There are quite a few NHL clubs heading for a salary cap crunch this summer, and New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero has used situations like this to his strength in the past. He has been known to flip draft picks and prospects to teams in cap trouble in exchange for NHL-ready talent such a Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson.
With the NHL projecting a salary cap of $83 million for next season, the Devils are sitting pretty with over $35.5 million in available cap space. This puts the organization in the perfect position to strike a deal with a cap-strapped team to bring in some much-needed depth.
Here are some potential teams and targets the Devils should pursue:
Vegas Golden Knights
Projected Cap Hit: $83,124,999
Projected Cap Space: $0
After acquiring Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and given the upcoming contract negotiations with restricted free agent William Karlsson, the Vegas Golden Knights are in some serious cap trouble.
It’s probable that Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon will need to free up some salary via trade, but they might not be interested in acquiring draft picks, since they have nine picks in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. If the two sides can work out a deal, potential targets are Ryan Reaves and Nikita Gusev.
The 32-year-old veteran has one year left on his contract and is owed $2,775,000 per year through 2020. He’s coming off a career season in which he recorded a career high in goals (9), assists (11), and points (20), but his true value can be found away from the score sheet.
Reaves is one of the more popular role players in the league and brings a combination of physicality, toughness, and grit to the team. He used to be classified as a goon, but it looks like he’s taken on more of a leadership role as his career has progressed. His responsible play also earned him a career high in ice time this season (10:52) while recording less than a penalty minute per game for the first time in his career.
After dealing Brian Boyle and Ben Lovejoy to contenders this season, the Devils are in need of some veteran leadership in the locker room as well as some role players. Reaves fits that bill, and he’s also one of the best fighters in the league and can be used to protect players like Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes if the Devils select him first overall in June.
Nikita Gusev is an interesting case. Assuming the 26-year-old left winger wants to come to the NHL next season, he would need to sign an entry-level deal for at least $925,000 before signing bonuses, which could be too steep for the cap-strapped Golden Knights. The Devils will need to trade for his rights, similar to what the New York Rangers did with Adam Fox a few weeks ago.
Gusev is coming off a terrific season in the KHL in which he recorded a career-high 82 points (17 goals, 65 assists) in 62 games for SKA St. Petersburg, which is even more impressive when you consider the fact that he lost teammates Ilya Kovalchuk and Vadim Shipachyov to the NHL prior to the start of the season. This marks the third straight season in which he finished his season in Russia with over a point-per-game, and according to Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, his 1.32 points-per-game in 2018-19 would have translated to 87 points in 82 games in the NHL.
Gusev thrives as a playmaker, and his pass-first mentality would compliment Hall and Palmieri, which would give the Devils more balance on offense and more talent up front.
Projected Cap Hit: $79,083,333
Projected Cap Space: $3,916,667
The Pittsburgh Penguins have about $79 million committed to 17 players for next season, and that doesn’t include qualifying offers for their three key RFAs, Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson, and Teddy Blueger.
Add in their ugly first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders and you can almost bet that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford will want to go into the 2019-20 season with a revamped roster and some salary cap flexibility to gear up for another postseason run.
The glaring difference between Vegas and Pittsburgh is that the Penguins could use some draft capital. Rutherford has just five picks in the upcoming draft, and he’s without a second or third-round pick. The Devils have three second-round picks and two third-round picks so, on the surface, Shero has some assets that can help his former club. One player the Devils can explore trading for is defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
The 27-year-old defenseman is coming off a career year in which he recorded three goals, 20 assists, and an outstanding plus-31 rating. Over his first six seasons with the Penguins, Dumoulin has developed into a top pair defenseman alongside Kris Letang and proved he can shut down some of the best players in the NHL with his
He is a physical presence at 6-foot-4, 207 pounds and can provide a nice boost to the left side of the Devils’ blue line by replacing the aging Andy Greene on the top pair.
