Many around the NHL are pegging the New Jersey Devils as one of the teams that have had a great offseason thus far. With the acquisitions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds, many agree with the above proposition. However, they still need to make one more move to patch a still-existing hole; that hole being in the top-six.
The addition of Simmonds was a start in addressing a lackluster Devils’ forward group. However, as was explained in our most recent article, Simmonds is more of a bottom-six presence at this point in his career. With the addition of Hughes, the Devils’ top two centers are set for the next decade. This leaves Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Jesper Bratt/Wayne Simmonds as the rest of the top-six. The one gap that is left is what general manager Ray Shero must address sometime before the 2019-20 season begins.
If you’ve visited Devils’ Twitter in the past few days, you have most likely seen the name Nikita Gusev. He’s by no means a household name. This is because his young career has been spent playing in the top Russian leagues: the KHL and MHL. He has also appeared nationally at the IIHF World Championship and at the under-20 World Junior Championships.
As mentioned above, the 26-year-old, right-handed shot has played a considerable amount in Russia’s top league, the KHL. In 391 career KHL games, he has tallied 332 points, which equates to a 0.85 point-per-game rate. This point rate is better than his fellow countryman Artemi Panarin (0.70), who also spent a chunk of time in the KHL. A deeper dive into his career shows he has played for three different teams, most recently SKA St. Petersburg, where he has been the past four seasons. Impressively, last season he led the league in scoring with 82 points (17G, 65A).
Worth noting is that Gusev’s success has also translated outside of Russian competition. In seven games at the under-20 World Junior Championship, he racked up nine points. In 24 games at the IIHF World Championship, he tallied an impressive 34-points (12G, 22A).
As anyone can see, Gusev has been a terrific scorer overseas. Given the fact he performed better than other NHLers who have also played in the KHL – Nikita Kucherov, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Artemi Panarin – it certainly seems like his success will translate in America. The question now arises how do the Devils acquire such talent? Well, the Vegas Golden Knights currently hold his rights as he’s a restricted free agent. This means in order to get Gusev, a trade would most likely be the route, and it certainly seems like the Devils are interested (see tweet above). As a team whose struggling with getting under the salary cap, the Knights are rumored to want to move Gusev. It’ll be interesting to see who gets their hands on this intriguing talent and at what price.
Brace yourselves for this one, but someone who would instantly put the Devils to the next level is winger Mike Hoffman. The locker room struggles that surround him – specifically due to his wife – are a bit troublesome. Many may recall the reason for his departure from Ottawa was due to a bizarre incident between Hoffman’s and ex-Senator Erik Karlsson’s wives. However, do not let this distract you from the fact Hoffman is one of the more underrated forwards in the league.
The 29-year-old left winger is coming off the best season of his career. He tallied 70-points (36G, 34A) while playing all 82 games. In regard to his underlying numbers, they are solid as well. He owns a career Relative Corsi For % (Rel CF%) of 3.0, which means his team is better when he’s on the ice rather than off. Also, the above GAR/WAR chart confirms Hoffman is indeed an above average winger.
Why would the Panthers be willing to move on from one of their best players? The same reason why most teams part from their better players: salary cap issues. Hoffman’s one-year cap hit of $5,187,500 being taken off the books would give the Panthers more flexibility as they only have a little over $5 million left in cap space, with a number of restricted free agents left to sign. Given the nature of the situation, Shero may just be able to work his magic and swing Hoffman for a relatively cheaper price than what he’s actually worth.
The above trend continues in this situation as Calgary is most likely looking to move one of their higher-salaried skaters due to cap complications. A candidate to help the Flames address this problem is forward Michael Frolik. The 31-year-old right winger is entering the last year of his contract and is set to make $4.3 million. With the likes of Matthew Tkachuk needing a new deal, moving Frolik would help supply the Flames with the cap space they desperately need.
Unlike the rest of the candidates in this article, Frolik would be described as a fringe top-six guy. His point production over the past few years that of a third liner. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as depth scoring is something the Devils need. A deeper dive into Frolik’s underlying statistics paints a pretty picture. The above RAPM chart shows how great of an impact Frolik has had on his team in several key offensive and defensive success indicators over the past three seasons.
Frolik is most likely a 35-45 point scorer at this point in his career. This wouldn’t exactly fill the hole in the Devils’ top six, but it would do an exponential job in closing it to an acceptable size. Another plus to this possible acquisition is it would most likely cost Shero very little. It’ll be interesting to see if the Flames decide to move on from Frolik, especially given their salary cap issues.
Seeing Marcus Johansson’s name on here will probably upset most Devils’ fans as his tenure with the team was less than ideal. However, as he showed with Boston in the playoffs, a healthy Johansson definitely qualifies as a top-six forward.
The ten games with Boston after the trade from New Jersey weren’t so appealing as he only tallied three points. However, as has been the theme with Johansson throughout the past couple of years, he was limited by injuries. Once the playoffs came around, he was able to stay healthy and proved to be a valuable asset on both the power play and at 5-on-5. He was able to rack up 11 points in 22 games as the Bruins eventually fell to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Finals.
If Shero is able to rekindle a relationship with Johansson and sign him, their top-six issue would be fixed. However, given his injury history, a relatively team-friendly deal is a must.
Shero has shown again and again why he is one of the better general managers in the league. With that said, he is most likely very aware of the missing element in his team’s top-six. Evaluating the free agent market as well as possible trade targets show there are many options still available.
Above are only a few of the routes Shero can go. Hoffman is one of the more solid options given his string of success, but Gusev provides by far the most potential of any of the options but also brings the most risk. Players of Frolik’s caliber provide the Devils with a partial fix as his fringe top-six skills will get the job done for the most part. Lastly, a reunion Johansson – while dependent on his health – would certainly mend the issue. No matter who it is, Shero must acquire a top-six forward.