Devils Need Post-Draft Roster Upgrades

After using the first 24 hours of the NHL Draft to select Jack Hughes at No. 1 overall, and acquire Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators, the New Jersey Devils have completely transformed their roster.

While adding Hughes and Subban to a roster that includes a healthy Taylor Hall might be enough to get the Devils back to the playoffs, general manager Ray Shero still has some significant work to do before the Devils can be considered a true Stanley Cup contender.

Jack Hughes Devils Draft
Jack Hughes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

The good news for New Jersey is that they still have a projected $25.7 million in cap space, which can play to their advantage as they continue to re-tool their roster.

Here’s a look at what the Devils should look to do following the draft.

Use Free Agency to Add Scoring/Depth to Wings

At forward, the Devils are set down the middle. With Nico Hischier set to remain the team’s No. 1 center and Hughes set to slide right in behind him, the Devils can round out their depth chart with Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha in bottom six roles.

With center now a position of strength, the Devils still need to add some scoring and depth to their wings, preferably on the right side.

The top available unrestricted free-agent target is Gustav Nyquist. The 29-year old right-winger is coming off a 60-point season split between the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings and is projected to earn $5,649,366 over six years according to Evolving Wild. While that is a lot of term, and a relatively high price for a soon-to-be 30-year old, Nyquist has been a consistent point producer and can benefit the play of a young center like Hischier or Hughes.

Sharks center Gustav Nyquist
Sharks center Gustav Nyquist (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Devils look for a cheaper free-agent alternative, other options include Joonas Donskoi and Brandon Pirri.

Donskoi finished the 2018-19 season with a career-high 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 80 games played with San Jose. While he has yet to break the 37-point plateau over the course of his first four years, there is still a lot to like about his game.

He is a very efficient player at 5-on-5, he is reliable defensively, and his skating ability makes him an ideal fit in the Devils system. He’s the perfect middle-six winger who can be paired on a wing opposite Blake Coleman and play up in the top-six in case of an injury.

Pirri, on the other hand, has been a journeyman between the NHL and AHL, but he’s coming off a season in which he scored at a near 32-goal pace with the Vegas Golden Knights, recording 12 goals in just 31 games due to a pair of injuries.

Vegas Golden Knights Brandon Pirri
Vegas Golden Knights center Brandon Pirri celebrates (AP Photo/John Locher)

With a goals-above-replacement value of 5.7, he ranked as the eighth best player on the Golden Knights last season. Similar to Donskoi, Pirri is the perfect fit to play consistently on a third or fourth line and fill in on the top-six when needed.

Shore up the Left Side on Defense

With the acquisition of Subban, the Devils finally added a true No. 1 defenseman for the first time in organizational history since the days of Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski.

However, they now have $23 million tied to four defenders for 2019-20, and that doesn’t include Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller, and Connor Carrick, who are in line for new deals as restricted free agents.

Nashville Predators P.K. Subban
Former Predators defenseman P.K. Subban (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

That said, veteran captain Andy Greene is likely playing in his last season, and it’s a make-or-break year for Sami Vatanen, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

While the hope is that 2018 first-round draft pick Ty Smith can come in and log significant minutes starting next season, the Devils should still look bring in another veteran defender, preferably one that plays on the left side.

The top left-handed defenseman in free agency is Jake Gardiner. He is a legitimate top-four defenseman and will thrive in any market outside of Toronto. However, he might prove to be too costly for the Devils, especially after the contract we saw San Jose shell out to Erik Karlsson. After Gardiner, the left-handed market for defenseman becomes very thin.

This might lead to Shero getting creative and dealing a player like Vatanen to clear cap space for a guy like Gardiner, or dare I say it, trade Butcher in a package that brings in a better left-handed blueliner.

I would bet on the former over the latter, but either way, it’s going to be tricky for the Devils if they want to upgrade on defense.

Save Money for the Future

While the Devils still have enough cap room to be aggressive in free agency and on the trade market, they still need to keep an eye on the future. Hall is going to be a free agent next summer, and re-signing the 2018 Hart Memorial Trophy winner is one of New Jersey’s biggest priorities.

Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson and New Jersey Devils left wing Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

In addition to Hall, other key core members such as Hischier, Butcher, Zacha and Jesper Bratt, amongst others, are all set to become restricted free agents at some point over the next two seasons and will be in line for contract extensions as well.

The last thing the Devils should do is cap strap themselves before locking up their core long-term, but they can still find ways to improve their club without doing so.