Devils Should Target Golden Knights’ Cap Problems

The New Jersey Devils have had an active offseason already, and free agency hasn’t even started. They drafted Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, then followed it up by acquiring P.K. Subban in a blockbuster trade less than 24 hours later.

Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban will look to prove his doubters wrong with the New Jersey Devils (Photo from Christopher Hanewinckel – USA TODAY Sports)

Even after those two moves, there’s still work to be done. General manager Ray Shero has about $25 million dollars in available salary cap space, even after adding Subban’s $9 million cap hit. One way he can use that space is by dealing with cap-strapped teams like the Vegas Golden Knights.

After signing William Karlsson to an eight-year extension worth $5.9 million annually, the club is almost $8 million above the cap limit. They’ll have no choice but to free up some money, and they have a few targets that should interest the Devils.

Who Should the Devils Pursue?

Reilly Smith

Smith is one of the more underrated forwards in the league. The Golden Knights acquired him and Jonathan Marchessault from the Florida Panthers for just a fourth-round pick in 2017, and he’s been one of their top players. He finished with 22 goals and 60 points in 2017-18, and 19 goals and 53 points this past season.

Aside from his counting totals, Smith has performed well at 5-on-5. He’s averaged 2.17 points per 60 minutes (P/60), which is better than wingers such as William Nylander, Timo Meier, and Mikko Rantanen. Smith’s also had a noticeable positive impact when on the ice.

Reilly Smith’s RAPM Chart via Evolving Hockey

The chart does include Smith’s last season as a Panther (2016), but that doesn’t change much. He’s done well to create shot attempts (Off_CF) and expected goals (Off_xG), which has led to a positive impact on goals scored (Off_GF). But where he might not get as much attention is on defense as he’s done a great job preventing shot attempts (Def_CF) and expected goals (Def_xG).

Related: Subban is What the Devils’ Blue Line Needs

There’s a lot to like about Smith. He fills a positional need (right wing), and I could see him on a line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier because of his strong two-way game. His contract also fits in perfectly with the Devils’ long-term plans as he’s signed for through 2021-22 at $5 million per year. That’s when Subban’s contract and the entry-level deals of Jack Hughes, Jesper Boqvist, and Ty Smith expire, which works out perfectly.

Nikita Gusev

Gusev would be an interesting target for not only the Devils but any team looking to add scoring. He was a seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2012 but never played a game for them. In fact, he’s never played a game in the NHL. He’s spent his whole career in the KHL, with the last four seasons coming with SKA St. Petersburg.

During his stint with St. Petersburg, Gusev has been their top scorer. He finished with 82 points in 62 games in 2018-19 (for what it’s worth, that would translate to 65 points in the NHL, per Rob Vollman’s translation factor in the Hockey Abstract) and has averaged 1.21 points with St. Petersburg.

Nikita Gusev
Nikita Gusev (in blue) against Pavel Datsyuk. (Photo: Alexander Golovko)

Gusev is much more of a wild card than Smith, but his upside is probably higher. He’s 5-foot-11, 183 pounds and plays left wing so if that makes you think of fellow Russian, Artemi Panarin, that’s understandable. I don’t he’s the next Panarin, but he’s worth taking a gamble on. He’s one of a few restricted free agents (RFAs) the Golden Knights have to sign, and it’s going to be tough for them to fit him in.

It could be best for Shero to acquire Gusev as part of a package that includes David Clarkson’s contract, which has one year left on it. The Devils would have no trouble taking that on while re-signing Gusev, too. And it won’t hurt their cap down the road since Clarkson’s will be off the books after 2019-20.

Alex Tuch

Tuch has a similar story to Smith as he came to the Golden Knights in a similar fashion. He was acquired as part of a package that included Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild. He had a strong first season in Vegas, finishing with 37 points in 78 games, then followed it up with 52 points in 74 games in 2018-19.

He’s a 6-foot-4, 222-pound forward who can score, and the Devils could use a player like that in their lineup. His five-on-five play would be a welcomed addition, too. He’s averaged 2.06 P/60 and has had a similar on-ice impact as Smith.

Alex Tuch’s RAPM chart via Evolving Hockey

Whereas Smith had a more significant influence on defense, the opposite is true for Tuch. His ability to create shot attempts (Off_CF) and expected goals (Off_xG) is more pronounced than Smith’s at even strength. And the same can be said of his impact on scoring goals (Off_GF).

Of the three players mentioned here, Tuch has the biggest contract, at least when it comes to term. He signed a seven-year extension in Oct. 2018, which may seem like a bit of a risk. But he’s only 23 years old, so the Devils would be acquiring him with his best hockey still ahead of him. His cap hit is $4.75 million, so that’s not a problem, especially if the cap continues to rise over time.

The Perfect Target for Shero

The Golden Knights make plenty of sense as a trade partner. They have no cap space and need to move a lot of money, while the Devils can take on some salary such as Clarkson’s deal and then some. And they should be able to get someone who can give immediate results.

Related: Nyquist, Panik Should be Devils’ Top Free Agent Targets

Smith and Tuch have established themselves as legitimate top-six forwards. Gusev is more of an unknown, but the potential is there for him to contribute on a scoring line. Having him as a second-line left wing next to Jack Hughes and Kyle Palmieri could really give the Devils some punch up front. If it means taking on Clarkson’s cap hit to acquire one of these players, then so be it. But if it makes the team better, then Shero shouldn’t hesitate to make a deal.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey