Devils’ Scoring Woes Can Be Improved Through Free Agency

The New Jersey Devils have been quiet in free agency for some time, and it’s not by accident. General manager Ray Shero has been open about his feelings towards free agency and how it’s not the right way to build a team. But things could be different this summer. There’s a deep class of wingers who are slated to become unrestricted free agents (UFA), and Shero shouldn’t be afraid to target a few of them. Here are some names who should be of interest.

Jeff Skinner

Skinner is coming off a career-high 40-goal season with the Buffalo Sabres. The 26-year-old left winger was traded to the Sabres last summer after the Carolina Hurricanes determined he wasn’t part of their long-term plans. And with the Sabres yet to extend him, he could become one of the most sought-after UFAs.

Skinner has exactly what the Devils are looking for in a top-six forward. Since the start of last season, he’s averaged 1.99 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five and has averaged 30.2 goals per 82 games in his career. He also has impressive shot rates, with an expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) of 55.63 and 55.44 percent at five-on-five in each of the last two seasons.

Buffalo Sabres Jeff Skinner
Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner celebrates a game-winning goal. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The catch with Skinner is he will be one of the highest paid forwards this summer. Evolving Wild’s contract projections have him earning a seven-year deal worth almost $8.3 million per year. With Taylor Hall needing an extension and also being a left wing, it’d be a lot of money to tie into one position for the Devils. So a natural fit between these two sides may prove difficult.

Gustav Nyquist

Nyquist had one of the best seasons of his career in 2018-19. He finished with 60 points in 81 regular season games between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, who acquired him at the trade deadline to stock up for a deep postseason run. And he’s been a key part of that run, with 10 points through 16 playoff games.

Nyquist’s career season wasn’t a fluke, either, as he’s been a productive player over the last two seasons. He’s averaged 1.84 P/60, which puts him ahead of Mikael Granlund, Mats Zuccarello, and Gabriel Landeskog. He’s also posted an xGF% of 52.71 and 52.79 percent in each of the last two seasons.

Related: Devils’ Ideal Offseason Trade Targets

The Devils should be interested in Nyquist if he doesn’t re-sign with the Sharks. He’s a versatile forward who can play on either wing, and he shouldn’t come on a deal that will dent the team’s salary cap. He’s projected for a five-year deal worth just over $5.75 million a year; a price Shero should be willing to pay for the 29-year-old winger.

Anders Lee

Lee is one of a few key UFAs the New York Islanders hope to re-sign. The 28-year-old left wing finished this season with 28 goals and 51 points in 82 games played. He’s one year removed from a 40-goal campaign and two removed from finishing with 34. He was also named the team’s captain at the start of the 2018-19 season.

New York Islanders Anders Lee
New York Islanders’ Anders Lee celebrates with teammates (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Lee has been a productive player, averaging 1.79 P/60 since the start of last season. But where he has some added value is on the man advantage as his 24 power play goals are the 11th most in the NHL over the last two seasons. That would provide a much-needed spark to a Devils’ power play that has struggled for some time.

Smaller, skilled players have become the hot trend in the NHL, but the Devils’ could use some size up front. At 6-foot-3, 231 pounds, Lee would provide a combination of size and top-six production that can be hard to find, but he won’t come cheap. He’s projected for a seven-year deal worth more than $6.675 million per year. He could be Shero’s choice if he feels the need to add size and scoring, but there are more cost-effective options.

Micheal Ferland

Ferland is coming off a good season with the Hurricanes, where he finished with 17 goals and 40 points in 71 games played. It was his first season in Carolina after he was part of the trade that sent Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to the Calgary Flames for Dougie Hamilton and himself. He was rumored to be on the move again at this year’s deadline, making his future in Carolina seem uncertain.

If the Canes are willing to part with Ferland, they’d be losing a valuable role player. He finished with an xGF% of 52.57 percent and averaged 1.94 P/60 this season. In addition to his offense, he adds some physicality and is not afraid to throw his body around. He’s had some injuries as a result, so it’s something the Devils should take into consideration.

Micheal Ferland Carolina Hurricanes
Left wing Micheal Ferland would add physicality and scoring to the New Jersey Devils (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Ferland is a bit of a similar player to Anders Lee. His counting totals aren’t as good, but he produces at a higher rate at five-on-five. And the fact the Devils need someone like Ferland in their lineup should interest them. He could also be much cheaper than Lee as he’s projected to land a four-year deal worth $4.181 million per year. If that’s his asking price, he’d be a good fit for Shero’s offseason plans.

