Newark, NJ – After a historic 52-win season, the most in New Jersey Devils franchise history, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald isn’t going to want to make too many changes. With 13 expiring contracts heading into the summer, the Devils’ GM has plenty of free agents to address, both restricted and unrestricted.
Former Associate Coach Andrew Brunette has already been poached by the Nashville Predators. Fitzgerald let it be known early that head coach Lindy Ruff would return as the bench boss next season, although it was unclear for how long.
“(Ruff will) be back behind the bench,” Fitzgerald explained at exit interviews. “He will.”
So the Devils have already suffered a loss, albeit, not a major one. However, the Devils only have 12 contracts signed for next season. With just over $34 million, Fitzgerald has a laundry list of items to address.
There’s little doubt that Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier are 1A & 1B on Fitzgerald’s to-do list. The good news is both are restricted free agents, so the power is really in the hands of the Devils’ GM.
Bratt’s negotiations have been ongoing dating back to November. At times, both sides felt the finish line was close. Other times, it’s been incredibly frustrating and not even close. According to Fitzgerald, contract talks between the two parties paused when the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs began. Now in offseason mode, he expects Bratt and his camp know the Devils’ expectations.
“He had a tremendous year,” Fitzgerald said of Bratt. “Nobody doubted he wouldn’t. He’s part of the fabric here, part of the core. We want to get this done. I don’t anticipate contentious negotiation. I think his agent knows where we’re at.”
JESPER BRATT OFF THE DRAW 🤯 pic.twitter.com/Xq1D1i6NcM
— NHL (@NHL) February 15, 2023
According to Bratt, he doesn’t expect to play anywhere else in the near future.
“We’ll get it done,” Bratt said to the New Jersey media regarding his expiring contract. “I’ll see you guys for the next couple of years to come.”
The belief is that Bratt’s camp is looking to lock in a long-term contract in and around an $8 million average annual value.
Meier was less open about his future on break-up day, but that shouldn’t sound the alarm. The 26-year-old power forward was complimentary about the off-ice factors that go into a contract negotiation, the little things you don’t realize are so important to players’ everyday lives.
“(New Jersey) is definitely a nice place,” Meier explained. “And like I said, a great, great group of guys. Great, great staff and everybody. It’s a nice place for sure.”
Coming from San Jose, travel wasn’t as accommodating to the former Sharks forward. Fitzgerald was adamant that New Jersey is a one-stop shop for play, practice, and travel which could all be decisive factors in his corner for retaining Meier, and Meier seemingly agreed.
“The travel? It’s easier here than I had before,” Meier explained. “The practice rink is right here. It’s definitely a really nice setup. And like I said, (New Jersey) has great, great people. Everybody has been treating me so well. So yeah, it’s definitely a great place.”
Meier’s $10 million qualifying offer will be Fitzgerald’s last resort. For now, Fitzgerald is focused on locking down Meier long-term at a smidge lower AAV and has let the Swiss forward know he believes he belongs in New Jersey.
“Some player pieces are a little bit bigger than others, but that doesn’t mean those smaller pieces aren’t important,” Fitzgerlad said. “I’m trying to build the best team possible. Timo Meier knows that I believe this the right place for Timo and he and his agent and I will talk and go through this and hopefully try to figure something out long term.”
The goal appears to be able to lock Bratt and Meier up under $18 million combined which would give Fitzgerald roughly $16 million left over to work with.
Remaining restricted free-agents
Outside of Bratt and Meier, Fitzgerald still has six restricted free-agent contracts to handle. Mackenzie Blackwood didn’t have the season he had hoped and with Vitek Vanecek claiming the starting role and the emergence of Akira Schmid, it’s easy to see a scenario where Blackwood is wearing different colors next season.
Two-thirds of the Devils’ fourth line are also RFA’s. Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod were both extremely effective in their roles this season. McLeod was especially effective as the Devils’ best faceoff man and penalty killer this season. McLeod will surely be done for a raise, albeit, not one that will empty the wallet. As for Bastian, he was also effective in his role when he wasn’t recovering from injury. He’s one of the few physical presences on the Devils’ roster and it’s likely Fitzgerald will want to keep him around. A small raise could be in order, but like McLeod, nothing that breaks the bank.
Bratt isn’t the only Jesper due for a new contract. Jesper Boqvist heads into this summer needing a new contract. The Swedish forward had ups and downs this past season playing in a few different roles. In certain games, Boqvist looked like a strong two-way forward and others left you wanting more. However, down the stretch, Boqvist played strong in a bottom-6 role and can certainly become a staple on the Devils’ third line for years to come. Barring an unforeseen shake-up, bet on Boqvist returning on some sort of team-friendly contract.
Sharp shootin’ Shara. pic.twitter.com/Z2dp9Enxjf
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 27, 2023
Yegor Sharangovich’s negotiations might go down as one of the more interesting ones. He has a qualifying offer of $2.05 million, however, didn’t play like a player this season to justify that number. The versatile forward played in a number of different roles in the 2022-23 season and wound up a victim of circumstance after the arrival of Meier and Curtis Lazar. He didn’t help himself, though, when he made his way back into the lineup. As a former 20-plus goal scorer, Sharangovich has more to offer and he knows what he has to do this off-season to regain his everyday role in the lineup.
