it if they re-sign Pietrangelo. Schwartz will also be 29 years old when a new contract kicks in. And with young scorers like Jordan Kyrou coming up, the Blues may be willing to part with Schwartz as they won’t be as dependent on his scoring.
If that’s the case, the Devils could be interested in the left-winger. He’s an incredible two-way player and an efficient scorer at five-on-five. He’d play in their top six and would look great alongside Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes. The main issue is the lack of term on his contract. Maybe that’d drive down his trade value a bit, but it’d be fair to assume the Devils would want someone with two or more years remaining on their deal. Though, there’s no doubt they’d have him high on their list if that were the case.
The Devils need backup goaltending, and it’s not a secret, either. Mackenzie Blackwood had a great season and finished with a .915 save percentage (SV%) and a 22-14-8 record. In all other starts by a Devils’ goalie, the team went 6-15-4 and had a .885 SV%. That’s nowhere near good enough to be playoff contenders, so it’s something Fitzgerald must address.
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That’s where Allen could help. He’s coming off the best season of his career, as he finished with a .927 SV% in 24 games played. His goalie GAR of 10.8 ranked 19th in the entire league and was better than Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tristan Jarry, and Frederik Andersen. Granted, he wasn’t a starter, but he was a top two or three backup in the league.
Jordan Binnington is the Blues’ no. 1 netminder, and they’re paying him like one. Allen has one year left on his deal, at a cap hit of $4.35 million, which is a lot to pay for a backup. That’s especially true for a team like the Blues, who are in desperate need of cap space.
Blackwood will be an RFA this offseason and is due a pay raise from his entry-level deal. Cory Schneider will make $6 million for the next two seasons, so adding Allen would tie up a lot of money at the position, but it should only be for one season. If the Devils don’t buy out Schneider this offseason, they seemingly will next summer (or they’ll expose him to the Seattle expansion draft). With Allen’s deal expiring in a year, the Devils would free up quite a bit of money in a short amount of time. That means no long-term cap problems, and they have the money to absorb all three goalies for one season.
Since Allen doesn’t have any term on his deal, he likely won’t cost much to acquire. Goalies don’t have a ton of value on the trade market as is, so the Devils could probably get him without giving up their best assets. He’d be a clear upgrade behind Blackwood. And if he repeats his success, the Devils can get him re-signed to a reasonable deal for the 2021-22 season to solidify things between the pipes.
Dunn Should Be the Top Target
New Devils’ coach Lindy Ruff will need some improvements to his roster if he’s to get the team heading in the right direction. If Fitzgerald decides to deal with the Blues, he’ll have multiple options at his disposal to help get Ruff the players he needs. If it’s a scorer they covet, Schwartz would be an ideal fit. If Allen ends up on the trade block, he’ll give them the backup they need behind Blackwood.
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But the real prize for the Devils would be landing Dunn to help their defense. Top-four minutes aren’t going to be there for him with the Blues any time soon. They’ll be there for him with the Devils, perhaps on the top pair, and he should get time on the power play too. He’s an incredibly effective puck-mover, which the Devils will need with Ruff’s fast-paced system. That should make him a top target for Fitzgerald, and if he comes away with Dunn, he has the potential to be the team’s shrewdest offseason move when all is said and done.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick; GAR, and RAPM charts, from Evolving Hockey