Prospects have been drafted, free agents signed, coaches hired, and players traded, but the Devils are not done, not yet. While General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has checked off almost all of the boxes on his post-season checklist, work remains.
What Has Been Done So Far
There is no disputing that the Devils are in a better place than when an injury-riddled team limped to the finish line in late April. The glaring need was to address the vastly underperforming goaltending situation, which was done with the acquisition of Vitek Vanecek and the bolstering of defense with the additions of Brendan Smith and John Marino. This pair, along with the highly-rated stable of defense prospects (including two top four picks in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec), has positioned the Devils to have one of the premier blue lines for years to come.
Fitzgerald has also made the team more versatile and experienced by adding Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula, who will both bring grit and playoff experience lacking from last season. New Jersey adding Jack Adams Award Finalist Andrew Brunette to the bench as the assistant coach in charge of the power play should bolster a glaring weakness.
Priority one now for the Devils is ensuring there is sufficient cap space to sign their Restricted Free Agents (RFA) and still be able to add additional players now or during the season. After locking up Vanecek earlier today, the Devils currently have just over $9.5 million in cap space (via Capfriendly). They still have to sign or go through arbitration with several RFA, most notably Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist, and Miles Wood, whose combined salaries could exceed the cap. The Devils stand to get some relief once the season begins and injured goaltender Jonathan Bernier is placed on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR). The injury designation means his just over four million dollar salary will not count against the cap while he is out. That still may not be enough.
What Are the Devils' Options
The Devils have multiple options. The most attractive is to trade away higher-priced wingers that can be replaced with cheaper players. Andreas Johnsson is probably the most likely. Despite only being owed $750,000 in salary this year, his cap hit is over three million. Trading him to a team seeking to save costs yet reach the cap floor (Arizona, for one) would provide some breathing room. Johnsson is coming off a disappointing year where he started strong and faded as the season progressed.
With the emergence of Dawson Mercer and Boqvist, the return of Wood, and the push from forwards in Utica like Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, Tyce Thompson, and Nolan Foote, the Devils are positioned to absorb the loss of Johnsson without it impacting their record. Forward Thomas Tatar is another forward who carries a significant cap charge that could be moved. However, Tatar has been noted for his relationships with younger players and is looked at as a mentor for Nemec.
The more drastic play would be to trade a defenseman. At this point, the Devils have perhaps the strongest three right-handed defenseman grouping in the NHL with Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson, and John Marino. Marino has proven he can play top-four minutes and contribute to special teams. The Devils could opt to trade Severson, who is coming off his best year and is a free agent at the end of next season. Severson is likely at his max value and would be sought after by contenders looking to bolster their back line. If the Devils believe that Nemec will be ready early in the season to play NHL third-line minutes, then Severson becomes expendable.
The same applies to Ryan Graves, who is finishing his last year under contract ($3.166 million). If the Devils are less bullish on Nemec's growth, they could trade Graves and promote one of the ready left-side defensemen in the AHL or slide recent acquisition Brendan Smith into that role and call up another defenseman for depth. Either way, trading a defenseman is not out of the realm of possibility to either create cap space or to get the final missing piece.
Any Big Moves Remaining?
Johnny Gaudreau was the dream this offseason. The Devils made it to the final two teams and fell short. They then moved swiftly to sign Ondrej Palat to ensure the top six got a boost. Are they done? Should they be done? The pursuit of Gaudreau demonstrates that this team believes it is now one piece away from being serious contenders for the playoffs. There is a need for a bona fide wing scorer. The debate going on in the offices at The Rock has to be whether that need can be filled from within or found outside the organization. The team still appears to have hope that the answer can come from 2020 first-round pick Alexander Holtz who has flashed scoring brilliance in the AHL and has an NHL-caliber shot but has yet to prove he is ready to step in and be a 25-goal scorer.
Acquiring Matthew Tkachuk, Timo Meier, J.T. Miller, or William Nylander would immediately solve the Devils' primary need. Trading for any of those players will likely require giving up substantial draft and prospect capital and clearing cap space as described above. Any of those players are worthy of such moves. Placing them in the Devils' lineup alongside Jack Hughes, Bratt, Nico Hischier, Palat, Yegor Sharangovich, and Mercer, the team should be able to construct a lineup and two power play units that will take pressure off its defense and be versatile enough to score in multiple ways and weather injury losses. To truly compete for a playoff spot, they will need this additional piece through promotion or acquisition.
Fitzgerald can hedge his bet by deciding to promote Holtz and give him a month or two to prove himself and allow Nemec that time to get used to North American hockey in the AHL. If it isn't working, even more quality wingers may be available. With Nemec's readiness, the Devils could still make an attractive package of Severson and prospects and draft picks to land the missing piece that could propel them into the playoffs. The Devils have certainly improved and are positioned to take a leap, but it would be a mistake to think that it is time to close up shop for the summer as there is certainly work to be done.