Once again, the summer is the most intriguing time of the year for the Devils season. Let’s take a look at some of the options they have to improve the team before October.
The 2nd Overall Pick in the 2022 Draft: The Devils benefited from some lucky lottery balls for the third time in the last five years. The Devils moved up to grab the first overall pick in both 2017 and 2019 and moved up three spots this year to snag the second overall selection in 2022. The three players I like the most if the Devils decide to make a selection at two are Juraj Slafkovsky, Logan Cooley and Simon Nemec. Slafkovsky is a big left shot winger who has impressed both at the Olympics and the World Championships this year, standing out as one of the best players in each tournament. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 218 pounds, Slafkovsky brings a combination of size and skill that the Devils are sorely lacking throughout their forward group, but especially the top two lines. The major drawback to Slafkivsky is his underwhelming season in the Finnish league, producing only 5 goals and 5 assists in 31 games, which has caused concerns about his consistency and readiness for the NHL level. Cooley is a skilled center who has been dominant with the USNTDP, producing 13 goals and 23 assists in just 24 games last season. Cooley is a high end skater with great puck skills. However, he is on the smaller side, measuring at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 174 pounds which makes him very similar to much of the Devils current roster. Nemec is a right shot defenseman that excels at skating and positioning in both the offensive and defensive zones. He has been playing professionally in Slovakia for the last three seasons but due to the talent gap between that league and the NHL mixed with Nemec being one of the younger players in the draft, we likely won’t see in him the NHL for another year or two after he is drafted.
Trading The Second Overall Pick: The Devils are a very young team built around players between the ages of 20-25 years old. Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, Sharangovich, Mercer all fall in this age range. The Devils also have several prospects in this same age range that appear poised to make an impact at the NHL level next season. Namely, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Riley Walsh, Fabian Zetterlund, and Alexander Holtz are all young players who have looked good in the AHL are are knocking on the door for an NHL roster spot next season. For these reasons it is fair to question whether or not waiting for another prospect to develop fits the window the Devils have to start competing. Hughes, Hischier and Bratt are entering their prime right now and the time to start playing “meaningful games” has arrived. So, it is more than reasonable for the Devils to look to trade the second overall pick for an established NHL star that can help them win now. Names that immediately come to mind are players like Matthew Tkachuk from the Flames and Alex DeBrincat from the Blackhawks. Both players are 24 years old and have proven to be elite forwards over the last several years. Tkachuk is a power forward that brings a mix of skill and physicality to the Devils that they sorely lack, while also scoring 100 points last season and over 30 goals twice in his career so far. DeBrincat has scored 40 goals in a season twice in his young career and could do that several more times while on a line with Hughes or Hischier. A player like Kevin Fiala, who has only had one truly elite season so far, is not worth trading away a top three pick for so the Wild would have to come with a package hat also makes sense for their messy cap situation, making the trade difficult and less likely. The Devils have been rumored to be interested in both Connor Garland and Brock Boeser from Vancouver in the last year so a deal could be had there that includes one of those two along with Vancouver’s first round pick this year and maybe Vancouver’s second or third round pick next year. This would allow the Devils to get an impact player right now while still adding quality prospects to the system. This would give Vancouver some more salary cap flexibility while letting them add a top level prospect without having to fall completely out of the playoff picture like the Devils have in the last decade.
Jesper Bratt:Jesper Bratt has been a solid player for the Devils since the 2018 season. However, before this season, he struggled to consistently produce points. That changed this year when Bratt put up 73 points (26G 47 A) in 76 games. Bratt’s skill was always there but he just hadn’t found a way to turn that into consistent production. Now that he has blossomed into an elite winger, he is due for a new contract. Bratt is 23 years old and an RFA this year. It is absolutely essential for the Devils to sign him long term as soon as possible. With over $25 million in cap space and Hughes and Hischier already extended, there is absolutely no reason not to sign Bratt to a seven year contract that pays him around 7-8 million dollars per year. He is that good and that important to the Devils roster. (I wrote a full blog on the Jesper Bratt contract situation earlier this year)
Goaltending: The biggest of New Jersey’s many weaknesses last season needs to be addressed this summer. With both Johnathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood coming off serious lower body injuries, and neither of Nico Daws or Akira Schmid being ready for NHL duty yet, the Devils have to do something to get a true NHL caliber goalie for next season. There are free agents like Brayden Holtby and Darcey Kuemper, or potential blockbuster trades for Connor Hellebuyck or Spencer Knight. Either of those trades would likely require the second overall pick, a high end prospect, like Luke Hughes and/or Alexander Holtz, as well as a roster player. However if either one is made available by their respective clubs, Tom Fitzgerald absolutely needs to be trying to make a deal. Whether its a free agent or a big trade, the Devils need to doing everything possible to improve goaltending heading into next season. If that means Daws, Schmid or even Blackwood also have to be dealt to make room on the roster, than so be it. It’s the most important position on the ice and its been a question mark or worse for the Devils since 2017.
There you have the most pressing matters of the Devils off season. Using or trading the second pick, extending Bratt and doing something to bring in an NHL caliber goalie. I can’t wait to see what the Devils decide to do with each of these pieces, because what happens this off season will likely determine if the Devils are looking for a new GM come January. Follow me on Twitter at PatBoooooth