Treff: The Devils Are Looking To Take The Next Step As Free Agency Approaches

Welcome to NY Sportsday’s 2018 NHL draft coverage.

We begin today and will take you through the three local Development Camps this summer. With the Islanders and the Rangers going through so many changes and having so many needs, their situation is very different than that taking place across the river with the Devils, who for after years of being in rebuild mode, now seem to be on the playoff track for the foreseeable future.  We will start with the easier team (the Devils) and work up to the Rangers, who are in full rebuild mode.

Let’s start with background–who is signed, what the team’s UFA/RFA status is, and roster room, as we begin to see what the strengths and weaknesses are for each team for the 2018-19 season and into the future. We will also analyze the strength of the organization as respects prospects, and look at their drafting trends over recent years).

Today, we will look at the Devils, their roster and their free agency issues at each position.

New Jersey Devils

2017-18 Regular Season Record: 44-29-9

2018-19 Signed Current Cap: $55,101,667*

Contracts Signed: 33*

RFAs & UFAs This Summer: 19 (9 RFAs; 10 UFAs)

No. of 2018 Draft Picks:  6

First round pick(s):  No. 17

After making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the Devils faced the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Clearly outmatched by the Lightning’s superior talent, New Jersey’s run was over in 5 games.  But, the team had improved so much this season there is a lot of hope for the future. This past year’s new additions—particularly Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Patrick Maroon, Brian Boyle, Will Butcher, and Sami Vatanen—had an enormous effect on the team’s record and competitiveness night after night. And had Marcus Johansson not been injured for more than half the season, it is likely that the Devils’ record would have had New Jersey playing another opponent in the first round–and very possibly moving on to at least the conference semi-finals this spring.  

In any case, only nine forwards are under contract for the 2018-19 season. Maroon is the top forward UFA come July 1, with Michael Grabner not far behind. With 13 points in 17 regular season games after his trade from Anaheim, Maroon was a perfect fit with the Devils system. A big, tough, north-south winger with offensive skill, the Devils would like him to stay. The negotiation questions include how long of a contract New Jersey willing to give the 30-year-old forward who is looking for at least another 3-year deal (and a NTC, if he can get it).      

As far as Grabner goes, although on paper, he looked like a good fit when he was coming from the Rangers before the trade deadline, the reality was that Grabner was not very productive after he crossed the river on February 23. His two goals and three assists in 21 games reflected the fact that the Devils play a different type of game than the Rangers did last season, and Grabner had difficulty finding a place in New Jersey. For Grabner now, the trade was a problem as he was on his way to having a .5 PPG year, before dropping to .24 PPG after the trade. The misfit with New Jersey cost the 30-year-old in his contract value. He still has lots of speed and is still one of the most dangerous PK threats in the league, but his expectation of obtaining a nice increase on his $1.65 million/yr 2016-18 contract has taken a hit. He certainly should find a home (maybe even in the New York area), but I do not think that New Jersey is that place.  

As far as defensive UFAs go, 27-year-old John Moore just completed his first UFA contract. He had signed with the Devils on 7/1/2015 for three years and this last season made $1.95 million. A second- to third-pairing LD, Moore now will be looking for $3-4 million and a good term on this next contract. Although Moore has indicated a desire to stay in New Jersey, the question is do they want to invest that money in him for the kind of term a 27-year-old is looking for (which could be up to five years).

Before making any such prediction, we need to look at the state of the Devils’ defense—who is there today and who is in the system.

In total, there are 19 players either on the NHL roster or in the system—12 are left handed and 7 shoot from the right side. In addition to Moore, who is a UFA, there are two RFAs this summer—Michael Kapla and Steve Santini. Expect both Kapla (age 23, who shoots left) and Santini (age 23, who shoots right) to be signed soon–both are coming off their ELCs and played in New Jersey and Binghamton last season. Each will get a long look in training camp, in the hopes of becoming the seventh defenseman on the team.

The team currently has five blueliners who (absent a trade or injury) will definitely open the season on the NHL roster–Andy Greene, Vatenan, Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, and Butcher.  If Moore is re-signed, that would leave only one open spot on the blueline, likely to go to Mirco Mueller or Steve Santini (both of whom would have to go through waivers to be sent down to the AHL level; Kapla is waivers exempt). But in addition to the possibility of the Devils not re-signing Moore, New Jersey could choose to make a trade. With significant cap available and, therefore, a lot of flexibility, do not be surprised if a move is made.

