NHL Free Agency is just one month away, and it’s shaping up to be one of the better classes in recent offseasons. The New Jersey Devils have never spent big in free agency under general manager Ray Shero, but that needs to change this offseason. Taylor Hall is in the last year of his contract, and they need to give him reasons to re-sign long-term. They also need more talent, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they have the first-overall pick at the Entry Draft.
If Shero looks to make moves in free agency, his focus should be at forward, where there’s a solid cast of wingers. Two names that should be at the top of his list are Gustav Nyquist and Richard Panik. They’re both capable scorers and should be able to give the Devils some much-needed depth up front.
Nyquist a Perfect Fit for the Devils
Nyquist had a career-season between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, finishing with 60 points in 81 games, his best point-per-game average since 2013-14. He was acquired by the Sharks around the Trade Deadline and helped them make a run to the Western Conference Final, where they lost to the St. Louis Blues.
If he does hit the open market, he’ll have plenty of suitors. Over the last three seasons, Nyquist has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.38 percent and an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 52.39 percent. His CF% has also risen in each of the last three seasons — from 50.03 percent to 50.83 percent to 53.08 percent. And he’s been a consistent scorer, averaging 1.93 points per 60 minutes (P/60).
Nyquist’s goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, is among some of the league’s best top-six wingers. Since 2016, his GAR of 26.7 puts him ahead of names such as Patrick Kane, Mikko Rantanen, and Alex Ovechkin, to name a few.
One of Nyquist’s draws as a free agent will be his versatility. He’s a natural left wing but can play on the right side if needed, and the Devils could use either one. If the organization selects Jack Hughes with the first-overall pick, Nyquist would be a perfect fit on either one of his wings. It’s been a while since they’ve had a second line with consistent scoring punch. And Nyquist can help them build that.
Price is always the key in free agency as teams tend to overpay. Evolving Wild’s contract projections have Nyquist landing a six-year deal worth about $5.75 million per year. He is 29 years old, so a six-year deal would be a bit risky, but he isn’t showing any signs of decline. The Devils have a lot of cap space and will have more if the salary cap rises to $83 million. If Nyquist’s projected deal is in Shero’s ballpark, he shouldn’t hesitate to make an offer.
Panik Could be the Steal of Free Agency
Not a lot of people are talking about Panik as a free agent, but he’s going to be a pleasant surprise for whichever team signs him. He finished with 33 points in 75 games played this season with the Arizona Coyotes and has eclipsed 20 goals just once in his career. You might be wondering why I think he’ll be a steal in free agency based off those stats so let’s get into it.
Like Nyquist, Panik has an impressive track record of play at five-on-five. He has a CF% of 51.87 percent and xGF% of 51.11 percent over the last three seasons. He’s also averaged 1.81 P/60, the same as J.T. Miller and just head of Max Pacioretty and Jakub Voracek. All three of those players are bonafide top-six wingers, so that should tell you something about Panik.
Also like Nyquist, Panik’s GAR backs up his value as someone who can play a top-six role. Over the last three seasons, his GAR of. 20.1 puts him ahead of Travis Konecny, Zach Parise, and Phil Kessel, all top-six wingers. And on top of being able to score goals and create offense, he’s pretty decent in transition.
Panik may not be a high-end passer (shotsassists/60), but he does shoot the puck at a high rate (shots/60). He’s also effective at carrying the puck into the offensive zone with possession. And in a league that values speed, and dumping the puck in less often, Panik’s carry-in rates will be valuable. That’s especially true if Hughes, someone who excels at controlled carry-ins, is the Devils’ selection.
It’ll be interesting to see what Panik fetches as a free agent. He’s projected to land a four-year deal worth just above $4.8 million per year. That may seem like a lot for someone with one 20-goal season to his name, but I think it’d be a fair price for him. His underlying numbers are great, and there’s reason to believe he’ll put up points in the right situation, so a deal worth $4.8 million per season shouldn’t scare Shero off.
Nyquist, Panik Will Provide Value
Shero talked about needing to add more talent this offseason, and there’s no free agent class better to do so than this one. Someone like Jordan Eberle may appeal to the Devils because of his relationship with Hall, but that shouldn’t make him a top target. Nyquist and Panik are preferable because they bring more to the table at both ends of the ice.
Each player has a significant impact scoring goals (Off_GF) and creating expected goals (Off_xG), while Panik has a noticeable edge creating shot attempts (Off_CF) over Nyquist. They aren’t defensive liabilities, either, which is an advantage they have over Eberle or Jeff Skinner.
If Shero is going to give a pricey, long-term contract this summer, Panik or Nyquist should be his top choices. I doubt he’d sign both players, but one of them will go a long way. The Devils are much more likely to get the best value out of Panik or Nyquist on a long-term deal than the other top free agents. And that’ll go a long way in helping them sustain long-term success.
* * *