The ongoing second round of the NHL playoffs only means one thing: the NHL Draft and free agency are getting closer, and that means decisions will soon be made. Some of the decisions will pertain to which of the ten unrestricted free agents (UFA) the New Jersey Devils will bring back. This article will take an in-depth look at which of the UFAs are worthy to be rewarded with a new contract, and what these contracts may look like.
The past two years, forward Drew Stafford has served a role much larger role than what was predicted. Whether it be due to injuries or trades, he found himself with unplanned playing time. In his two-year tenure, Stafford has appeared in 116 games, totaling 28 points and a -27 rating. He also owns an underwhelming 46.1 Corsi For % (CF%). The numbers certainly have not been impressive for the 33-year-old veteran, but he is regarded as a great presence in the locker room. This is evident by the numerous player-only meetings he headed. Ultimately, Stafford doesn’t fit what the Devils are trying to do. The only way to bring him back for a third season would be as a depth role, where he would serve a majority of his nights as a healthy scratch. Either way, retaining him is most likely not the move.
The Devils did not have a season where many things went right. However, one bright spot was forward Kenny Agostino. He was picked up via waivers by general manager Ray Shero, which paid off great. In only 27 games with the Devils, Agostino tallied 13 points and 63 hits. His 49.70 CF% ranked third among Devils forwards only behind Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. The most impressive statistic is his +6.6 Relative Corsi For % (Rel. CF%) which led the Devils by a wide margin. This statistic shows how much better the Devils performed with Agostino on the ice rather than off it. All-in-all, it is a no-brainer to keep the local kid in the red and black. A shorter one-year deal should suffice. Expect Agostino to be serving a valuable role in a bottom-six next season.
Forward Kurtis Gabriel did a solid job in bringing a type of energy to a team struggling at the end of a disappointing season. Unfortunately, besides that, he did not bring much else. His CF% of 37.1 and Rel CF% of -8.0 were by far the worst marks of Devils’ skater who played at least 20 games. The only way the 25-year-old forward should be brought back is if it is a two-way deal that sees him play exclusively in the AHL. However, with the plethora of draft picks and the lack of need for the type of player Gabriel is – even in the AHL – not bringing him back may be the best move.
The 27-year-old defenseman – like Drew Stafford – served a much larger role than intended this season. In his 25 games at the NHL-level, Yakovlev owned a -3.1 Rel CF%, which is a bit underwhelming but not awful given it was his first professional season. When he wasn’t at the NHL-level, it was a much different story. Yakovlev was arguably the Binghamton Devils best defenseman as he compiled 16 points – all assists – in 19 games. In these contests, he served in a top pairing role as well as on the top power play and penalty kill units. Yakovlev may not be worth bringing back on a one-way deal as the NHL performance just wasn’t there. However, if Shero was able to work a two-way deal with Yakovlev, a reunion with the red and black should be welcomed.
The career AHL forward is slated to be a UFA after spending the past three years within the Devils organization. In 168 career AHL games, Lappin has compiled 123 points. This success has not carried over to the 60 NHL games he has appeared in, where he has compiled eight points and a very below average 44.3 CF%. It is apparent – like his counterpart Kurtis Gabriel – he is not an NHL forward. Given his AHL-success, bringing him back via a two-way contract would not be a bad idea. But do not be surprised if Lappin isn’t within the Devils organization come next year.
Forward Blake Pietila has now appeared in 38 NHL games over his four-year Devils career. His career 38.1 CF% and -5.4 Rel CF% both show he is not an NHL caliber talent. However, his AHL production has not been terrible by any stretch. His 46 points in only 50 games in Binghamton last year was the most on the team, and he also served as one of the team’s alternate captains. Like Lappin, a two-way contract would not be such a bad thing as Binghamton would welcome the scoring help. However, do not be surprised if he is released into free agency as his performance outside the AHL has been miserable.
The 30-year-old veteran only was able to play in 41 games at the AHL level. Injuries and suspension hampered Tangradi’s ability to serve as a valuable veteran presence. His 467 total AHL games indicate his veteran status within the league, where he has tallied 340 points. Bringing back Tangradi on a one-year two-way contract would not be a bad idea. With the large influx of young talent within the Devils system, he can serve a valuable role to the youngsters. Evidence of him already doing that this year was with forwards Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod.
The career seventh defenseman primarily played in the AHL, but surprisingly started the season in the NHL. This didn’t last long as he was quickly sent down and only appeared in 10 games at the NHL-level. While in the AHL, Gryba appeared in 47 games, serving as an enforcer-like presence. He also served a valuable penalty kill asset as he was – surprisingly – one Binghamton’s better defensive defenseman. Unfortunately for Gryba, he is now 31 years old and holds a ceiling of a fringe seventh defenseman at the NHL-level. His time in the red and black is most likely up.
Ramage served as a valuable defenseman who logged a ton of minutes for the AHL-club. He led the team’s defensemen in scoring with 31 points (12 G, 19 A) and played the most games on the team. The 28-year-old defenseman will likely never taste more than a game or two in the NHL, but his veteran presence helped a predominantly young Binghamton defensive core. I would not be opposed – nor surprised – if Shero brought Ramage back to continue serving the role of a veteran, minute-eating defenseman in the AHL.
Goaltender Eddie Lack’s season was cut short thanks to an injury that prompted season-ending surgery. Unfortunately for Lack, goaltender Evan Cormier stepped up and showed he has potential and will most likely serve as one of two AHL goaltenders. Rookie Gilles Senn also was signed to an entry-level deal, which makes him another anchor in the Devils’ farm system next year. However, it is not unheard of to carry three goaltenders at the AHL-level. The decision will most likely come down to Lack or Johnson. As touched upon in an earlier piece that examined the RFAs, Johnson’s performance most likely warrants a non-renewal. A veteran presence in a very young goalie room, along with the fact of an injury-prone Cory
Luckily for the Devils, they do not have a ton of decisions to make regarding unrestricted free agents. With this being said, expect very few surprises when they are releasing or re-signing these players. Now that we have examined both the pending restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents, make sure to let us know in the comments your opinions on how the Devils should handle their free agents. Keep a look out for articles pertaining to the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.