Looking at the system, there are few high end defensive prospects. Three (Josh Jacobs, Reilly Walsh, and Colby Sissons) stand out, but none of those three are currently considered a potential number one defenseman. With Greene’s aging, the Devils have to be asking who will take his place as the number one D-man on the team. Vatenan, at age 27, is a potential number one or two, but there are questions about his defensive play after seven years of NA pro play. Butcher, at age 23, has completed a very impressive rookie season, but does he have first pairing potential or will he be mostly a power play specialist?  It remains to be seen.

There are, however, four top defensive prospects in the draft. Should the Devils move up to get one? It is something to think about, and something that we will discuss in the coming days.    

Four forward RFAs played with the NHL team for at least part of the 2017-18 season—Miles Wood, Stefan Noesen, Nick Lappin, and Blake Coleman. Lappin, Noesen, and Coleman are arbitration-eligible. Lappin is 25 years old and two years out of college. He has put up excellent AHL numbers the past two seasons in Binghamton; however, that has not converted to success in the NHL. Although he is arbitration eligible, expect Lappin to get a standard contract for one year at near the NHL minimum, to give himself a chance to prove himself. At age 25, Noesen had somewhat of a breakout season in 2017-18, his first full season in the “show.” He is expected to be rewarded for it. An excellent role player for this team, making a bit above the NHL minimum during the 2017-18 season, the arbitration-eligible Noesen is likely getting a hefty raise and a longer deal this coming summer. Wood is coming off his ELC (and is not arbitration-eligible); expect him to get less than Noesen, even though in the long run, he may prove more valuable to the team. Coleman, who is also arbitration eligible, is also due a hefty raise. He played extremely well in his bottom six role last season and should get a lot more than the under a million dollars (with performance bonuses) that he played for during the 2017-18 campaign.

All three should be signed and remain on the NHL roster next season. Together with Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Johansson, Boyle, Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Bratt, there would be 11 forwards signed and ready to play on the NHL roster to open the 2018-19 season. Add Maroon to the group and that would be 12. Lappin would be number 13. Potential prospects to compete for NHL roster spots next fall are the recently signed Joey Anderson (unlikely to go straight from Minnesota-Duluth to the NHL), Michael McLeod (likely to start the season in Binghamton), and John Quenneville (who has put up very good AHL numbers for two seasons but not been ready for this level of play when called up). Two to three of either these players and/or others can be slotted into roles, but the majority of the roster for next season is set.

In goal, New Jersey has both Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid under contract. Thirty-two year-old Schneider is signed for four more seasons; the backup Kinkaid (age 28) is signed for one more in a Devils’ uniform. Although designated a backup, Kinkaid appeared in half of the regular season games in 2017-18 and amassed a 2.77 GAA and a 91.3% save percentage. In addition, he played very well for the USA team in the World Championships. The issue here is that, although he is the backup to Schneider, it is not clear that at this point, he should be. And with another year left on his contract, the Devils could trade Kinkaid and get very good value for him.   

A possible backup is free agent veteran netminder Eddie Lack, who came to New Jersey from Calgary during the 2017-18 season.  The UFA appeared in only four games for the Devils last season, with very mediocre results, but he may be a solution until RFA Ken Appleby or Mackenzie Blackwood are ready to backup in New Jersey. The arbitration- and waivers-exempt Appleby could be NHL-ready as soon as this season and can be brought up and sent down as appropriate.

All in all, this team looks pretty strong for next season, with some defensive question marks, but at least two forwards scoring lines and a solid third line that won’t be pushed around. What is needed is a strengthening of the prospects in the system, which is pretty depleted and need to be strengthened if a Cup run is in the cards two to three years down the road. Tomorrow we will discuss this, the team’s drafting history, and this year’s picks.


About the Author

Leslie Treff

Leslie Treff is a contributor for NY Sports Day, covering NY NHL teams. She has been covering the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils for more than 15 seasons. Leslie is a recognized expert in hockey prospects and has served as a scout for several independent agencies. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in her former life, Leslie was an attorney in the judiciary in New York City.

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