As was said last night, the 56-game season has been tentatively agreed upon between the NHL and NHLPA – and the Devils have a report date for camp of December 30. There’s a lot to be done around the league in the coming days if players are to be ready for training camp and the January 13 season, and the Devils could have a key part in aiding some teams get under the cap ceiling. Additionally, there are some unrestricted free agents who are signing for very cheap – Anthony Duclair just signed in Florida for $1.7 million over one year. Other players are probably in similar situations of not having offers fitting their level of production.
The New Jersey Devils will have no trouble being over the cap floor next season, as long as they don’t trade away any of their big contracts. Being just $4.1 million over the cap floor means the Devils might have difficulty unloading certain players before the trade deadline (if that’s the route Tom Fitzgerald wants to keep taking) – though the signings of Jesper Bratt and MacKenzie Blackwood should bring the team closer to being around $10 million over the cap floor However, being the team with the most projected cap space means the Devils have a lot of maneuverability in the present moment. According to CapFriendly, nine teams are projected to be over the cap ceiling. Some teams, like Edmonton and Winnipeg, might be able to wiggle under without resorting to trades. However, The other seven teams range from about $900,000 to $2.7 million over the cap ceiling – and they will likely need help getting under barring any possible usages of LTIR. And some, like the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning still have to sign restricted free agents. Other teams like the New York Islanders (Mat Barzal) and Columbus Blue Jackets (Pierre Luc-Dubois) might have to make moves before signing their RFAs so they don’t end up over the ceiling.
The Devils are in a good place, money wise. They have not overcommitted and hold the keys to some teams being able to get under that ceiling as soon as possible. Let’s go over a few trade partners the Devils should think about in the next week.
The Arizona Coyotes
Remember the ordeal the Devils went through when they signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a ridiculous contract? Remember the penalties they were dished by the league? Well, just a year earlier the Blackhawks had signed Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract that went from a salary of $7.9 million the first seven years, followed by a $4 million season, and four $1 million years. There was probably never any intention of Hossa finishing that contract on the ice – and Hossa stopped playing due to his skin condition after making $4 million in 2016-17. He was soon after traded to Arizona. His cap hit is still $5.275 million, and the Coyotes will need to figure out what to do with it. The Devils could probably take the contract from the Coyotes in exchange for a late-round draft pick, as the salary owed is only $1 million (in an 82 game season, which this is not). Doing such would bring the Coyotes under the ceiling. The Coyotes also need to be careful, as Barrett Hayton could earn up to $1.75 million in performance bonuses – which could further complicate their situation at the end of the season if they do not move someone before then.
Alternatively, the Coyotes have some large contracts they will need to think about shedding. I would shy away from bringing Phil Kessel anywhere near this team, but the Devils could probably make great use out of players such as Derek Stepan – who has a $6.5 million cap hit for one year and does not have a no-trade clause. Or on defense, the Coyotes have Alex Goligoski at a $5.475 million cap hit, Niklas Hjalmarsson at a $5 million cap hit, and Jason Demers at a $3.9 million cap hit. Hjalmarsson has a no-move clause and Demers has an eight-team no-trade list, but there are plenty of player options that the Devils could acquire who can provide a boost to the Devils’ roster. Acquiring any of the defenders would give the Devils a good second or third pairing option. Alternatively, Derek Stepan would allow the Devils to move Pavel Zacha to wing in the short-term while strengthening the bottom six. I would not necessarily consider these moves that would put the team in a place to compete for the playoffs, but they would make the team more watchable to the average viewer, and for that alone it is worth considering.
The Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have themselves in quite a situation. They are roughly $2 million over the cap ceiling, and have yet to sign Erik Cernak or Anthony Cirelli. Like the Coyotes, the Lightning are rife with players who could improve the Devils’ depth. The least restrictive option would be Ondrej Palat – though I doubt the Lightning would want to part ways with him. Palat has a $5.3 million cap hit with two years remaining, and has a no-trade clause. However, if acquired by the Devils, Palat would become a potential linemate for Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes, as his two-way ability is solid and worth attempting to acquire. Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde are also possible acquisition targets. Killorn has a 16 team no-trade list, and has a $4.450 million cap hit with three years remaining. Johnson has a $5 million cap hit and four years remaining, while Gourde has a $5.166 million cap hit with five years remaining. Gourde and Johnson are not as enticing to me – because I know the Devils will have to re-sign free agents of their own in the not-too-distant future. When Jack Hughes is off his ELC, and Alex Holtz is going through his, I doubt the Devils would want Gourde’s contract unless he returned to his previously high level of production. Over the past three seasons, Gourde went from 64 points, to 48, to 30. That’s not a trend I’d like to see play out for another five years. If the Devils did go for Killorn, Johnson, or Gourde, the price might not be as steep as Palat – and Johnson and Gourde in particular would probably have very little acquisition cost.
Had Alex Steen not unofficially retired recently due to his back injury, I would have put the Blues here due to their need of re-signing Vince Dunn. But since LTIR will give them a good amount of room for Dunn’s contract, the Canucks are the next worst team in temrs of cap situation – and there are a ton of options for the Devils here. Vancouver is $1.5 million over the cap, and I like some of the players on their roster. There are three forwards on the Canucks who do not have a no-trade clause and have large enough cap hits to bring the team under the ceiling if they were moved. They are Jake Virtanen (cap hit – $2.55 milion), Sven Baertschi (cap hit – $3.366 million), and Tanner Pearson (cap hit – $3.75 million). In terms of commitment, Vancouver is a better trade partner than the Tampa Bay Lightning. The longest contract there is Virtanen at two years. Pearson or Virtanen would make great additions to the second or third line on the Devils – as they had 45 and 36 points, respectively last season. They would actually cost something to acquire – as they are legitimate contributors and had a combined 39 goals last season. However, the Canucks would probably give Sven Baertschi away for nothing. Last year, Baertschi played six NHL games – and just 26 the year before that. In those 32 games, Baertschi has nine goals and seven assists on an 18% shooting percentage. If you don’t think that’s sustainable, his career shooting percentage over 291 games is 15.1% – and he had 16.2% in 225 games with Vancouver. If you were looking for someone to put on a line with Jack Hughes or Pavel Zacha – someone who can finish passes – Sven Baertschi might be your guy. Considering Baertschi was waived twice last season, I’m sure the Devils could swap an AHL contract for him.