Newark, NJ – On Thursday, we began to take a look at what the offseason might look like for the New Jersey Devils. Yesterday, it was established that Mackenzie Blackwood’s time in New Jersey very well may be coming to an end. With the offseason approaching sooner rather than later, we opened up the Devils mailbag to find questions regarding extensions, trades, lineup decisions, and major acquisitions. Let’s see what we’ve found.
Where’s the action?
With free agency now only a month away, what's the timeline on when we can expect to start hearing about extensions for the upcoming UFAs and RFAs?
— Lou (@King_Gregoro) June 1, 2023
This is a great question. As Ryan Novozinsky of NJ.com stated yesterday, there’s “nothing new” to report regarding contract extensions with Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier. The same can be said of Erik Haula, Ryan Graves, and Damon Severson. After checking in with their agents, the word is there have been “no real talks yet.” Of the trio, Haula could be the only one to return, but he’ll still at least talk with Graves and Severson’s parties just to gauge where they’re at.
It appears Fitzgerald is in general contact with all of his pending free agents, but very informally. It’s normal for all parties to take a breather after a long season. There’s nothing alarming here.
Looking at the transaction trends from last offseason, this is the status quo. While the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially the final, are going on, there seems to be some sort of agreement to not take too much attention away from the on-ice action. Yes, teams are hiring general managers and head coaches in these time frames, but that’s because someone needs to make roster decisions when the “unofficial” window opens up.
The Colorado Avalanche won last year’s Stanley Cup on June 26th. The first major offseason transaction came on June 29th when the Los Angeles Kings acquired Kevin Fiala. We might see Tom Fitzgerald ink an extension or two next week, but I’d bet on things picking up after Vegas or Florida lift Lord Stanley.
Do you see Jesper Bratt being traded?
— Jersey Joe (Sasquatch Joe) (@JerseyJoe11_NJ) June 2, 2023
This has been a popular question. It seems many are torn on whether or not Bratt is going to be worth retaining or not. I understand being emotional about his lack of raw stats in the playoffs. However, I’ll tell you right now, unless extension talks go extremely sour, there’s no reason not to retain him.
In the regular season, Bratt was an analytical darling. At 5on5, he led the team with a 58.43 Corsi-for percentage and was fourth overall with a 58.76 expected goals-for percentage. He was a top-20 player in the NHL last season in both categories. Bratt backed those statistics up with a 32-goal, 74-point season.
Now, his postseason raw numbers weren’t great with just one goal and six points in 12 games. However, I don’t believe Fitzgerald will make any rash decisions based on that. Of his five assists, four were primary. Despite the lack of production, he still led Devils skaters that played 50 or more minutes in the playoffs with a 58.43 CF% and 66.0 xGF%. Whether you want to believe it or not, Bratt was one of the Devils’ better play drivers in the postseason.
It was Bratt’s first real taste of the playoffs. The Devils will be back in the postseason for many years to come. One of the reasons why they’ll be back is because of Bratt. The player wants to be back. The GM wants him back. The two sides will figure it out and get it done, barring a dramatic fallout.
1C ✔️ 2C ✔️ 3C ?
Who’s playing 3C: Haula, McLeod, someone else? Who are top external options?
— Patrick (@stokespatrick15) June 1, 2023
It felt like the only constant among forwards in the 2022-23 season was that Nico Hischier was 1C and Jack Hughes was 2C. Lindy Ruff put everything else in a blender and rolled out whatever worked best. When it stopped working, changes were made.
At times, Haula centered the third line. Other times he was on J. Hughes’ wing. The 32-year-old is certainly a candidate to play 3C next season, however, he built serious chemistry with Hughes. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he finds his way back on Jack’s wing.
In today’s NHL, you need to be able to roll four lines. Michael McLeod was such an important part of the fourth line, it’s hard to see him move from that spot. He could, but he works well with Nathan Bastian. We’ll see who rounds out that line.
That leaves two candidates for the 3C role. Jesper Boqvist and Curtis Lazar. If Miles Wood doesn’t return, Lazar is a perfect replacement as a forward who is defensively responsible and physical with some speed.
As for Boqvist, he really came on in the second half of the season.
“First half, I felt like I was way too much up and down, not consistent enough,” Boqvist admitted. “After Christmas, I felt pretty good actually. I took some steps.”
That checks out. Since Jan. 1st, Boqvist boasted a 52.22 CF% and an even better 54.41 xGF%. He was a responsible two-way forward that worked well both on the forecheck and in the offensive zone. He even played well in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers. Admittedly, he’d like to forget the Carolina series, but so did many. With a strong training camp off the back of a strong second half of last season, Boqvist is a serious candidate to take over 3C responsibilities next season.
Yegor Sharangovich has shown the ability to play all three forward positions, but his place is on the wing. My money is on Boqvist.
Assuming Graves leaves, do you think the devils go out and try to bring a defenseman for the pk, go with Brendon Smith, or try nemic/hughes or other internal options the pk. Feel like long-term nemic is going have to take this role, maybe keep him in Utica to work on the pk.
— Thomas Weinheimer (@TWeinheimer_610) June 1, 2023
If you don’t subscribe to Jack Han’s Hockey Tactics newsletter, consider it. It’s super educational.
Han took to Twitter a few days ago and said he believes Simon Nemec’s place next season is in the AHL. According to Han, he’s developed really well thus far but will benefit from another season in Utica.
If Nemec has anything to say about it, though, he’ll be hard at work this summer at sharpening his game to make the 2023-24 roster. He left a lasting impression on Ruff and Co. last September and they considered keeping him around for at least a nine-game stint. Nemec could certainly see NHL games this season, but maybe not quite full-time.
Brendan Smith is an option as the Devils’ sixth defenseman. He’s still around at a cheap $1.1 million cap hit. He has his moments, both good and not-so-good, but he’s plenty serviceable on the third pair. It would be smart for Fitzgerald to bring in someone who could split responsibilities with Smith if need be. There’s even the possibility whoever he brings in pushes Smith down the depth chart as the seventh defenseman. There are some cheap, viable options possibly hitting free agency that could be brought in the short term as a stop-gap until Nemec is ready. Those names include Connor Clifton and Erik Gustafsson.
Reel in the big one
If the #NJDevils make a big off season acquisition it will be whom?
— Jake Wakely (@Wakes3019) June 1, 2023
The Devils don’t really have too much tweaking to do this summer. Yes, they have plenty of contracts to sign, but if all they did was bring back their own, they’d still be in really good shape. Their top-6 is set with Timo Meier in the picture, they have plenty of depth forwards, and a really skilled blue line. Fitzgerald was also pleased with both Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid’s performances.
However, if the Devils are going to make any major acquisitions this offseason, the goaltender appears to be their only position that could use a significant upgrade. There won’t be any upgrades on the UFA market except for Semyon Varlamov if he gets that far. However, bringing in Varlamov pushes Schmid back to Utica. Schmid proved he’s ready for the NHL, so that seems counterproductive. If Fitzgerald decides he wants to add, he’ll need to make a deal.
It’s a saturated conversation at this point, but Connor Hellebuyck is the apple of everyone’s eye in New Jersey. It makes sense. The Winnipeg Jets are looking to make changes and the Vezina Finalist doesn’t appear interested in re-tools or shake-ups. The 30-year-old goaltender wants to win now and New Jersey is primed to do just that. It’ll be costly and you could end up seeing Schmid go the other way, but if the opportunity presents itself and it comes to fruition, there won’t be many, if any, weaknesses within the Devils.
If it’s not Hellebuyck, another possible goaltending upgrade that could be available is Karel Vejmelka.
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