New Jersey Devils’ 2020 NHL Free Agency Preview

Introduction

We are quickly moving through the 2020 NHL offseason. Just two days after the NHL Draft ended, NHL free agency is slated to begin. This year there will not be any “handshake” agreements in place before the actual signing period. Once noon on Friday, October 9th rolls around, the league signing period is open. At this time teams and free agents will be able to negotiate deals.

New Jersey Devils’ Team Needs

Entering this free-agent period, the Devils have several different holes to address. Will general manager Tom Fitzgerald fill all of them? No, he must definitely will not. However, he should be able to fill some, if not most of them.

The holes in the Devils’ depth chart are as follows: a top-six left-wing, possibly two bottom-six right-wings, a bottom-pairing right-handed defenseman, and a back-up goaltender. A visual of these needs can be seen below:

This excerpt is from this article here.

Please note, the hole on the left-side in the top-pair was filled via the trade for Ryan Murray. Of these remaining holes, the most important is back-up goaltending. This issue has been well-documented for the Devils over the past few seasons. Although never really an option, the need got even larger with the recent news of Cory Schneider’s buy-out.

The next priority lies in the defense core, specifically in the bottom-pairing on the right-side. In terms of forwards, a top-six left-wing would be nice, but several of the premier options will be too pricey. Depth seems to be the safer option.

For more on specific players the Devils should target, see further below. 

The Cap Situations

This is where it gets fun. The New Jersey Devils have a decent bit of money to play with when free agency opens, despite the rumored internal cap ceiling the New Jersey Devils are scheduled to impose. When all is said and done, it seems general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have roughly $12,000,000 to work with.

This $12,000,000 is calculated based on the rumored $75,000,000 internal cap ceiling, as well as taking into account the need to re-sign the team’s restricted free agents. Additionally, as was mentioned above, the recent news of the buy-out of Cory Schneider freed up another $4,000,000. Prior to this news, it looked like the Devils were only going to have around $12,000,000 to spend.

Now, it is worth mentioning, the Devils probably will not spend the full $15,000,000. And the team is correct in not doing so. Especially with some of the younger players that will need to be paid in the coming years. 

The Targets

Overall, this free-agent class is plentiful with depth defenseman and back-up goaltending. Fortunately, these are two areas the Devils need to address.

My top-20 list of unrestricted free agents can be found here. Our staff has compiled individual profiles for most of the top-20 on this list as well as some other unrestricted free agents. Specific targets the Devils should investigate are below.

Forwards

The forward group this free agency is not all that deep. Filling the Devils’ positional needs with this bunch would be difficult. The pool is not completely barren, as there are some names that general manager Tom Fitzgerald should keep an eye on.

As for the top-six candidates, forwards such as Evegenii Dadanov, Tyler Toffoli, and Taylor Hall will likely command a price tag the Devils’ should not pay. Mike Hoffman is another option regarded as a top-six player, however, a deeper dive into his analytics paints a startling picture. 

Craig Smith and Jesper Fast

The free-agent forward group has decent options for the Devils’ bottom-six woes. Craig Smith is by far my favorite free-agent forward. The center/right-wing checks out analytically and has a decent point production for his ice time. So much so, he can probably crack the Devils’ top-six if needed. He should be at the top of general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s target list. 

Jesper Fast is very familiar with Devils’ new head coach Lindy Ruff. (Photo via Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Another solid depth option is defensive-reliant Jesper Fast. Fast has okay point production but is extremely effective defensively. His familiarly with new Devils’ head coach Lindy Ruff may also come into play. He would be paid no more than $3,000,000 per year which would add solid value to the Devils’ bottom-six, right-wing group.

Vinnie Hinostroza and Dominik Kahun

Forwards Vinnie Hinostroza and Dominik Kahun were recent restricted free agents who were not qualified by their respective teams. Hinostroza, 26-years old, had a 39-point season in 2018-19 but only tallied 22 in limited ice time this season. As you can see in the chart below, he has had a strong on-ice impact for his teams. He is someone that would not cost a lot and serve perfectly in the Devils’ bottom-six.

This chart is via Evolving-Hockey.com.

Dominik Kahun not being qualified by the Buffalo Sabres was a head-scratcher. The 25-year old center and left-wing has been extremely efficient in his limited ice-time. He totaled 37 points in 82 games his rookie season with Chicago, then followed it up with 31 in 56 games last year between Pittsburgh and Buffalo. This translates to a 45 point, 82-game season. Kahun’s underlying statistics could be a bit better, but it is nothing too worry about. He is a young player that has all the right tools to be a great scoring presence in a team’s middle-to-bottom-six.

This chart is via Evolving-Hockey.com.