His goals above replacement, which determines how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, was 9.2 last season. That puts him in the same category as Rasmus Dahlin and ahead of top defensemen, Miro Heiskanen, Jacob Trouba, and Duncan Keith. It also places him second on the Devils by a slim margin behind Will Butcher (9.8), yet well ahead of Damon Severson (2.4) and Sami Vatanen (2.1).
He also exits the defensive zone with possession at a modest rate and has a positive impact on shot contributions, which leads to more puck possession and is key to the system that head coach John Hynes has in place in New Jersey.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Projected Cap Hit: $74,423,331
Projected Cap Space: $8,576,669
Following arguably one of the biggest collapses in NHL history with a first-round exit after going 62-16-4 in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are set to deal with a salary cap crunch.
RFA Brayden Point is in line for a serious contract extension this summer and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is entering the final year of his team-friendly contract with a $3.5 million cap hit. Similar to the Penguins, the Lightning could also use some draft picks, as they have just six picks in the 2019 Draft, including two late seventh-round picks.
Should the Lightning turn to the Devils for some salary cap relief in exchange for draft picks, two players who might interest New Jersey are Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson.
Killorn is signed through the 2022-23 season at $4.45 million per year. While he might never top 20 goals, the 29-year-old veteran has remained fairly consistent since his first full season in Tampa in 2013, recording between 36 and 41 points in each of the past six seasons. It’s also worth noting that Killorn is good on both sides of the puck. The only times he finished as a minus was in his rookie season when he finished with a minus-six and in 2016-17 when he had a minus-nine.
His goals above replacement in 2018-19
Killorn is also an excellent penalty killer and a prototypical blue collar hockey player who can thrive in a bottom-six role in New Jersey.
Johnson is under contract through 2023-24 and is owed an average annual value of $5 million, a bargain given his production rates. The 28-year-old forward is coming off a modest season in which he matched a career high in goals (29) to go along with 18 assists.
Johnson has the exact repertoire the Devils need in a top-six forward. He’s fast, versatile (he can play all three forward positions), and can create offense. Over the course of the last two seasons, he has an expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) of 51.85 and a total scoring chance percentage (SCF%) of 50.87 at five-on-five. To put that into perspective, this puts Johnson in similar production categories as Evgeni Malkin (51.84 xGF% since 2017) and James van Riemsdyk (51.00 SCF% since 2017).
The tricky part in acquiring either Killorn or Johnson is that both have a no-trade clause and would have to approve a trade to New Jersey.
Projected Cap Hit: $72,919,294
Projected Cap Space: $10,080,706
With Brayden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom set to become unrestricted free agents in 2020 and two years left on Alex Ovechkin’s contract, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is in for a cap crunch when he looks to keep the team’s core intact as their window for the Stanley Cup remains open for at least one more season.
One Capitals player that could be expandable and help out the Devils is Andre Burakovsky.
While the Capitals might want to re-sign the 24-year-old left winger, the qualifying offer to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1 will cost $3.25 million, which is probably too steep for the team considering other core players such as Christian Djoos and Jakub Vrana are in line for new contracts as well.
Burakovsky has failed to reach the 20-goal plateau in the NHL to this point and has bounced in and out of the Washington lineup without finding his niche. However, the former first-round pick still has a ton of talent and might benefit from a change of scenery.
With limited ice time over the past three seasons, Burakovsky still averaged 1.91 points per 60 at even strength. That’s the same rate as Evander Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Justin Williams.
His shot contribution and puck possession stats over the past three seasons have been encouraging as well:
Burakovsky’s underlying numbers give plenty of reason to believe he can break out with consistent top-six minutes, which certainly won’t be an issue if he’s traded to the offense-deprived Devils organization.
With 10 total draft picks in the upcoming draft and a plethora of cap space, look for Shero to take advantage of one or more NHL clubs in salary cap trouble. The Devils are in dire need of talent and depth, and need every incentive to convince a player like Hall that they’re ready to compete. Look for Shero to pounce should the right opportunity present itself.
“Do everything you need to do to keep the passion alive and never forget that it is a privilege to do what you love” – Martin Brodeur