Richard Panik

Panik’s counting totals aren’t all that impressive. He finished with 14 goals and 33 points this season and has only eclipsed 20 goals once in his career. But where the 28-year-old winger has value is at five-on-five as he’s averaged 1.79 P/60 since the start of last season. He also has an xGF% of 51.54 and 53.37 percent in each of the last two seasons.

Related: Devils Should Pursue Gardiner, But at What Cost?

Shero has never been a big spender during free agency, which is why Panik may interest him. His current contract comes with a cap hit of $2.8 million, and he shouldn’t cost much more in free agency. If the Devils can sign him to a 3-4 year deal in between $4-4.5 million per year, he’d be a great value pickup. He can play either left or right wing and would fit in somewhere in the Devils’ middle six. A third line with Panik, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman would give the team some solid depth.

Jordan Eberle

Along with Lee, Eberle is another key UFA the Islanders could lose this summer. The idea of signing him is something that’s floated around with fans on social media and for good reason. He was Hall’s teammate on the Edmonton Oilers, and the two are best friends off the ice. He finished this season with 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games played, a down season by his standards.

Although his counting totals fell, he’s posted good numbers in his time with the Islanders. He has a 52.08 xGF% since the start of last season, and the Isles have controlled most of the scoring and high-danger chances with him on the ice. He’s also averaged 1.97 P/60 over the last two seasons, ranking him ahead of Jakub Voracek, Zach Parise, and Tyler Seguin.

Jordan Eberle
Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall could reunite on the New Jersey Devils. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What kind of contract Eberle fetches if he becomes a UFA will be interesting. He’s projected to get a max seven-year deal worth $6.05 million per year. That’s a high price to pay for someone who’s coming off a 37-point season, but the Devils need a top-six right wing. With that said, Shero would be better off paying someone like Nyquist, who’s a more consistent offensive player than Eberle. And he’d likely come on a cheaper deal.

Mats Zuccarello

Zuccarello probably isn’t the first name that pops to your head when thinking of this UFA class, but he’s going to improve some team this summer. He finished the season with 40 points in 48 games — a 68-point pace over 82 games — between the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars, who acquired him for a couple of draft picks at the Trade Deadline.

The Devils need someone who can contribute consistent offense, which is what makes Zuccarello an option. He’s averaged 59 points per 82 games since 2013-14 and has finished with less than 50 points only twice since then. He’ll also be able to help on the power play, where he has a higher P/60 than Artemi Panarin, Alex Ovechkin, and Mark Stone over the last two seasons.

Mats Zuccarello Rangers
Could former New York Ranger’ Mats Zuccarello join their cross-river rivals? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are two concerns with Zuccarello: his size and age. He’ll be 32 at the start of next season, and he’s only 5-foot-8, 184 pounds. Despite that, he checks off a lot of what the Devils need in a top-six winger. I wouldn’t give him a max contract, but at his projected four-year deal worth just above $6.2 million per season, he’d be a good pickup. Pairing him with Kyle Palmieri and potential first-overall pick, Jack Hughes, would make for a formidable second line.

Joonas Donskoi

Devils fans will probably riot if Donskoi is their top free agent signing, but his play will not disappoint you. The 27-year-old right wing finished the season with 14 goals and 37 points for the Sharks. That may not seem great, but he has similar five-on-five value to Panik. Here’s where his Corsi-For percentage (CF%), scoring chances for percentage (SCF%), high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) and xGF% rank among NHL forwards since the start of last season (min. 1000 minutes played):

  • CF%: 54.74 percent (26th)
  • SCF%: 55.27 percent (23rd)
  • HDCF%: 56.73 percent (19th)
  • xGF%: 57.73 percent (4th)

In case you were wondering, those rankings are out of 348 forwards that qualify. So, yeah, Donskoi is a pretty good hockey player. And the best part is he doesn’t project to earn a cap hit over $3 million on a three-year deal. If the Sharks don’t re-sign him, Shero needs to call Donskoi’s agent as soon as he can. Even if it’s to bring him in as a third liner, playing with Zajac and Coleman would give the Devils a dominant third line. And he has the versatility to move around the lineup if need be.

* * *

Advanced stats are at five-on-five except where noted and are from Natural Stat Trick. All contract projections are from @EvolvingWild.