Walking out of development camp last week, New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald joked with the media that we could put our phones down for the summer. Of course, a magician never reveals his secrets so he’s not really going to reveal his plans. If you had to put a word to Fitzgerald’s body of work this summer, magical is an adjective that certainly fits. Although Devils fans can feel quite confident in the job Fitzgerald has done this summer, there are still remaining questions for the Devils this summer that could use some clarification before October.
What’s the holdup on Kevin Bahl’s contract?
Kevin Bahl is a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights. The 23-year-old defenseman swam with the Devils this season skating in 42 games and establishing himself as an NHLer. It took a little bit, but in the second half of the season, you could see the confidence in Bahl’s game continue to grow. Yet, the 6-foot-6 blueliner explained it was more about being able to find a sense of calmness while on the ice.
“Mentally and learning little things and grasping on to little plays and stuff that veterans do,” Bahl said. “Just little things like how you accept the pass. If you watch a guy like Marino or Severson, when they go (defense to defense) pass, they’ll pull it all the way over without stick handling, instead of getting it, stickhandle it to a spot where they can make a play. So it gives you an extra second to think and make a play. I think little things like that I’ve been doing well. Gaps, and calmness on the ice. You want to be calm out there, make good plays when the other team has the puck. Just calm down, look for the play that they’re going to make, and take away that. So just little things like that.”
Bahl’s sense of calmness allowed him to become better in his own end as well. He improved on keeping defenders in the defensive zone to perimeter chances, getting sticks on pucks, and using his size to stifle opponent’s pressuring on offense. The Devils have plenty of weapons on the blue line. As a result, they’re not relying on Bahl for much offense. The British Columbian native scored two goals and eight points last season, career highs in all categories.
So why hasn’t he been signed to a contract yet?
Bahl had until 5 PM on Saturday to accept the qualifying offer that was extended to him earlier this summer. However, that deadline came and went and Bahl still is not under contract. He owns no arbitration rights, so it’s up to Bahl, his agent, and Fitzgerald to come to an agreement on a fair number for next season. It’s evident that Bahl and his camp feel he’s worth more than the $787,500 QO put on the table. Fitzgerald still has plenty of time to get that situation settled.
Are the Devils Deploying Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid in net?
The biggest question remaining this offseason is whether or not the Devils will upgrade in goal. New Jersey has been connected to Connor Helleuyck for a while now and there are certainly still other options available. Would Fitzgerald bite on four more years of John Gibson? Are the Boston Bruins going to sell one of Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman? Is Vegas making Logan Thompson available? If so, are the Devils a fit?
Whether he’s telling the truth or not, Fitzgerald explained he’s very comfortable going into 2023-24 with Vanecek and Akira Schmid as a tandem.
“Vitek had 30-plus wins last year and he was fantastic for us,” Fitzgerald explained. “He did everything we felt he could do for us. Schmid has grown. You look at two years ago, three years ago, he was in the USHL. Then he comes into Utica and gets off to that fantastic start. We’ve had to use him in a certain amount of games and you know, it’s unfair that he and (Nico) Daws were thrown in a situation where maybe they shouldn’t have been.”
“Fast forward to last year, you could just see the growth in Akira’s game and his maturity,” Fitzgerald continued. “More importantly are the players in front of him, how much they reacted and how confident they were playing in front of him. Goaltending is a discussion that we have daily on which way we will go. I don’t have any answers other than that we love Vitek. We love Schmid and we love Daws. We’ve got some more (goaltending) coming but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes, if it comes.”
The Devils’ future in goal looks great. Schmid, Daws, and Tyler Brennan all project as possible starting goaltenders in the NHL. Schmid may even be there already. However, Fitzgerald didn’t close the door on bringing in an upgrade as New Jersey can win as soon as next season. The departures of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves might leave the blueline weaker as Luke Hughes is still just a rookie. Growing pains can be expected. As for Colin Miller, he’s not going to bring the top-four caliber both Severson and Graves left. The potentially weaker defense means the goaltending will need to be stronger.
Schmid’s sample size is small and Vanecek’s postseason leaves plenty to be desired. Highs and lows were part of both goaltender’s 2022-23 seasons and depending on the timeframe, you either believed in the Devils’ crease or you didn’t. Looking to take another step forward in 2023-24, an upgrade in goal might be in New Jersey’s best interest.
Will New Jersey Extend Dawson Mercer Early?
For the second year in a row, Dawson Mercer played a full 82-game season for New Jersey. 2022-23 was a significant step forward for the 21-year-old forward scoring 27 goals and 56 points.
Mercer played his way into a top-six role with the Devils whether he was on the wing with Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes. He projects to return to the top-six in 2022-23, a group of six players that improved with the acquisition of Tyler Toffoli.
Mercer has been eligible to sign an extension with New Jersey since July 1st. Fitzgerald is on the record stating he’d like to get that done as soon as possible. As of the end of June, Fitzgerald explained he hasn’t started that conversation yet.
“No, it hasn’t actually,” Fitzgerald answered when asked if the conversation began with Mercer’s camp. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a priority. My to-do list needed my attention immediately to help build, to help grow, and really help secure what we’re trying to do. Dawson, he knows it, his agent knows it, we feel he’s a longtime Devil. I hope all these guys play their whole careers in New Jersey. So again, that stuff will take care of himself. But I’m sure I’ll have a conversation at some point once things really settle down.”
Some contract comparables to look at are Matt Boldy’s 7x$7 extension with the Minnesota Wild and Cole Caufield’s 8x$7.875 million with the Montreal Canadiens. Over the last two seasons, Boldy accrued 46 goals and 102 points. Caulfield accrued 49 goals and 79 points in that same span. Mercer is somewhere in the middle of those two, closer to Boldy’s point total, however, scoring 44 goals and 98 points in the last two seasons.
The Canadiens are paying for Caufield’s potential. He’s a clear goal scorer who has the potential to score 30-plus goals perennially. Boldy is a bit different in the sense that his strengths are in all three zones and can still find the scoresheet. It seems fair for the Devils to hand Mercer an eight-year extension with a $7.5 million AAV attached to it.
Fitzgerald has made it very clear all of his moves are calculated and measured. Rest assured, Fitzgerald knows that the cap is going up next season and another step forward in Mercer’s development means that he’ll need an even bigger raise. When you identify your core players, you should pay them as soon as possible and that’s exactly what the Devils should be before the season begins on October 12th.
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