One of the only benefits to having an awful hockey team is that it is often inexpensive to create one. The Devils have come to know this reality all to well. In fact, Ray Shero become something of an expert at using cap space to his advantage.
The two big examples of this were when he acquired Marcus Johansson from the cap-strapped Caps and when he bought P.K. Subban for pennies on the dollar in player-value because of his price tag.
Now, neither of those moves really turned out great — but both were lauded as expert manipulation of the salary cap at the time of the transaction. The Devils find themselves in a circumstance now in which they will have the most cap space, entering a flat-cap season where a lot of teams will not be operating with the budget they had anticipated. John talked about this on Monday. So today we want to answer, specifically, how can the Devils best take advantage of their cap space?
1) Free Agency
The most obvious way to use money to your advantage is to outbid other teams when purchasing talent. Even though the timing is off, free agency will still happen at some point in time. Now, everyone can go and get a free agent, but what makes the Devils uniquely situated is the size of the commitment they’d be able to make. So they may be less deterred from when it comes to big investments.
This isn’t to say that the should do that — I’ll talk a little about what I think is appropriate at the end of this piece — but they will be one of the few teams that will be able to do it. With that, let’s look at the top 10 projected contracts according to Evolving Hockey, and see what might work out.
So the top 10 available players includes 4 forwards and 6 defencemen. Given the Devils particular needs at the moment, this does seem to tee us up to reap the rewards of our cap space. NJ brass thought they had acquired a true #1 D-man in P.K. Subban last year — they didn’t and they could take another shot this time around. But let’s see what the recent production for each of these players looks like. Here is the last 5 years of xGAR (expected goals above replacement) value for each of the 10 players listed (again, from Evolving Hockey).
The one that sticks out to me is the top UFA D-man available — Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues would be hard-pressed to let their captain walk, especially being just a year removed from a Stanley Cup, but they may not have much of a choice. They have no other big contracts coming off the books, they’re hamstrung by a few NTCs, and Pietrangelo is slated for a $2M+ raise in cap space they do not currently have. He is the 3rd most valuable defender according to xGAR over the past 3 seasons behind only Jared Spurgeon and Dougie Hamilton. Now, a move like this doesn’t come without risk — he is 30-years-old and probably in line for a long contract. I don’t care if it’s Bobby Orr, spending $8M+ on a 38-year-old is not typically a winning strategy.
A lower-cost alternative could be Erik Gustafsson. Last year (18-19), he put up 60 points while playing 22 minutes a game. He will only be 28 and is coming off a bit of a down year which means he’ll require less of an investment with regards to term. I sense that a lot of teams may not be willing to shell out over $6M for 5 years. Also, he is a lefty which we are currently somewhat starved for.
And, at last, I’d be remiss not to at least mention that our old friend Taylor Hall is on this list. Shero seemed fairly eager to sign him long-term before he knew we were gonna suck this year. It stands to reason that Fitz would be open to the same. We’ve discussed on this site multiple times what would be appropriate for Hall to receive and he is now likely far less expensive given his struggles to stay healthy and effective the past two seasons. Now, there’s a reason that the price is lower and Devils fans are plenty familiar with his difficulties staying healthy. But he was also the Devils leader in points at the time of his trade this year and was the leader in points like a month after his injury the year before so his ability to produce dangerous events was still clear, even if other parts of his game (his defense, specifically) fell off.
Shero is gone, but his protege lives on. Tom Fitzgerald made some pretty popular deadline moves that were reminiscent of his predecessor, so if he can capitalize on the moment like Shero did to land PK and Mojo, maybe he’ll be a little more fortunate in how it turns out. There are a couple ways to take advantage of teams’ cap struggles. On is to just outright relieve cap pressure by accepting a contract for an expensive replacement-level (or below) player and be given a “thank you” for doing so in the form of a draft pick or prospect. Another way is to get a good player on a discount because the seller is needs to shed salary to make room for other, even better players.
What Shero was able to do was to find these teams that were either already, or very soon likely to be under tremendous cap pressure. He could offer them a safety valve to keep whatever they perceive their “core” to be in tact, while also remaining cap compliant. So, when considering possible trade, we need to look at what teams are up against the cap and likely to need relief. There are a ton of teams that could feasibly find themselves in trouble if they decide to make some big moves, but there’s a few that are kind of already in a bit of a sticky wicket (I swear I didn’t know I was going to type that phrase until I did, but it’s here and I’m keeping it).