“This season didn’t go the way I wanted it to go,” Sharangovich admitted. “I’m going to work on myself this summer. I will change my preseason workouts on the ice because a lot of guys got to a new level. There’s a couple of new guys on the team, and my ice time went down. My role has changed.”
Sharangovich’s versatility to play all forward positions may work in his favor. Fitzgerald could tack on years to lower the potential AAV essentially signing Sharangovich to a prove-it bridge contract before he becomes a UFA. He’s certainly a player that has a really good shot with more to offer.
A number of young Devils took a step forward this season including 6-6, 230lb defenseman Kevin Bahl. The 22-year-old defenseman played a career-high 42 games, tallying eight points. However, it was his defensive play and physical presence that cemented him into the lineup more often than not in the latter half of the season. Bahl threw 64 hits in 42 games which equates to 128 in an 82-game clip. That would have led the Devils had he played on a nightly basis.
Bahl eventually figured things out in his own end of the ice, too. His positioning improved and defenders rarely found their way behind him and his skating improved allowing him to keep up with NHL pace. He had a blip in the playoffs when Ruff only iced him for 5:50 in Game 3 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Devils’ 8-4 victory and eventually was scratched in the Devils’ final postseason game with the emergence of Luke Hughes.
Regardless, Bahl showed more positives than negatives last season overall. The sample size is still small, but he looks like he’s turned himself into a legitimate NHL stay-at-home defender. Bahl is another candidate for a prove-it deal coming off his first real season of success in the NHL.
Erik Haula and Tomas Tatar
If the Devils have to choose between Erik Haula and Tomas Tatar, it feels an awful lot like Haula would be the one returning.
“I’ll start by saying I would make that trade seven days a week, twice on Sunday,” Fitzgerald said of Haula. “He is the player type that we needed to help us continue to move the ship forward.”
If that wasn’t enough, Haula built some serious chemistry both on and off the ice with franchise forward Jack Hughes.
“I’m a huge Erik Haula fan,” Hughes said at exit interviews.
ERIK HAULA BLOWS THE ROOF OFF THIS PLACE! pic.twitter.com/5d50Jp4DJ8
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) May 2, 2023
The 32-year-old forward is looking for some stability in his personal life after he’s bounced around the NHL playing on seven teams for the last seven seasons. Haula proved himself to be a dependable two-way forward that really came on in the second half of the season. He scored six goals and eight points in the final seven games of the regular season and rode that wave of momentum into the playoffs scoring four goals and six points in seven games of the first round of the playoffs.
Haula wants to be back, the Devils want him back, it’s hard to imagine a situation where he doesn’t stay. Frank Seravalli via Daily Faceoff projects Haula has earned a 3x$3.5m contract which feels pretty on point.
Tatar on the other hand projects to earn 3x$3.3m. If the Devils handed Tatar and Haula a combined $6.8 million after trying to lock down Bratt and Meier for under $18 million, it only gives the Devils about $9.2 million to work with and eight other contracts to sign. The math doesn’t add up and it feels like Tatar will head to unrestricted free agency.
Miles Wood, Damon Severson, & Ryan Graves
There’s only so much money to go around. Sure, the salary cap may be going up a little more than the anticipated $1 million, but the truth of the matter is this group of players can be replaced internally for less than what Fitzgerald might be willing to pay.
It’s a weak UFA class, however, Severson is a luxury for the Devils to have had on their third pair. The 27-year-old defenseman is likely to go into free agency and come out on the other side as one of the top-paid players in this class. Additionally, he’ll also likely receive top-four minutes on another team, whereas he won’t dethrone any of Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino, and L. Hughes in the top four.
The same can be said of Graves who struggled mightily in the playoffs for the Devils and lost that chemistry he formed with Marino. With Simon Nemec knocking on the Devils’ door, the emergence of Bahl and L. Hughes, and while Brendan Smith still has one year left on his deal at a relatively cheap price, Graves is likely another Devils defenseman headed to market.
That leaves Miles Wood. At exit interviews, Wood looked like a man who knew his time had come to an end in New Jersey. You could see him taking in the locker room, embracing some of the media around him as if it was their last conversation, and he made his way hesitantly out of the locker room.
“I’m not really sure what my future holds,” Wood explained. “You know, I’ve been here for my whole career, seven years. I’m not really sure I can’t really speak about it. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
The fact of the matter is that the Devils acquired Lazar who has one more year remaining on his contract at a cheap $1M cap hit. He’s an easy in-house replacement for Wood that can play alongside Bastian and McLeod.
At least half of the money Fitzgerald has to work with will surely be used to lock up his big-name RFAs. As for the rest, Fitzgerald will need to be strategic in how he will divvy up term and dollars. Before you know it, players like Dawson Mercer and L. Hughes will need extensions in the not-so-distant future.
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