Despite the hype that always comes with the annual opening of the offseason’s unrestricted free agent period, many of this year’s highly coveted players had deals in place well before noon yesterday, while most others followed suit within the first two hours. Despite supposedly being interested in some notable players, the Devils were characteristically quiet. Aside from acquiring depth defenseman Eric Gryba and a few AHL-caliber pickups, there wasn’t much news coming out of Newark worth discussing.
Unrestricted free agents from last year’s team like John Moore, Jimmy Hayes, and Michael Grabner have new homes for next season, leaving some notable holes in New Jersey’s current roster. Not all hope is lost for Devils fans hoping Ray Shero can salvage what’s left on the free agent market. Forwards Anthony Duclair, and (possibly re-signing) Patrick Maroon are possibilities, in addition to defenseman Calvin de Haan. With $23 million in cap space, New Jersey currently has the fourth-highest among NHL teams going into this week. Aside from restricted free agents Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, and Miles Wood needing new contracts, the Devils are currently below the league’s $58.8 million cap floor.
Historically, Shero hasn’t been a big spender on the free agent market, even dating back to his years in Pittsburgh. Having said that, he did have a very keen track record of locking up his core players to long-term deals, as evidenced by the contracts signed by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Shero has this exact same mentality in mind with the Devils. He’s eligible to lock up Taylor Hall, whose current deal expires in 2020, one year from now.
Between the deals this year’s top free agent forwards signed, the salary cap increasing again, along with extensions top-end forwards in the 2019 free agent class will sign, Taylor Hall will (deservedly) be entitled to ask for a king’s ransom. With that scenario in mind, any substantial acquisitions Shero makes this offseason will affect his ability to not just lock up Hall, but his ability to secure current core players like Will Butcher, Sami Vatanen, and Jesper Bratt, who are all due for extensions over the next two years.
This isn’t to say we should expect a completely quiet offseason from the Devils. Over the last year, Shero’s biggest moves have been trades. It’s worth noting Marcus Johansson was acquired on July 2, roughly 24 hours after the dust settled from last year’s free agent frenzy. Between the lucrative contracts players were signed to yesterday and future moves general managers must make if they want to get jumpstarts on their 2019 free agents, bodies will have to be moved—and most likely for less-than-equal value at the expense of a salary dump.
As we mentioned on our social media pages yesterday, there are some teams with little to no wiggle room under the cap worth keeping in mind. The Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins, all have less than $3 million in cap space, while the Bruins, Panthers, Lightning, and Oilers have no more than $7 million. Any of these teams could be anxious to shed some extra salary, with many of them having made some big signings on the free agent market or of their own players.
Cliff Fletcher, who was recently hired as a senior advisor, spent a number of years as the Minnesota Wild general manager, and could bring some players from his former team to Shero’s attention. With Ryan O’reilly going to the Blues, some other noteworthy names reportedly on the trade market are Jeff Skinner, Artemi Panarin, Max Pacioretty, and (of course) Erik Karlsson. The Devils certainly have the pieces to make competitive offers for any of these players, all of which can fill a need for New Jersey’s roster. While the Devils haven’t necessarily been linked to any of these names, which was the same case before they acquired Maroon and Grabner at the deadline, along with Johansson last summer. If the past is any indication (and what I think is the most likely scenario), Shero could very well acquire someone that nobody has even considered.