Some of them we’ve mentioned already. If St. Louis decides they want to keep Pietrangelo, then he is taken off the UFA list above, but in order to do so they need to ditch cap space elsewhere. It’s tough to know exactly what they are most willing to part with, but a quick and temporary patch would be if we took Alex Steen off their hands. He’s going to be 37, played only 14 minutes a game last year, put up 17 points in 55 games, and is getting paid $5.75M for another season. They have way more contracts coming off the books next year and so they may be interested in buying themselves a year. We may be able to acquire or upgrade a draft pick or prospect in exchange just for taking that contract off their hands. Steen has an NTC, though, so he’d have to approve it and it seems unlikely he would given how insulting that trade is. If not him, there are a few other contracts expiring soon that we could probably take if we want. Tyler Bozak is overpaid at $5M for another year and only has a modified no-trade (10-team no-trade list). He’s a veteran center who is far from dynamic, but is great in the faceoff circle and plays in all three situations (stop if you’ve heard this before, Travis Zajac).
Another team we mentioned already was Arizona. If they want to keep Hall — who led them in points, shots, ATOI among forwards, and penalties drawn after being acquired — then they will likely need to free up space elsewhere in the ledger. They are a little tougher because they have a clear albatross of a roster in Ekman-Larsson who has been on a downslope the last 4 years and is getting over $8 million forever, basically. I don’t really want a part of that deal, and I bet they don’t even perceive him to be a problem. Also, he has an NMC. Hjalmarsson would be next on the list — overpaid for his role on that team, but still am effective defensive defender. He, too, has an NMC, but would become a very important piece here and he might relish the opportunity. The last option there is Phill Kessel. That may be exciting to some because he can probably be had for not much given his cap hit, and he still scores. But he’s one of the worst impact players in the entire league and analytics folks will want no part of him. So Arizona is actually kinda tough to take advantage of here without cooperation from the player to be traded.
The last one we’ll consider here in earnest is the Lightning. They have a ton of talent that they’ve locked up and they are ready (and have been ready) to compete for years. But, they’ve already shown a willingness to sacrifice their distant future to preserve the near one in the Blake Coleman trade. His cost-controlled cap hit was so appealing, they gave up a top tier prospect AND a first-rounder for him. I think the best way to see the Lightning’s problem is just to look at it. The below is from CapFriendly.
As you can see, basically all of their contracts that are coming off the books are either cheap guys that don’t free up much room if they aren’t re-signed (ex: Bogosian), or cheap guys that need bigger contracts (ex: Cirelli). And in order to make room for the latter, they need to make some fairly substantial moves. Their $6M+ tier is all guys that are actually good so they’ll hold them. But the $5M tier of Palat, Gourde, and Johnson basically make up an extremely expensive 2nd line of forwards. Unlike the previous two examples, this roster has actually good players that we can acquire in a trade. Those 3 may be overpaid, but they’re could certainly still be helpful, and Tampa would be thrilled to be able to slide Cirelli into one of their spots to be locked up long-term. Once again, ALL THREE have NTCs, so we’d need approval.
3) Do Nothing
By all accounts the Devils will not be good in 2021. Why bother wasting an asset — cap space — to make the team improve from the 26th best team to the 22nd best team? We have potentially 3 1st-round picks in an extremely talented draft, we have Bratt and Blackwood’s contracts coming up now, just as Nico gets his $7M promotion, and then next summer is Palmieri and Gusev.
Would it be such a bad thing to just keep our options open rather that trying to prove to the league how clever we are?
There is an expansion draft coming up, and a lot of buzz last time was around how the Devils could take advantage of their position heading into it, but Vegas decided they were going to be the only ones benefiting from the draft and kinda threw a wrench into that plan. It’s unclear if Seattle will do the same, but it worked pretty well for Vegas so it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to try it again.
What I’m saying is that we’ll probably see this cap freeze extended, and an expansion draft thrown into the works. And heading into all of that with the flexibility to do basically whatever we want is not the worst thing in the world.
Concluding Thoughts and Your Thoughts
I think that we should be calling Tampa nonstop. There’s so much talent there, and so much cap pressure, that we have to be able to squeeze something out of them. If that falls through, I think investigating some UFAs could be warranted, but I’d like to avoid any deals over 5 years — big money, short-term is what we’re well-suited to offer right now. And if the UFA options aren’t there, I’m honestly content with #3.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a GM is recognizing what not to do. Let the game come to you.
What do you guys think? Are there any teams that you think we should approach? What type of trade would you look for? Do you think any of them will waive their NMC/NTCs? What about UFAs? Any of the big names appeal? What about smaller ones that I didn’t mention?
Leave your thoughts on these and anything else about the piece in the comments below. Thanks for reading!