Editor’s Note: The following piece solely reflects opinions of the writer, and is not representative of the entire Devils Army Blog staff
Projected to finish last in the East Conference this season, the New Jersey Devils demonstrated they have the talent and tenacity to compete with the NHL’s elite and vie for a playoff spot. That said, the goal for any team should ultimately be more than securing a playoff berth but to forge a path toward a Stanley Cup title.
Moreover, the Devils are far from being assured continual playoff qualification. They occupied the last wild card spot, while teams such as the Hurricanes and Panthers are young, talented, quick, and like the Devils, only a couple pieces away from becoming contenders themselves.
There are indeed some warning signs for this Devils franchise. Cory Schneider (although he resurfaced in the playoffs) is slowly moving past the wrong side of 30 and had trouble keeping fit this season. Scoring needs to be more evenly distributed, as Taylor Hall cannot be expected to be the leading scorer by 40+ points again.
The Devils certainly need more from Pavel Zacha and expect continued improvement from promising youngsters like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, and Miles Wood. Lastly, the Devils will continue monitoring their surplus of forward prospects for promotion, with individuals like Michael McLeod, Joey Anderson, and John Quenneville capable of breaking into next year’s lineup.
Free agency is approaching, and the team has some important decisions to make, per Chris Ryan of NJ.com,
Unrestricted Free Agents
John Moore, D, 27
Brian Gibbons, LW, 30
Patrick Maroon, LW, 30
Michael Grabner, RW, 30
Drew Stafford, RW, 32
Jimmy Hayes, RW, 28
Eddie Lack, G, 28
Restricted Free Agents
Miles Wood, LW, 22
Blake Coleman, C, 26
Stefan Noesen, RW, 25
Steven Santini, D, 23
The decision regarding their restricted free agents is fairly straightforward. I personally think all of them — with the exception, maybe, of Noesen — should be retained. Noesen wasn’t exempted to denigrate him, and his contributions on the ice and in the locker room are palpable, but a player like him has to be brought back for the right price. Simply put, I wouldn’t be devastated if he doesn’t tender his qualifying offer or isn’t offered one by GM Ray Shero. Santini has struggled to crack the lineup, and I think John Hynes’ decision to sit him in favor of Ben Lovejoy and Mirco Mueller was a mistake. I still think Santini, along with Severson and Butcher can be this defense’s future.
Regarding the team’s unrestricted free agents, the decisions are trickier. John Moore is nowhere near an elite blueliner but was a consistent contributor who fits in the fast-skating philosophy Coach Hynes has implemented. For the right price, he should be back, especially considering the organization’s dearth of NHL-level defensemen.
I don’t expect any of Jimmy Hayes, Michael Grabner, or Drew Stafford to return. All are character guys, and Grabner is a capable scorer, but none were able to secure full-time roles. Brian Gibbons and Patrick Maroon are polar opposites as players, and I would like to see both around next season. This is another example of getting players for the right price. Maroon played very well for this club down the stretch, but his style of play is a bit slow for this team. Having said that, a team always needs veterans, and Maroon has shown he can readily adapt to a new system.
Retaining Eddie Lack is completely dependent on what Shero and his front office decide to do with Kinkaid—who could be attractive to a team in need of goaltending like the Islanders or Hurricanes— or if they believe Ken Appleby, could be ready for primetime.
Notable NHL Free Agents
James Van Riemsdyk
The Devils need more experienced defensemen, along with additional scoring options in their top-nine. The obvious two names that stick out are John Tavares and John Carlson, both of whom are two of this summer’s top unrestricted free agents. I am skeptical of landing Tavares —I believe he will stay with the Islanders — and think Carlson is more of a possibility.
If Carlson doesn’t work out, signing Mike Green could make a lot of sense. Evander Kane is another name worth mentioning, as he resented being part of the stalled rebuild in Buffalo. You have to wonder if he started looking over state lines and noticed progress with the flourishing rebuild in New Jersey. San Jose will probably make a play to keep him, and their continual playoff presence will appeal to him.
Like Carlson, Van Riemsdyk is a Jersey boy, and could also make sense if Kane or Tavares fall though. Other names like Perron, Statsny, Nash, and Neal consist of solid players who would make a decent contribution, but I can see Vegas trying to retain both Perron and Neal, especially since they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Circling back to defense, Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty, both perennial Norris Trophy contenders, are in the final years of their contracts and could be candidates for a sign-and-trade. If the Devils have the ability to sign either of these players, they should not hesitate.
My irrational exuberance over this year’s success has me believing anything is possible, so I sincerely believe Erik Karlsson to the Devils is a legitimate possibility, and it would have a transformative impact on this franchise. However, signing Carlson or Green is more realistic and truthfully more economical.
I could be wrong about Tavares, but he seems to genuinely care for this Islanders team, which has gone to great lengths at making him happy. Ultimately, time will tell, and Ray Shero has earned plenty of deference in player personnel decisions. I am proud of what this team accomplished and have high expectations for what they can do going forward.