2018 Offseason Preview: New Jersey Devils

Now that the current Colorado franchise is out of the way, next up in DtFR’s offseason previews are the former Colorado Rockies: the New Jersey Devils!

Ending a five-year playoff drought is hard, but maintaining and growing upon that success can often be harder.

Such is the situation facing this young Devils squad headlined by Hart-finalist F Taylor Hall. New Jersey finished the season with a 44-29-9 record that was good enough for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, staving off the Florida Panthers by only a lone point for the second wild card.

One of Jersey’s best strengths was its special teams, both of which were ranked among the top-nine in the NHL. However, the next step for this club is to improve its average play at even-strength, the status at which most action takes place.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

To help the Devils in that effort,  they have the opportunity to take advantage of this deep draft class with the 17th-overall selection. Especially given their cap flexibility (New Jersey has almost $20 million in space available for this season, and that only grows even higher until no current players are under contract for the 2023-24 season), there’s certainly potential the Devils could flip this pick for a major return in NHL-ready talent.

However, lets assume that General Manager Ray Shero wants to keep this pick, shall we?

Should he do just that, I think Shero will select D Adam Ginning (Linköping HC), D Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), C Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP).

Smith and Wilde represent yet another two-way defenseman option for a team that already employs the services of D Will Butcher and D Sami Vatanen, while Ginning is definitely of the traditional, stay-at-home variety.

Should Thomas end up being the most attractive option to Shero, he certainly won’t be disappointed. In his first two seasons in the OHL, Thomas has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer, and he’s also vastly improved at his puck distribution in this most recent season with 59 assists to his credit (32 more than his rookie campaign).

Chances are slim Thomas would be ready for the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ripens a bit quicker than his peers. After all, his 81 points this season exceed that of presumed No. 2 overall pick RW Andrei Svechnikov (72 points) and barely trail Czech LW Filip Zadina (82 points).

Pending free agents

Like Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: “With great cap flexibility comes many new contracts.”

Something along those lines.

Looking just at the Devils forwards, eight players are pending free agents that need to be addressed before July 1. F Brian Gibbons, W Michael Grabner, RW Jimmy Hayes, W Patrick Maroon and W Drew Stafford are all currently slated to test unrestricted free agency, while F Blake Coleman, RW Stefan Noesen and LW Miles Wood are of the restricted variety.

Without a doubt, signing Maroon needs to be among Shero’s biggest priorities, as the former Oiler (how many of those currently play for the Devils?) provided .58 points per game last season – a mark that is made even better when only considering his production with New Jersey (.76 points per game in 17 contests). While Maroon’s 27-goal total from the 2016-17 season did drop off by 10 tallies last year, his usual production in even-strength play is just the help the Devils could use to improve.

10 players provided .58 points per game last season, amassing an average salary of over $3.25 million (three players earned $6 million). With 30-year-old Maroon coming off a three-year, $2 million deal, any contract under $4 million should be a win in Shero’s book.

27 goals in each of the last two seasons have seen Grabner revitalize his career just in time to test free agency and improve on the two-year, $1.65 million contract he signed with the Rangers a couple summers ago.

A pure goalscorer is a weapon Jersey could certainly use for a full season (unless you consider fellow pending free agent Gibbons’ 12 goals on 72 shots [.167 shooting percentage] to qualify him for sniper status), but there has to be fear that the Devils could end up with the same Grabner Toronto did three years ago: one making $3 million, but providing only nine markers and 18 points.

An interesting note in Grabner’s contract negotiation – whether it’s with New Jersey or any of the other 30 teams – will be the status of Stanley Cup champions W Andre Burakovsky and RW Tom Wilson. Both also finished their seasons with .45 points per game and will undoubtedly be receiving raises on their respective $3 million and $2 million contracts given their new hardware. If either are signed before Grabner, he’ll surely try to use their contracts as a benchmark in his own negotiations.

On the surface, a final 30-year-old worth a look is Gibbons, the player who brilliantly returned to the NHL last season after a 2.6-year stint in the AHL. Gibbons posted a breakout campaign with 12-14-26 totals in 59 games played. However, after suffering a broken right thumb in late January that required over a month to heal, he returned to provide only three assists in his last 16 showings (that includes the two playoff games against Tampa he participated in).

If it seems like he’s fully healed from that injury and ready to be a potent scoring threat from a bottom-six position, then perhaps Gibbons is worth another contract similar to the one-year, $650 thousand deal he played on last season. If not, Shero would be wise to let another team make the mistake of signing him based on his overall season statistics.

Simply put, neither Hayes and Stafford are worth big money. Shero can certainly afford to sign them to low-cost contracts, but he could also find players of a same or higher quality on the free agent market.

Wood represents the Devils’ best RFA, and at 23-years-old (as of September 13), he’ll likely get another contract. He’s coming off a three-year, $925 thousand contract and will likely receive a $1-1.5 million bridge contract.

John Moore and Steven Santini represent Jersey’s two defensive free agents, with the former being a pending UFA and the latter being a pending RFA. Both played top-four minutes per game last season, as well as averaging at least .22 points per game. They’re both worth new contracts.