Though the Devils haven’t come away with a big fish this summer, it’s still been a busy offseason that’s seen them make multiple upgrades at each position group. From adding scoring depth to finding a top-four defenseman and a goaltender, let’s go over what the Devils have done to this point and what they may still have to do on their offseason checklist as the usually quiet month of August draws closer.
What Devils Have Done So Far
Scoring & Veteran Experience
Though the Devils missed out on the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes, they still managed to come away with upgrades to their scoring depth. They signed Ondrej Palát to a five-year contract at a cap hit of $6 million in free agency. The 31-year-old Czech winger has averaged 20 goals and 55 points per 82 games over the last three seasons and has been an efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 1.89 points per 60 minutes.
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Not only will Palát add some scoring help to the Devils’ top-six, but he will bring some much-needed veteran and winning experience to the third-youngest roster in the NHL. In his 10-year career, he’s been to four Stanley Cups and has two rings to show for it. He’s played in three straight Stanley Cup Finals, so he will help teach a young Devils team what it takes to win games consistently.
The Devils’ other offensive acquisition, at least to this point, is Erik Haula, who they picked up when they traded Pavel Zacha to the Boston Bruins. Haula is coming off a solid 2021-22 in which he totaled 18 goals and 44 points in 77 games as the Bruins’ second-line center; he’s averaged 18 goals and 41 points per 82 games over the last three seasons. He’s a more efficient five-on-five scorer than Zacha and was on the Vegas Golden Knights team that made the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.
The acquisitions of Palát and Haula may be modest, at least when compared to Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, who the Devils targeted as well. But they will provide scoring depth to a team that needed an upgrade in that department this offseason.
After finishing last season with a team save percentage (SV%) of .881, acquiring a goaltender was priority No. 1 this summer. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald did so on Day 2 of the NHL Draft, trading for Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a couple of draft picks.
Vanecek isn’t necessarily the marquee name the Devils had been connected to do this offseason, such as Ville Husso or Jack Campbell. But they still came away with an upgrade, especially compared to what the team has gotten over the last two seasons.
In 79 career games, Vanecek has a .908 SV%, which is above the league average of .903 since the start of 2020-21. His 2021-22 campaign was quietly an improvement from a year ago, as he finished with a five-on-five SV% of .926, an improvement from the .918 he posted as a rookie. His high-danger SV% at five-on-five also jumped from .798 to .850.
If it weren’t for Vanecek’s high-danger SV% of .636 on the penalty kill, a bottom five number in the league, he would’ve likely finished with a better overall SV% than .908 in 2021-22. The good news is penalty kill samples are small and could just be noise, and he’ll be playing in a different shorthanded system with the Devils than he did in Washington. Otherwise, his five-on-five numbers show an improving goaltender and one who should provide a much-needed lift in between the pipes.
Defensive Upgrade in Marino
The Devils didn’t need to upgrade their blue line this offseason, but Fitzgerald went ahead and got one anyway by acquiring John Marino from the Pittsburgh Penguins. In doing so, they parted ways with Ty Smith, their first-round pick from the 2018 draft. His tenure with the Devils was a bit of a rollercoaster, with his 2021-22 season being a clear step back from his rookie campaign a year ago. It’s possible he could still turn into a top-four defender, but it’ll have to be in Pittsburgh rather than New Jersey.
In return, the Devils got a proven top-four talent in Marino. Though he doesn’t have much to offer offensively, he skates well and is an effective puck-mover in transition, which suits a Devils team that wants to play off the rush. He also has an impressive penalty differential and has put up strong defensive results at even strength over the last three seasons:
Marino is under contract for another five years at a cap hit of $4.4 million and just recently turned 25 at the end of May. With Damon Severson entering the final year of his contract, Marino is a long-term solution in case the Devils don’t come to terms on an extension with Severson, which seems to have grown more likely with Marino’s addition and the team selecting Šimon Nemec at the 2022 draft.
What Devils Still Need to Do
Re-Signing Jesper Bratt & Miles Wood
Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood, both restricted free agents, have arbitration dates coming up; Bratt on Aug. 3 and Wood on Aug. 6. Bratt elected for arbitration, while the Devils elected for arbitration with Wood rather than the player doing so.
Bratt had a breakout season, finishing with 26 goals and 73 points in 76 games. He’s going to get a payday, and I don’t think the Devils will hesitate to give him the money he wants. In his pre-draft media availability, Fitzgerald mentioned the Devils had offered Bratt a contract that shows they’re committed to him being a Devil for a long time.
