The New Jersey Devils have plenty of needs to address this offseason Fortunately, general manager Ray Shero has a ton of assets to work with. He has 10 draft picks at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, including the first-overall selection, and $35 million in salary cap space to add NHL-ready talent.
There’s a variety of ways Shero can put his resources to good use. He hasn’t been afraid to do so in the past as he did when he acquired Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Marcus Johansson through trades. It’s also shaping up to be a solid group of unrestricted free agents come July 1, which should help.
Taking those things into consideration, I put together a couple of different rosters for 2019-20, thanks to CapFriendly’s armchair GM feature. Here are two different scenarios that could help the Devils get back to being playoff contenders and maybe convince Hall to sign an extension.
Scenario One: Devils Acquire J.T. Miller, Sign Gardiner
The Devils acquire J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Miles Wood, John Quenneville, and a 2019 second-round pick.
Free Agent Signings
Defenseman Jake Gardiner signs for seven years at $6.950 million per season. Forward Brandon Pirri signs a one-year deal worth $1.175 million.
The Devils select center and USNTDP star Jack Hughes with the first-overall pick. Top prospect Ty Smith earns a roster spot, while Jesper Boqvist signs his entry-level contract and makes the NHL.
Devils’ 2019-20 Roster
- Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- J.T. Miller – Jack Hughes – Kyle Palmieri
- Jesper Boqvist – Travis Zajac – Blake Coleman
- Brandon Pirri – Pavel Zacha – Ryan Callahan
- Jake Gardiner – Damon Severson
- Will Butcher – Sami Vatanen
- Andy Greene – Ty Smith
- Cory Schneider
- Mackenzie Blackwood
2019-20 Cap Space: $9,034,167
2020-21 Cap Space: $36,055,834
Why the Devils Acquire Miller, Callahan
The Lightning are tight on money and need to sign Brayden Point, who’s a restricted free agent and due for a big pay raise. The Devils, on the other hand, have plenty of room to take on some salary. That makes them the perfect trade partner for Callahan, whose contract the Lightning need to get off their books.
As a sweetener for Callahan, Miller waives his modified no-trade clause (M-NTC) to head to the Devils. He’s no stranger to the New York City area as he was a New York Rangers draft pick and played six seasons with them before being traded to the Lightning.
Miller has quietly been a productive top-six forward during his NHL career. He’s averaged 1.80 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five since 2016, and he has a goals above replacement (GAR) of 22.7, which places him between Timo Meier and James van Riemsdyk, two reliable top-six wingers.
Callahan isn’t the player he once was, but that’s OK. Miller is the focal point of the trade, and the key is that Callahan’s contract expires after 2019-20. He won’t have any impact on a potential extension with Hall and it puts Shero in a good position to re-sign Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier, both of whom will be RFAs next summer, without having his hands tied.
Gardiner, Pirri, and Prospects
Since the Devils picked up Miller through a trade, they will look to free agency for help on defense. Jake Gardiner is their man as he signs a max deal paying him $6.95 million annually. He’s a left-handed shot and can play top-pair minutes, which is their biggest need on defense. If you’re skeptical, he can be a no. 1 defenseman, he has a GAR of 35.6 since 2016, ranked ninth among NHL blueliners.
Their next signing would be Brandon Pirri, who scored at a 30-goal pace in limited action with the Vegas Golden Knights. He’s the perfect option to replace Wood, who went to the Lightning in the Miller trade, and he’ll come at a good price. Pirri averaged 1.91 P/60 in 2017-18, so he might be able to add a bit more offense than Wood, who averaged 1.56 P/60.
The remaining available roster spots are left for the Devils’ top two prospects, Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist. Smith was named CHL Defenseman of the Year, while Boqvist had one of the most productive campaigns by a U-21 forward in the SHL (Sweden). They should both be able to help the Devils’ depth in 2019-20.
Scenario Two: Devils Sign Nyquist, Donskoi; Acquire Colin Miller
The Devils acquire defenseman Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick, and Michael McLeod.
Free Agent Signings
Forward Gustav Nyquist signs a six-year contract worth $5.75 million per season. Forward Joonas Donskoi signs a three-year deal that comes with a cap hit of $2.8 million.
The Devils select Hughes with the first-overall pick, while Smith makes the team. Right wing Joey Anderson, who played in 34 NHL games in 2017-18, earns a spot, too.
