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Devils Free Agency: 5 Centers New Jersey Should Target

The Devils have a void to fill at center in their bottom-six. Here are five potential candidates to slot in on the third or fourth line.

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New Jersey Devils
Kevin Stenlund checks a lot of boxes for the Devils as a potential unrestricted free agent target. // Photo courtesy of Florida Hockey Now, Roger Lee Photographer

With the NHL Draft and free agency a few weeks out, the Devils are heading into one of the most important off-seasons in recent franchise history. After a disappointing 2023-24 season, all eyes are on General Manager Tom Fitzgerald to see what moves he has in store.

Talks about what he may do with the 10th overall pick have been ramped up recently, as have goaltender trade discussions, but the gears will quickly shift to July 1 and free agency soon.

An underrated need heading into this off-season is at the center position. Whether that be a center-winger hybrid next to Jack Hughes or bottom-six penalty killers, the Devils have a hole to fill down the middle of the ice. Using AFPAnalytics contract projections, we’ll look at five centers the Devils should target in free agency.

Chandler Stephenson, Vegas Golden Knights – Projection: 5 Years x $5.6 Million

If the Devils want to go the route of getting Hughes a center-winger hybrid upgrade over Erik Haula, then there may be no one on the market better than Chandler Stephenson. After playing a depth role with the Washington Capitals, Stephenson broke out in a big way with Vegas. Since being traded, he’s put up 237 points in 327 games.

Stephenson put up back-to-back 60+ point seasons in 2021-22 and 2022-23 and recorded 51 points in 75 games this year. During Vegas’s run to a Stanley Cup, he scored 20 points in 22 games.

Since his breakout, Stephenson has shown his ability to play high up in the lineup on a stacked Vegas team, often finding himself on a line with Mark Stone. What Stephenson brings to the table is a high motor, solid speed, and an ability to score in and around the crease. He’s also solid in the face-off dot. After winning 58% of his face-offs last season he took a slight step back this year, winning just 52.6%, but has shown he can be a more-than-reliable face-off taker.

What Stephenson would also give the Devils is versatility. They could deploy either him or Haula on the wing next to Hughes, in turn giving the Devils tremendous depth down the center of the ice at the 3C position.

The biggest sticking point with Stephenson is the projected contract. The Devils have already given out a long-term deal to a player on the wrong side of 30 in Ondrej Palat, so there may be some hesitancy to do it again. If, and it’s a big if, Fitzgerald can negotiate the price down, then Stephenson would be worth a discussion.

Matt Duchene, Dallas Stars – Projection: 3 Years x $4.8 Million

Matt Duchene may be more of a winger than a center these days but has played enough center to be put in that hybrid role. The major difference between Duchene and Stephenson is Duchene would likely not move to 3C.

Adding Duchene and putting him on a line with Hughes would instantly add an element of skill and scoring the Devils need. After signing a one-year deal with Dallas, Duchene put up 65 points in 80 games, showing he can still bring a ton of offense at 33 years old. Just two years removed from a 43-goal season, Duchene has maintained a shooting % in the mid-teens for most of his career and has been very reliable in the face-off circle.

The biggest concern with Duchene is his age, but he has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, after a few down years, he looks to be having a career resurgence. He has shown that he can still be a 20+ goal, 60+ point player, who at a projected $4.8 million for just three years could be a great veteran addition to the Devils top six.

Alexander Wennberg, New York Rangers – Projection: 4 Years x $3.85 Million

Fresh off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Alexander Wennberg is firmly in the 3C range entering free agency. Wennberg had a tough time with the Rangers, putting up just five points in 19 regular season games to go along with two points in 16 playoff games. However, before the trade, Wennberg was a solid middle-six center for most of his career.

He put together three solid seasons with Seattle, and before that, had success with Florida and Columbus. The Devils would need to bank on getting those versions of Wennberg and not the one they saw play in New York. He’s been a solid penalty killer everywhere he’s played and can be a 30-40 point player on the bottom six.

Unfortunately, Wennberg is likely not a great option for the Devils. For starters, his projected contract is rich in both years and dollars. It would represent too big of a risk for a player who didn’t perform very well in New York and doesn’t bring much high-end offense. Also, Wennberg is below 50% from the face-off dot, which is something the Devils need to improve on after the loss of Michael McLeod. Wennberg is an option, but not a very good one.

Kevin Stenlund, Florida Panthers – Projection: 2 Years x $1.3 Million

If the Devils are looking for bargain fourth-line centers then Kevin Stenlund is your guy. He’s big, physical, can take face-offs and kill penalties. There’s not much more you can ask a fourth liner to do.

Stenlund had a bit of a breakout year in Florida this season, playing in a career-high 81 games and scoring 11 goals. His size and physicality are something Fitzgerald will love and should want to add to his fourth line. However, what makes Stenlund an attractive free-agent target is his penalty killing. He’s scored two shorthanded goals in each of the last two years and had the most shorthanded time on ice for the Panthers sixth-best ranked penalty kill unit.

Unless the Devils plan on keeping Curtis Lazar as 4C, then they’ll need to spend a little to bring someone in. At just $1.3 million, Stenlund would represent great value for what he brings to the table. The Devils penalty kill needs a boost and the lineup needs more size and edge, Stenlund checks off both boxes.

Adam Gaudette, St. Louis Blues – Projection: 1 Year x $775,000

The former Hobey Baker winner has found life in the NHL difficult. He has just 70 points in 220 NHL games and played in just two games with the Blues this season. However, Adam Gaudette tore up the AHL with the Springfield Thunderbirds, finishing third in AHL scoring with 71 points. He’s flashed his talent at the AHL and college levels, but outside of a good 2019-20 season in Vancouver, has struggled to do much.

The Devils should buy low on him this offseason and see if his confidence from the AHL this season can carry over to the NHL in 2024-25. Gaudette has shown the ability to be an electrifying player at times and is worthy of getting another shot in the NHL. As a fourth-liner or 13th forward, the Devils could do much worse than a player who’s scored 71 goals over the past two AHL seasons.

Last summer they took a flyer on Chris Tierney, signing him to a one-year, $775,000 contract, and he ended up playing 52 games for the Devils. Gaudette could be a similar signing with hopes that he could reignite his career.

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