Devils Should Target Donskoi & Pirri in Free Agency

Scoring depth was a big problem for the New Jersey Devils last season. Although injuries to key players didn’t help, they spent almost half a season rolling out replacement-level players in their bottom six. That can’t happen next season if they want to make the playoffs, so improving their depth is a must.

It’s a deep free agent (UFA) class up front, especially on the wing, so general manager Ray Shero should be able to add some talent. Two names that should interest him are San Jose Sharks’ winger Joonas Donskoi and Vegas Golden Knights’ winger Brandon Pirri. Both will be UFAs on July 1 if they don’t re-sign with their teams and would be perfect fits for the Devils.

Donskoi Is the Ideal Bottom-Six Forward

Donskoi probably isn’t the first name you think of in this UFA class, and I can understand why. He finished with 14 goals and 37 points in 80 games played and has never finished with more than 37 points in a regular season. Nothing too exciting, but there is a lot to like about his game.

Joonas Donskoi
Joonas Donskoi will be a great value signing for some NHL team this summer. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

One of Donskoi’s biggest strengths is his play at five-on-five, an area where the Devils could use a boost. Here’s where his Corsi for percentage (CF%), scoring chances for percentage (SCF%), high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%), and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) rank among forward with 1500 minutes played over the last three seasons:

  • CF%: 54.74 percent (24th)
  • SCF%: 55.27 percent (19th)
  • HDCF%: 56.73 percent (14th)
  • xGF%: 57.37 percent (2nd)

Those rankings are out of 246 forwards that qualified, and only Mikael Granlund has a better xGF% than him. And even though his counting totals aren’t all that impressive, Donskoi has produced at five-on-five, where he’s averaged 1.88 points per 60 minutes since the start of last season, ranked fifth on the Sharks. He also gets things done in all three zones of the ice.

He’s a strong shot contributor, enters the offensive zone with puck possession at a high rate, and can help transition the puck out of the defensive zone. The Devils lack that type of player in their bottom six, at least one with his consistency, so he’ll be a pretty noticeable improvemen.

Related: Devils’ Scoring Woes Can Be Improved Through Free Agency

Shero does not like to spend big in free agency, and that’s why Donskoi should interest him. Evolving Wild’s contract projections have him landing a three-year deal around $2.8 million per season. He’s a steal at that price and would be the perfect winger alongside Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac on the Devils’ third line. So there’s no reason he shouldn’t be on Shero’s short list.

Pirri Belongs on an NHL Roster

I’ve always wondered why Pirri can’t stick with an NHL team, and this season kept me wondering. He finished with 12 goals in 31 games played, which comes out to a 31.74-goal pace over 82 games. When he wasn’t playing in the NHL, he was dominating the AHL, with 42 points in 29 games played. Pirri’s underlying numbers suggest he should’ve maintained a spot in the NHL, too. Here’s where his CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and xGF% ranked on the Golden Knights:

  • CF%: 56.69 percent (6th)
  • SCF%: 59.55 percent (4th)
  • HDCF%: 57.60 percent (11th)
  • xGF%: 60.44 percent (3rd)

Those aren’t numbers that say he should be going back and forth between the AHL and NHL. And his goals above replacement of 5.7, which shows how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, suggests the same as it ranked eighth on the Golden Knights.

If you weren’t familiar with Pirri and are now wondering why he wasn’t a regular in the NHL, then welcome to the club. With that said, he only played in 31 games, so it is fair to be skeptical given the small sample size. Pirri’s previous NHL season was in 2016-17 with the New York Rangers, and if we combine his data from that season via a RAPM chart, it shows his impact a bit better.

Via Evolving Hockey

If you aren’t familiar with a RAPM chart, the quick summary is it measures a player’s performance, independent of both his teammates and opponents (via Blueshirts Breakaway). Pirri is not a game-breaking offensive threat, but the light purple indicates he has a positive impact scoring goals (Off_GF) and on expected goals (Off_xG), as well as generating shot attempts (Off_CF). He doesn’t get much power play time, but he’s effective when given the minutes. His impact in the defensive zone (Def_CF, Def_xG) isn’t as good, but he isn’t a burden, either.

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

Pirri is projected to fetch a one-year deal worth $1.175 million, and every team should be calling him for that price. He’d be an upgrade to the Devils’ fourth line, but Shero probably wants to leave a spot open for a prospect to make the team, too. That’s a risk the Devils took last season, and it didn’t work out, so signing Pirri would be the better option.

Devils Can Add Great Value

The Devils will have around $36 million in cap space on July 1 if the salary cap rises to $83 million as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says it will. If Donskoi and Pirri go for around their projected deals, it’ll cost Shero less than $4.5 million combined to sign each player. They’re both upgrades for the team’s bottom six and will help shore up their depth. And it allows the Devils to do other things in free agency and the trade market.

Vegas Golden Knights Brandon Pirri
Vegas Golden Knights center Brandon Pirri celebrates after scoring a goal (AP Photo/John Locher)

Shero talked about adding more talent at the close of the regular season. Donskoi and Pirri would do that, but they also won’t handcuff Shero from adding a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman, both of which are priorities this offseason. Those additions, along with Donskoi or Pirri (or both), and the Devils will be a much-improved team in 2019-20.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey. Contract projections from Luke and Josh of @EvolvingWild.