Devils 2019-20 Roster
- Hall – Hischier – Bratt
- Nyquist – Hughes – Palmieri
- Coleman – Zajac – Donskoi
- Wood – Zacha – Anderson
- Vatanen – Miller
- Butcher – Severson
- Greene – Smith
2019-20 Cap Space: $12,934,167
2020-21 Cap Space: $34,005,834
Nyquist, Donskoi Will Provide Value
In looking for upgrades up front, the Devils will sign Nyquist and Donskoi through free agency. Nyquist had one of his best seasons in 2018-19, finishing with 60 points in 81 games between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks. He has a GAR of 26.7 since 2016, placing him between Mika Zibanejad and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Another reason to sign Nyquist is because of his versatility, as he can play either wing, which is valuable if the Devils need to move him around the lineup. He’d be a big boost for their second line and would give it the consistent scoring punch it hasn’t had in a while.
Donskoi may not have Nyquist’s scoring output, but he’d be a significant lift for the Devils’ bottom six. He’s an absolute beast at five-on-five and has a GAR of 19.4 since 2016. He’s the perfect third-liner and would provide even more depth behind an improved second line with Nyquist.
Part of the appeal of signing these two will be the value of their deals. If they sign for something around their projections, it’ll be a combined cap hit of $8.675 million. The Devils would be getting a significant upgrade with each of them and wouldn’t be breaking the bank in the process. That’s how to make the most out of free agency.
Don’t Sleep on Colin Miller
There hasn’t been a ton of talk around Miller, but he’s rumored to be available, with the Golden Knights needing to shed some salary. He’s 14th on TSN’s trade bait list, and he should have his fair share of suitors as a 26-year-old, right-handed shot with a cap hit of $3.875 million through 2021-22.
The Devils are in a good spot with Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson as their right-handed defensemen. But that shouldn’t stop them from pursuing Miller, as his career has taken off since the Golden Knights selected him in the 2017 Expansion Draft. He finished 2017-18 with 41 points in 79 games and produced at a 36.5-point pace this past season.
Miller’s underlying numbers are pretty impressive, too. He has an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 55.48 percent in 147 games with the Golden Knights, ranked second among their defensemen. He’s also compiled a GAR of 14.9, ranking him ahead of Jacob Trouba and P.K. Subban, both of whom are said to be available this summer.
Even though Miller would give the Devils three right-handed shots in their top four, they can make it work. Vatanen has played on his weak side before, as recently as this season, so it shouldn’t be too difficult a transition. Given Miller’s contract and on-ice results, he’s the smart investment Shero should look to make in the trade market.
The common denominator among the Devils’ prospects is Smith. As someone who was named the top CHL defenseman, it’s hard to imagine him not being in the NHL in 2019-20. Right winger Joey Anderson takes the last spot up front as a fourth-liner. He has a strong two-way game and can play on the penalty kill, which makes him ideal for that role.
Which Devils’ Roster Offers the Most Improvement?
Both scenarios have their pros and cons. J.T. Miller is only 26 years old and is on a friendly contract, so that’s a positive over signing the 29-year-old Nyquist. With that said, Nyquist seems to be the better choice of the two forwards despite his age.
He has a noticeable advantage over Miller in offensive goals scored (Off_GF), shot attempts created (Off_CF), and expected goals created (Off_xG). And while he isn’t a shutdown, defensive forward, he has a positive defensive impact (Def_CF, Def_xG) unlike Miller, who gives up a fair bit more than Nyquist in his own end.
On defense, it comes down to whether you prefer Gardiner or Colin Miller. Gardiner would be a massive improvement for their blue line and is the best addition on defense in each of the two rosters. But let’s not downplay Miller and what he could do for the Devils.
Gardiner is an elite offensive defenseman. He has a significant impact on goals scored (Off_GF) as well as creating shot attempts (Off_CF) and expected goals (Off_xG). With that said, Miller seems to have the advantage in his own end. Gardiner isn’t a slouch on defense by any means, but Miller has a noticeable edge in defensive shot attempts (Def_CF) and expected goals allowed (Def_xG).
Which roster to choose? Both would improve the Devils, but the additions of Nyquist, Donskoi, and Hughes give them more of an upgrade on offense than Miller, Pirri, and Hughes. Colin Miller isn’t much of a downgrade from Gardiner, either. Those moves are good enough to get the Devils back to the postseason, and if they get Hall to sign an extension, then it’ll be a successful summer.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey. All free agent signings are based off contract projections from @EvolvingWild. All rosters were constructed using CapFriendly’s Armchair GM feature.
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017