Other restricted free agent forwards that were not qualified are Anthony Duclair and Andreas Athanasiou. Each are solid offensively, yet seem to be a mess defensively. This demonstrated by the chart above, proving the Devils should stay away from each of these forwards.

Final Thoughts

In summary, the names the Devils should target come Friday are Craig Smith, Jesper Fast, Vinnie Hinostroza, and Dominik Kahun. Others worth investigating are Matt Nieto and Josh Leivo.

Defenseman

Matt Benning was no tendered by the Edmonton Oiler, making him an unrestricted free agent. (Photo via THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Matt Benning

The Devils have a plethora of options for the team’s bottom-pair on the right-side. Matt Benning, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Radko Gudas should all be on the team’s radar. Matt Benning was not qualified by the Edmonton Oilers, surprisingly. He is a 26-year old, right-handed defenseman, who is solid on the defensive end. The below chart gives a good overview of how valuable he has been over his career for the Oilers. Of note in this chart, Benning’s 92nd percentile ranking in Goals Against, 57th percentile ranking in Even Strength Defense, and 68th percentile ranking in Expected Goals Against.

This chart is courtesy of @JFreshHockey on twitter.

Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Radko Gudas

Each Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Radko Gudas are unrestricted free agents with differing play styles. Radko Gudas would bring a much-needed edge and physicality to a Devils’ defense core that has desperately needs it. He, to the surprise of many, has solid underlying statistics. The Jersey-boy Trevor Van Riemsdyk provides more offense than Gudas, in terms of actual point production, but is not as good defensively. Each would provide a great boost to that bottom-pair on New Jersey’s right-side. You can be find the underlying numbers of both defenseman in the chart below. 

This chart is via Evolving-Hockey.com.

Kevin Shattenkirk

The last defenseman worth mentioning is former New York Ranger Kevin Shattenkirk. The right-handed defenseman resurrected his career in Tampa Bay after being bought out by New York just last year. He has been terrific for the Lightning, as both his traditional and underlying statistics confirm this claim up. The Devils were rumored to be on the 31-year old defenseman’s list when he was an unrestricted free agent years back. I would assume this to be the case again.

Final Thoughts

Radko Gudas is my first option in filling the bottom-pairing role, Matt Benning would be the cheaper and younger option. Each Trevor Van Reimsdyk and Kevin Shattenkirk would also be great options. Other options that should be considered are Slater Koekkoek, Troy Stetcher, Mark Pysyk, and Jon Merrill.

Goalies

The goalie market is the strongest of the three position groups, specifically in terms of back-ups. The Devils should avoid any “starters” such as Robin Lehner – who is off the market now anyways–, Braden Holtby, Henrik Lundqvist, and Jacob Markstrom. Mackenzie Blackwood has shown he is ready to take the majority of time in between the pipes.

Thomas Greiss is one of the top unrestricted free agents on the market. (Photo via the AP)

Anton Khudobin and Thomas Greiss

Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, and Corey Crawford are the four names general manager Tom Fitzgerald needs to target. Khudobin will undoubtedly be the priciest, as he led Dallas to an extraordinary Stanley Cup runner-up finish. His .922 save percentage over the past three seasons warrants it, nonetheless.

Thomas Greiss is another back-up who has performed extremely well over the past couple of seasons. The 34-year old has a stellar .921 save percentage the past two years and he has only registered a save percentage under .912 twice in his 11-year career. Compared to other 34-year old in Khudobin, Greiss will undoubtedly be the cheaper option.

Cam Talbot and Corey Crawford

Cam Talbot rebounded nicely after a subpar 2018-19 season where he posted a .892 save percentage. This season he made 22 starts for Calgary and contributed a .919 save percentage. There is a bit of worry that the 33-year old Talbot is prone to a poor season here and there. But, his career .915 save percentage cannot be overlooked.

Despite being 35-years old, Corey Crawford is still playing at a high level. Outside of his .908 save percentage during the 2018-19 season, Crawford has not posted a percentage lower than .917 since 2011. He would be a great complement to Mackenzie Blackwood on a short-term deal.

Final Thoughts

The only other name on the market worth considering is Aaron Dell. And even then he has seen immense struggles in the past. Names such as Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, and Michael Condon all are also available. But each have severly struggled recently and should not be on general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s target list.

Tim Fitzgerald will begin his free agency period as a general manager. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Conclusion

General manager Tom Fitzgerald has money at his disposal and holes to fill. It comes down to how good of value he can get in determining how many of these needs he can fulfill. There are a ton of names out there, including several that would look good in the red and black. However, given the economic climate of the NHL, he must be careful. 

Nonetheless, Friday will be the start of an exciting free-agent period in the NHL. Make sure to stay tuned to our social media pages for updates on all signing, both Devils and non-Devils related.

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