Reading between the lines, it seems that term is the issue, with Bratt likely wanting fewer years so he can test free agency before he turns 30; he turns 24 on July 30. There’s definitely a compromise to be had between the two sides. Where that ends up remains to be seen, but my guess is they’ll end up settling on a five- or six-year deal before an arbitration hearing happens.
As for Wood, getting a read on what kind of contract he gets from the Devils is a bit more challenging. He missed all but three games of the 2021-22 season after he underwent hip surgery in November, so a long-term deal doesn’t make sense. Evolving-Hockey has him projected for a one-year deal at a cap hit of $1.294 million. However, he had a qualifying offer of $3.5 million, so that projection also seems unlikely. The best guess here is a one-year deal worth between $2 to $3 million, but it’s hard to predict given the circumstances.
Related: Devils’ Vanecek Contract Gives Solid Tandem Now & Future Upside
The Devils have a little more time to agree to terms with Wood, but I’d be surprised if they end up in arbitration hearings with either player. It’s an ugly process where a team argues the player isn’t worth as much as he’s asking for, especially in Wood’s case since the team elected for arbitration and not the player. It can lead to lasting damage that ultimately ends up in a team trading the player because the relationship is beyond salvageable. That’s why it’d be a surprise if they don’t agree to new deals with either player.
Trading Away a Forward
After adding Palát and Haula, the Devils have a pretty crowded group up front. As it stands, here’s their depth chart:
- Yegor Sharangovich – Jack Hughes – Dawson Mercer
- Palát – Nico Hischier – Bratt
- Andreas Johnsson – Haula – Tomáš Tatar
- Wood/Jesper Boqvist – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
That’s 13 forwards for 12 spots, so Fitzgerald will have to move someone eventually. Part of the reason will be salary cap related, especially once Bratt and Wood sign new contracts. But moving someone out will mostly be because there isn’t enough room for everyone they have up front.
The most likely candidate to get traded is Johnsson, who’s entering the final year of his contract. He has a cap hit of $3.4 million, but his base salary is only $750,000, as the rest of his pay was in signing bonuses. He also has a 10-team no-trade clause, so it won’t be as simple as moving him to a bottom-feeder like the Buffalo Sabres or Anaheim Ducks to free up cap space.
Johnsson produced at a 40-point pace in 2021-22, so a playoff contender with room to add someone like him could bite. The Devils are unlikely to get anything significant in return for him. But trading him will give them some cap flexibility and free up a roster spot for a young player like Fabian Zetterlund or Alexander Holtz to make the team come training camp in September.
Adding a Top-Six Winger…If the Right Deal Comes Along
The Devils have a good enough group up front to compete for a playoff spot. Hughes, Bratt and Hischier all produced at 70-plus-point paces in 2021-22, while Yegor Sharangovich produced at a 25-goal, 50-point pace. With Mercer moving to the wing, their top-six should be in pretty good shape.
With that said, never pass on a chance to help make the team better. The Devils are unlikely to land someone like Gaudreau or Tkachuk at this point, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be the chance to add another top-six winger between now and the start of training camp in September. The reason for that is that there are multiple clubs over the cap ceiling.
Related: Devils Add Versatility With Haula in Middle-Six
Some of these teams will be able to use long-term injured reserve (LTIR) to give themselves cap relief, but that doesn’t get them off Scot-Free. They could still have to move a contract out, which could be a chance for the Devils to pounce and add another scorer. What do the Vegas Golden Knights do to free up money for the three restricted free agents they have to sign? Do the Florida Panthers have to move a contract after acquiring Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames? Other arbitration dates, such as Jesse Puljujärvi’s on Friday, are also things the Devils should be monitoring over the coming weeks for potential scoring upgrades.
Adding another top-six winger this offseason isn’t necessary for the Devils to compete next season, especially if their goaltending holds up. But bringing in another scorer if they can fit it into their salary cap after they sign Bratt and Wood could never hurt. If it’s in a cap dump where they only have to give up futures as the Seattle Kraken did in acquiring Oliver Bjorkstrand from the Columbus Blue Jackets, they shouldn’t hesitate if it’s the right fit.
Devils Have Done Most of the Work
The Devils and Fitzgerald have done quite a bit this summer. They might not have “won the offseason,” but it was still a productive July that saw them upgrade every position group. Getting Bratt re-signed is the team’s next big priority. Once they’ve completed that, they can keep an eye on the trade market if something makes sense for the long-term and their cap situation. Otherwise, Fitzgerald and his front office have checked off most of what they’ve needed to do this summer.