Weaponizing cap space is not a luxury many teams have. But it’s something the New Jersey Devils have done to a great extent over the last few seasons. Whether it was acquiring Marcus Johansson in 2017 or Nikita Gusev almost a year ago, they’ve used their available cap space to their advantage.
It won’t be any different this offseason, either. The Devils have over $26 million in cap space to use and improve their roster and won’t be affected by the salary cap remaining at $81.5 million due to revenue loss from COVID-19. That won’t be the case for plenty of other teams, as there’ll be more than a few in a financial bind and will have no choice but to move players to give themselves roster flexibility.
One of those teams happens to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ll need to re-sign restricted free agents Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, and Erik Cernak but have only $5.3 million in cap space to do so. The Devils have the means to help them out. And there are more than a few players they can target from the Lightning who’ll help improve their roster.
Palat doesn’t get the same recognition as the Lightning’s other forwards, but the production is there. He’s totaled 110 points in 189 games over the last three seasons, an average of 47 points per 82 games. He’s an efficient scorer, as he’s averaged 1.85 points per 60 minutes (points/60) at five-on-five over the last three seasons. That’s .01 less than Jesper Bratt, who’s been one of the Devils’ better scorers since 2017.
It’s not just about offense with Palat, either. No one will mistake him for being a Selke candidate, but he’s far from a liability — his even-strength defensive goals above replacement (GAR) since 2017 is 4.7. His overall GAR over that span puts him among some of the better forwards in the league, as well.
This group of forwards shows the impact Palat’s had for the Lightning. It doesn’t mean he’s a better player than Malkin, Schenn, or Forsberg. But it gives us good reason to believe he’d have no problem playing in the Devils’ top six if they’re to acquire him.
Palat is 29 years old, but his contract only runs through the 2021-22 season. His $5.3 million cap hit wouldn’t be a problem for the Devils, and it’d free up a good chunk of change for the Lightning. The extra year should also appeal to the Devils, as they’ll likely want someone who has some term left on his deal. He’ll upgrade their forward depth and would look good as a left-winger on a line alongside Jack Hughes, the 2019 first overall pick, and Kyle Palmieri.
Gourde broke onto the scene during the 2017-18 season, finishing with 25 goals and 64 points in 82 games, good enough to finish sixth in Calder voting. That led to the Lightning signing him to a six-year extension worth a total of almost $31 million ($5.16 million cap hit) in Nov. 2018. He finished the 2018-19 season with 22 goals and 48 points in 80 games, a slight decline in production. But those counting totals slipped even further this past season, as he had 10 goals and 30 points in 70 games.
A significant reason for Gourde’s down 2019-20 season was some bad luck — he finished with a 9.1% shooting percentage but is a 15.5% shooter for his career. That said, his overall play was solid. He had a positive impact on offense, as well as on defense, and had an expected goals share (xGF%) of 54.58%.
Gourde’s overall body of work suggests he can be a reliable top-six forward. He has an xGF% of 53.86% and has averaged 2.12 points/60 since 2017, the latter of which ranks 49th among forwards with 1000+ minutes at five-on-five. His GAR of 35.5 ranks 37th in the league among forwards. And his impact has been overwhelmingly positive at both ends of the ice.
If the Devils end up targeting Gourde, it’ll come down to their willingness to take on his contract — it runs through the 2024-25 season. His cap hit won’t be an issue, and he’s a good candidate to bounce back next season. However, he will be 34 years old when his deal expires, so the Devils might want someone younger if they’re going to acquire a forward with that much term on their deal.
Earlier this summer, Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald mentioned the team could use some size on defense, with the ability to move pucks. I don’t think too many people will argue the team could use more physicality on defense, but the ability to move pucks effectively is even more essential.
That’s where Cernak comes in. He checks in at 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, so the size is there. His point totals aren’t impressive — he has 28 points in 125 career games. But don’t let that fool you, because he’s effective in transition with the puck on his stick. He enters the offensive zone and exits the defensive zone with possession at a high rate.
Not only can Cernak move the puck, but he’s also a reliable defender. He’s been the Lightning’s third-best shot suppressing defensemen behind Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk over the last two seasons. He might not be playing top-pairing minutes, but he’s had the fourth-most defensive zone starts among the team’s defensemen.
Cernak won’t fix all of the Devils’ defensive woes, but he can certainly help. Since he’s a right-handed shot, he’d allow P.K. Subban, who struggled mightily in 2019-20, to move down the lineup and play a more offensive role under new coach Lindy Ruff. The right side of the Devils’ top four would be in good hands with Cernak and Damon Severson. So he’d be an ideal fit for the team if the Lightning can’t find the money to re-sign him.
Killorn’s spent his entire eight-year career with the Lightning and has amassed 310 points in 585 games. He set a career-high in goals this past season, with 26 in 68 games — a 31-goal pace over 82 games. He’s also among the Lightning’s most durable players, as he’s played in 81 or more games in every season since 2015-16.
There are plenty of similarities between Killorn, Palat, and Gourde. Like the latter two, Killorn is an efficient scorer at five-on-five. He’s averaged 2.06 points/60 since 2017-18 while only averaging 11:33 of five-on-five ice time per game. His RAPM chart is similar to Gourde’s and shows a strong positive impact at both ends of the ice.
Not only does Killorn excel at even-strength, but he’s also one of the Lightning’s top penalty killers. The Devils have had one of the best penalty-killing units over the last few seasons, so adding him to the mix would only improve it. And he could help them continue to be a threat to score short-handed.
Although Killorn scored a 31-goal pace in 2019-20, I wouldn’t bet on it happening again. He closed the regular season with a 20% shooting percentage and is an 11.4% shooter for his career. That means some regression is on the way, but his past point totals indicate he’s a consistent 40-50 point scorer.
Killorn may be the Devils’ best option between him, Gourde, and Palat. He can score at five-on-five, is the best of the three defensively, and would upgrade the team’s penalty kill. He’ll be 31 years old at the start of next season. But his contract runs through 2022-23 and has a cap hit of $4.45 million, making the term and money perfect for the Devils. He’s 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, so he has good size, something they could use on Hughes’ wing. A unit with those two and Palmieri could make for a formidable second line.
What About Sergachev?
I mentioned Cernak from the Lightning’s RFAs, so why not Sergachev too? He’s a young, left-handed defenseman who has yet to reach his prime and is what the Devils need on their blue line. The simple reason is it’s almost impossible to see the Lightning trading Sergachev. They’ll find the money to re-sign him and will free up cap space to do so.
And if they do trade him, it’ll come at an incredible price, because teams don’t give up a budding star defenseman for nothing. It’d likely take the Devils trading one of their first-round picks, a top prospect in Ty Smith, an NHL-caliber player, and even one more draft pick. Is that a price worth paying? Sergachev just turned 22, so it might very well be. But the Devils have plenty of needs to address, so it may not be best to use all of their top trade chips on one player.
The bottom line is the two teams can help each other out. The Devils have a lot of available cap space, while the Lightning don’t have much at all. Unless the Devils manage to acquire Cernak, they’re much more likely to get scoring help from the Lightning. Each of Gourde, Palat, and Killorn have no-trade clauses, so that could complicate manners. But if one of them waives their NTC to come to play in New Jersey, it’ll be to the Devils’ benefit.
The organization’s future rests on the development of Hughes and Nico Hischier. That means getting players around them who have can score and have similar skill sets. Any one of Killorn, Palat, and Gourde checks that off and would be a significant upgrade to the team’s top six. It may only be one piece of the puzzle for the rebuilding Devils, but it’d be a sensible way to begin putting the pieces together.
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