Devils Clean Out Lockers As Intriguing Off-Season Looms

Coming off a franchise record for wins in a season, the Devils have a lot of questions, along with a lot to be excited about heading into the off season.

The Devils surprised pretty much everyone this year by not making the playoffs, but competing for first place in the division. Further than that, they won a playoff round against the older, slower, weaker, and more experienced cross river rival Rangers. Now as the Devils head into the off season there are some major players with expiring contracts, young players ready to take the next step, and some clear areas of need on the teams. Mainly, the playoffs showed the Devils still have a weakness in goal and in physicality.

The Devils defense is likely to look pretty different heading into next year. Both Damon Severson and Ryan Graves are unrestricted free agents while Kevin Bahl is a restricted free agent. Severson has played all nine of his NHL seasons for the Devils and proven to be a very capable two way defenseman. The Devils could still use him on the blue line in the coming years but with Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec both on entry level deals for the next two years and both showing some real promise, it’s hard to justify paying Severson north of $5.5 million for the next five or six seasons. Similarly, Ryan Graves is about to hit free agency as well. Graves has been a reliable defenseman for his two years in New Jersey but the upside on Hughes and Nemec is much higher than it is for Graves. If Luke Hughes can build upon his performance in the playoffs next season, he will take a spot in the top four. However, Graves will probably not demand as much money or term as Severson. So the Devils may be able to bring Graves back on a two year deal for around 3.5 to 4 million dollars per year. The upside to this would be having a reliable experienced defenseman capable of sliding into the top four if Luke and/or Nemec struggle in their rookie seasons. However, I think Graves is more valuable than that deal on the open market and I think both Graves and Severson will be playing for different teams next year.

Kevin Bahl is just 22 years old and really improved into a reliable NHL defenseman this season, especially in the playoffs. He can’t be relied on to produce points but he’s become a very solid defensive defenseman. As the season went on, Bahl got better positionally and started playing more physically. Since Bahl is still a few years away from free agency and inexperienced in the NHL, (77 career games including playoffs) The Devils will likely be able to sign him to a team friendly bridge deal. I would guess somewhere around $2.5 million per year for the next three years.

The Devils biggest issue in years past was goaltending. Through the regular season it looked as the Devils had a long term answer with Vitek Vanecek. However, the playoffs showed us just how huge the gap is between a good starter, and an elite goalie. Vanecek struggled mightily in seven playoff games this year. His playoff saver percentage was just .825 while his goals against average was a massive 4.64. That isn’t even close to good enough to help your team go on a long run in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Akira Schmid, who looked like a brick wall in the Rangers series, was really exposed in the Carolina series, being pulled twice. In four appearances against the Hurricanes, Schmid allowed 11 goals. In game one he allowed three goals on just 11 shots before being pulled. In game two, Schmid allowed four goals on 25 shots. The lack of consistency between the Ranger series and the Carolina series shows that Schmid can’t yet be relied upon to carry the team through a long playoff run. Also, Mackenzie Blackwood had another unimpressive season and never saw the ice in the playoffs. I don’t see anyway he returns to the Devils for another season. So what should the Devils do in goal?

There is one very intriguing option on the trade market. Connor Hellebuyck has one year left on his contract and has expressed interest in leaving the Winnipeg Jets. After the Jets were eliminated from the playoffs in five games and appear to be heading for a rebuild, Hellebuyck told the media that he has no interest in being a part of a rebuilding team. As a result, the Jets could look to trade 2020 Vezina trophy winner before losing him for nothing 12 months from now. Hellebuyck has played in 40 playoff games in his career and posted a save percentage of .921 and a goals against average of 2.58. He’s far better than Vanecek and far more consistent than Schmid is right now. I think a trade for a Hellebuyck could include Vitek Vanecek, a 2024 1st round pick, a mid round pick (rounds 3-5) in 2024 or 2025, and a prospect or two such as Graeme Clarke, Seamus Casey, Alex Holtz, or Josh Filmon. The Devils would win the trade but the Jets would get a capable NHL goalie in return along with draft capital and a young prospect or two to help them rebuild their roster.

The Devils have a bunch of questions in the forward group. The two biggest questions are Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, both of whom are going to be restricted free agents this summer. Bratt and Meier are both elite forwards but it would be tough to bring back both. The qualifying offer for Meier for next year is $10 million and Jesper Bratt is likely looking for a big extension after a long negotiation end with a one year deal last summer followed by another 70 point season this year. Bratt is an elite skater with great vision and outstanding passing ability. However, Bratt contributed only six points in 12 playoff games this year. Meier on the other hand is a very strong power forward with a whicked shot and a nose for the net, resulting in 40 goals last season for the Sharks and Devils. Meier’s physicality, great shot, and high end skating ability make him a unique player on the Devils. New Jersey is one of the smaller teams in the NHL, which showed during the Carolina series, so they need someone like Meier capable of both scoring at a high rate and throwing his body around. Neither player should make more money than Jack Hughes does ($8 million per season) and I would like to keep both in New Jersey but if they only had money for one, I would keep Meier over Bratt.

Other important forwards with expiring contracts include Erik Haula, Tomas Tatar, Michael McLeod, Miles Wood, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, and Nathan Bastian. Tatar had a strong year for the Devils and clearly had chemistry with Dawson Mercer and Nico Hischier but I don’t think it would be smart for New Jersey to give him a significant pay raise, especially if it would get in the way of bringing back Meier or Bratt. If some other team wants to pay Tatar upwards of five million, I think the Devils should let him walk. Meanwhile, I think Erik Haula showed this year that he is capable of playing anywhere, with anyone, on any of the top three lines. He adds a depth and flexibility to this team that would be very tough to replace. I also think it is important for the Devils to keep Michael McLeod and at least one of Wood and Bastian. All three proved to be very effective bottom six players this year and the type of gritty players that teams need if they are going to go on a long run in the playoffs. Jesper Boqvist had some nice moments this year but he is expendable and I would rather the Devils keep Yegor Sharangovich around for his great shot and his penalty killing ability.

2022-2023 was a great season of Devils hockey and it was only the beginning. I’m excited to see what Tom Fitzgerald can do in the off season and I already cant wait for October. You can follow me on Twitter at PatBoooooth.

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